Mountaintop Dining Around LA (and the restaurants you’d go to even if there wasn’t a view)
~ By RICHARD FOSS ~ Originally published in City Beat August 2007
One of the cherished assets of a restaurant in LA is a view of the hills, a reminder that there is still a natural world out there, a place of rugged contours and animals without collars. Much rarer is a view not of, but from the hills. That prime real estate is mostly residential, so the tables with the best views are in private homes, to which, alas, mere journalists are rarely invited.
There are a few restaurants perched in the hills, though you’d never go to some of them if it weren’t for the view. They cater to the country club set, and the daily menus are obviously an afterthought to the weddings and special events that bring in the real money. Nevertheless, three restaurants stand out as places in which to dine very well while enjoying a view of the natural and unnatural wonders of the region. By happy coincidence, one is in the City, one in the Valley, and the third is in the middle.
Yamashiro offers the most glamorous view – all of Hollywood is spread out below the huge windows of this Japanese palace just above Franklin Avenue near Highland. The sense of seclusion and elevation are astonishing, an effect magnified by the tranquil garden and traditional wooden building that are straight from a Kyoto tourist board poster. Yamashiro was built by a pair of millionaire brothers in 1914 to house their Asian art collection, and they went so far as to dismantle a 600 year old pagoda and move it to the front garden. (It’s the oldest building in California, and probably the most traveled.) The brothers enjoyed the place for less than a decade before one died and the other sold it, and a succession of owners operated the place as a restaurant. It used to be famous for strong drinks and dull food, but since chef Jason Park took over two years ago, things have changed. There are whimsical items on the menu now like the Darth Vader roll, a sushi roll that features all black ingredients. All the outlines were invisible, creating the sensation of picking up a black hole with chopsticks, but it was quite tasty. The cherry tofu salad was a lot more colorful and even better – I had never considered the two together, much less the addition of hazelnuts, goat cheese, and mizuna leaves, but with a cherry vinaigrette tying everything together, it was brilliant.
For main courses we selected a seafood combination in lemongrass-tarragon sauce and the Asian barbecued pork ribs. The latter was at our server’s suggestion – “Asian” ribs are usually sweet and characterless things, but these had a rich black bean-based sauce with a smoky, complex spice tang and incredibly tender meat. They owed a bit to Korean ideas – not surprising given Chef Park’s heritage – but weren’t like any ribs I’ve had before, and I’m something of a rib fanatic. I’d have them again next visit unless I get distracted by the other interesting things on the menu. Like the seafood in lemongrass tarragon sauce, for instance. Lobster, mahi mahi, calamari, shrimp, and scallops had been grilled and then tossed in sauce along with portobello pieces and quinoa. The mild Andean grain was a surprisingly good background to all these flavors, picking up the essence of the other ingredients and tying together ideas that might have seemed scattered. We enjoyed sips of exquisite Genzou Honjyozo with our entrees, watched the lights of Hollywood, and were at peace. Not every table at Yamashiro has a view of the city, but I’d return and enjoy a view of the tranquil garden, or of just the fine food on my plate. Still, we stopped in our tracks as we left the restaurant and beheld the vista of Los Angeles and the moon through a gauzy haze. It was a meal and a view to remember.
It’s fourteen miles from Yamashiro to the Saddle Peak Lodge as the crow flies, but those who travel by car rather than by crow will clock thirty miles by road. A century ago, the Saddle Peak Lodge was a one-room general store on the horse trail from Calabasas to Malibu, catering to gold prospectors, hunters, and others traversing the wilderness. In the thirties, it expanded and became a roadhouse and movie stars’ hideaway, and in the sixties it was refurbished into an elegant restaurant specializing in game dishes. Not everything has changed; the fireplace that warmed wandering miners and horsemen still blazes on the ground floor in an atmosphere part Old West, part New England hunting lodge. This is appropriate, because a meal at Saddle Peak is all about eating critters you usually chase with a dog and a rifle.
Such as duck, assuming your dog is a good swimmer. We shared the confit of duck breast with watercress and citrus salad as a starter. A century ago, this French dish of duck preserved under a layer of fat would have been disdained as peasant food, but changing tastes have brought simple country dishes back into fashion. It suits this setting, where America’s wild places are celebrated, and it was a delicious confit, the flavor intensely concentrated. The simple, fresh cress salad and citrus were an apt foil for the strips of rich, rare meat.
We continued with a mesquite-grilled guinea hen (called a pintade) and a sampler of three game specialties: elk, buffalo, and quail. The latter are served with a stock sauce so concentrated it’s almost chocolatey, which you should ask to be served on the side – it tastes great, but obscures some of the nuances of the meat. The elk tenderloin was our favorite, a rich meat with a flavor all its own and enough marbling to be tender. This isn’t to slight the other two offerings, which were very good, but there’s a reason that the elk is the house specialty. The pintade was fine too, the meat pearl white and fine grained, more flavorful and leaner than chicken. I suspect that if guinea fowl weren’t such good flyers, more people would raise them – the skill that used to protect them from being a fox’s dinner keeps them from being ours as well.
The best view to enjoy with your dinner is from the top room of the lodge, where green hills march to the horizon with hardly a sign of civilization. You look past an abandoned doghouse, formerly home to the lodge’s Labrador retrievers that died of old age years ago. Long-timers are still sentimental about the old dogs, so no canine urban renewal is planned. It’s fitting – the lodge celebrates its history, of which even the doghouse is a small part.
The view restaurant between the valleys is also all about history, albeit of more ancient times. I have written paeans to the joys of dining atop the Getty Museum in Sepulveda Pass before (See the 6/22/06 issue online for a full report), but I didn’t say much about the view because I was so enamored of the food. Suffice it to say that while you enjoy the elegant and adventurous modern food here, you also have a view that stretches from the Malibu hills to the far reaches of the East Side, with vistas of some elegant nearby homes for variety. The ancient and modern come together in the architecture as well as on the plate here, in unlikely harmony, and it’s still one of the great experiences LA has to offer.
We see our metropolis from street level so often that we forget the grandeur that appears in a bird’s eye view, just as we also think of wilderness as something that happens far away from the place we live and work. In these three restaurants of character we are reintroduced to those environments, and to the work of chefs who are masters of their craft.
Yamashiro – 1999 N. Sycamore, Hollywood – Ph. 323-466-5125
Saddle Peak Lodge – 419 Cold Canyon Road, Calabasas – 818-222-3888
Getty Restaurant – 1200 Getty Center Drive LA -310-440-7300