If we want to have a good time dining out we really only ask for three things: great food that is well prepared and somewhat exotic, smart and helpful wait staff, and a fair corkage policy. Saddle Peak Lodge is tucked in one of those pocket canyons behind Calabasas on the backside of Malibu. Driving there is even fun. Sunsets can be quite spectacular as can early mornings too, when the Pacific fog has filled the deepest recesses.
The restaurant is one of the most special spots in Los Angeles County. The kitchen traditionally features exotic game including buffalo, ostrich and antelope. Sorry, no puma although I believe there is one preserved upstairs. The dining rooms are populated with animal heads that include at least one water buffalo along with elk and deer. A stuffed bobcat and other smaller furry critters watch you eat…if you are inside.
The patio is pure Southern France with its brick floor, potted plants and views of the hills and sky. We asked for an outside table. With all this curb appeal going for the place we often hear the same question when we propose dining there to our wine drinking pals. “Is there a new chef? No international wines on the list. Food is always good but a bit pricey.”
Good news. There is a new crew onsite; chef, sommelier and wait staff. We ate there on a recent evening. We chose the patio for our party of 6. We brought a couple of red wines and ordered a white wine off the list [ed. reviewed below]. Jennifer Carter is the new “somm.” She has been there 8 months. She knows the wine list inside out. For tBoW the wine list has always been a problem. For some unknown reason the owner insists on listing only domestic wines. This has always been a bit of a put-off since the wines listed have seldom been of interest to those who like to rummage through a wine list searching for that very unusual selection from a region we may have heard of but never known. Like the Jura or Savoie or even someplace on the Dalmatian Coast. Or the Margaret River in Australia. Or an out of the way coastal vineyard in New Zealand – with soil so loamy it could fill a sand trap – that makes Pinot Noir. What is amazing here is that Ms. Jen has managed to overcome this incredible handicap while staying inside the 52 states. Her breadth of knowledge is enough to make me shut up and listen. She made it perfectly clear she brings “expert eno-thusiasm” to the game when she shared two totally trippy wines to cap the evening.
The first was an ice wine from Vermont [ed. esiwein for the cognoscenti who don't know from marketing]. You read that right. The real deal frozen on the vine Vidal Blanc grapes, squeezed into a delicate concoction that conjured a black lace glove in my mind. I am not an eiswein fiend or even fan. The German eisweins tasted way back when were uniformly thick and too sweet. You could spackle with those. But this domestic genuine “ice wine” was exquisite; worth hunting down or at least calling for next time there. Our waiter Todd is somewhat new too. Not only does he kinda look like Puck, he shot some devilish smiles our way to prove it. The meals were superb featuring all fresh greens and special mushrooms for the ravioli. I ordered a salmon seeking something neutral with the wines. I received a slab that put me back on a Puget Sound island where they prepare the fresh caught Coho on redwood planks.
After the dessert wine I descended into another round of wine geek speak with Jen. I mentioned Lopez Heredia and she went off. She loves the reds and swore she once put a 1964 in an enomatic at the wine bar she ran in San Francisco. Said I “you would never get away with that in LA.” Next she gushes how she loves oxidized Spanish white wines. I could not lie. She disappeared and returned with a 1999 Kalin Cellars Semillon and handed me a glass. I sniffed an oxidized white wine from Spain. I sipped a domestic impression of an oxidized white wine from Spain that I must taste again! Serve moderately chilled.
We had a great meal. The pleasure was tripled by the company, the wines and rounding with the staff. This was more than a meal. It was entertainment. If you love wine and great food and are looking for a great time, call up Saddle Peak and ask for Jen. Worth every dollar.
Here are the wines we tasted with notes from the table and unnamed others.
2006 Michaud Marsanne Chalone-Pinnacles Appellation $43 [available at Bernards Wine Gallery in Calabasas!]: We were looking for a fruity but light to medium weight white wine with enough acid to dodge a plump treacly pineapple Chardonnay. Jen suggested a bottle that was one of the last few on the list she inherited. The region and the vintage intrigued us. The Pinnacles is in the Chalone appellation which is a small section of the Gavilan Mountains appellation. The Pinnacles is very unusual country in that it is barren, high altitude with dramatic stony terrain. The high rocks provide a perfect jumping off point for California Condors which were originally brought back to survival numbers here. This 100% Marsanne was tight at first, but opened within 15 minutes to show the peach and kiwifruit. This has to be drinking at its peak. ??%
2001 Rostaing La Landonne $100 : What a Grand Dame, without the excessive age. This wine was like the Christina Aguilera character in the film Burlesque. Took a while to open up but when she did…kaboom! In fact this wine went through so many costume changes it is now the Cher of Wines…with a bit more elasticity. 13.5%
2009 CORE Mr. Moreved Alta Mesa Vineyard Mourvedre $40: This was the “tasting optional” wine while waiting for the La Landonne to open. Good thing because that only required two hours! We were interested in Jen and Puck’s impressions given the relatively high alcohol level. Not an issue for Jen. Always extra pleasant when the “somm” agrees with you..before you say so! This wine completely balances the ingredamints such that the alcohol is way in the background. The fruit flavors are dusty, intense without being overripe. Dave Corey likes a blended middle weight wine. This is it. For tBoW (and David Corey) this is good as it gets – for this grape – in the SRH region. Heck – in California! 14.9%
2008 Snow Farm Vidal Blanc Ice Wine $31 [Monoploe in Pasadena]: Smashingly good. Like it better than any Eiswein I can recall. For one thing, it is not like syrup. The acid keeps it very fresh and the apricot and honey flavors are equally sharp and crisp. Spectacular. 11%
1999 Kalin Cellars Semillon Livermore Valley $35: She said she loved Jura wines, that oxidized quality which some Spanish white wines show like no place else. As a rule we HATE this style. OK. We can be stupid. Wines this style remind of the Castillan “s” which is pronounced like “th.” Sure it’s tradition. And then? We just cannot figure out the appeal of oxidized wines that taste like candle wax. BUT, Jen was the consummate hostess so we had to give it a shot. Our eyes were opened which is exactly what we want when we taste wines. This is the job of the sommelier. Put a wine in front of someone who loves the whole magilla of it. Challenge his or her perceptions, pour the glass and open their eyes. 13.8%
Here is something else cool to do in Calabasas. Although you could fall…from just watching. Volume down. I need a helmet cam.