California: Golden Gateway to Great Cuisine

Monday, September 3, 2012 | Category: Travel Tips, Travel Writing


 The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found. — Calvin Trillin


I haven’t been to a lot of California, but where I’ve gone, I’ve eaten well. Los Angeles, Pasadena, San Francisco, Corte Madera, Sausalito and Tiburon have all demonstrated creative cooking with high quality ingredients and profferred selections from wondrous local wine lists.

My recent trip to the Left Coast took me from Marin to Sonora and Yosemite, down to Silicon Valley and back up to San Francisco proper. And while the eating is good pretty much everywhere — A++ to Ike’s Place for sandwiches in the Castro (despite the 40-minute wait) and D- to Yosemite’s microwaved bunned hot dogs at a staggering $4.75 — two places are stand outs. I’ve written about one of them before, but three more meals in two days proved to me that I had to give it another rave.

A well-stocked bar

First is Portola Kitchen, at this writing, a two-month-old venture in Portola Valley near Palo Alto, serving rustic Italian cuisine prepared by Chef Guillaume Bienaime. The former executive chef of Marche in Menlo Park and consulting chef at Cuisinett in San Carlos, Bienaime has always wanted to do authentic Italian cooking and he is showing diners how it’s done.

The proprietor of Portola Kitchen is Mike Wallau, who owns three other restaurants in the area too, including Il Fornaio in Palo Alto — so he knows Italian. This is the team’s chance to offer high quality Italian food while keeping the restaurant true to its reasonably priced neighborhood dining roots.

First, let me say that the restaurant really looks good when you walk in: there’s a huge, well-stocked bar

Guillaume & his slicer

and the décor is California rustic, with a large covered outdoor seating area left over from the prior restaurant, Mike’s Café in Ladera. Nothing stuffy here. Go to the back of the restaurant, where the action is, and you’ll see the pride of Chef Bienaime — his high-end, lipstick-red meat slicer, imported straight from Italy. There is also the fancy pasta machine, because all the pastas are homemade here. They even support local farms whenever possible, so eating here just feels good.

Chef Guillaume

I started with the Beet and Arugula salad, nicely accented with oranges, pistachios and crescenza cheese. Tim had the evening’s special appetizer, a flavorful smoked salmon and fennel plate. For dinner, I had the Chicken Rosemary Sausage, with the finest, smoothest polenta ever and Tim had the Ricotta Angolotti with gamboni mushrooms. They brought us an amazing dessert, made with ice cream, chocolate sauce and a crunchy peanut brittle candy — and then the chef brought out a new fruit tarte that was absolutely sinful.

If you’re in the area or even remotely nearby, I suggest you try this. Portola Kitchen is the new gem in the neighborhood. Unpretentious, daring and welcoming. Mangia!

The Lights of Saha

Appearing for the second time on this blog is Saha,

Fattoush Salad

located in the Hotel Carlton on Nob Hill in San Francisco. We remembered this restaurant so fondly from two years ago, that we ate two dinners and one breakfast here on this most recent trip.

Chef Mohamed Aboghanem learned to cook from his Yemeni mother, and it is a blessing for all who try his Arabic Fusion cuisine. Although originally from Yemen, on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, Mohamed traveled extensively, learning the traditions and flavors of the countries he traveled to. Finally settling in San Francisco, he worked at some of the city’s finest restaurants before opening his own cafe, and later his own restaurant, Saha.

His food is suitable for meat lovers, vegetarians and vegans alike, all intriguingly spiced and all able to be

To start: warm bread with oil & roasted sesame seeds

prepared for a gluten-free diet. Saha — which means “to good health” — aims for best-in-class environmental practices, using biodegradable take-out containers and non-toxic cleaning products. Most of Saha’s food is organically grown and locally sourced. When you remember a salad for its intriguing combination of beets, mint and figs two years later, you know you’ve got something remarkable. Who remembers a salad? You won’t forget these.

Mohamed is a master soup maven, and he can do things to legumes, tofu and mushrooms that are borderline illegal, they’re so good. Spiced so you know it (without creating a fire in your mouth) his lamb, duck, seafood and veggie plates delight the eyes as well as the palate. Is it California cuisine? Is it Yemeni? Is it all a crazy invention? Who cares? Next time you’re in the City by the Bay, make a point of stopping by Saha on Sutter Street. Even better, stay in the Hotel Carlton and just go downstairs for dinner. Then go down again for breakfast in the morning. It’s your new home away from home.


Buon viaggio!

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