Road Trip LA: Love in Los Olivos and the pilgrimage to Bestia

My niece made the unfathomable, to me, decision to commit her freshman year in college to Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, CA. Unfathomable to me because I attended an absurdly large (40,000) college, in a college town, with Pac10 sports and all the partying my face could handle, and Cal Lu…well. It’s a physically tiny, geographically isolated school that boasts a very paltry enrollment of 4200. I prefer any place where I can get lost in a sea of anonymity, which means Cal Lu is the antithesis of appealing to me, but hey, to each his own.

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So it was that I embarked on a road trip to LA with my sister, with plans to help my niece move into the dorm the next day. The two options are highway five, a dried out, windmill pocked, methane scented, inland stretch of nothingness that Bay Area folk swear by time/distance wise, and highway 101 South, which would take us down the California coast. We decided to go coastal, and it later turned out that that was as direct a shot at Thousand Oaks as any.

Once you get out of the city, no matter the direction, your food/stop options are thrice: 1) precious 2) country (though sometimes precious and country intermingle) 3) strip malls with chain restaurants. About five hours in to our trip, a quick yelp search for a nice lunch guided us to Los Olivos, a #1 on the out-of-town scale, and as always, I would prefer a #1 to a #3. We had to drive about three miles off of the freeway to reach the town, but it turned out to be quite the little charmer. What a lot of visitors to California don’t realize is that wine production is not just relegated to the Napa Valley; Napa is certainly the most famous, but wineries and wine tasting opportunities abound all the way down the coast (and in many other parts of the state). Los Olivos is part of the Santa Barbara county/Santa Ynez valley wine country, so the town boasts a plethora of adorable little tasting rooms affiliated with local producers.

Los Olivos dates back to the 1880’s, when a stage-coach route between San Francisco and Los Angeles was being established. Los Olivos was a stopping point, and the town was built to accommodate those making the journey. Thus, the town is architecturally unique, dotted with beautiful, old, wood Victorians. The original general store and church still stand, and all of it is laced with lovely trees (some of them, weeping willows, my fave) and flowers. It’s incredibly Americana, in the best of ways. I’d bet they have one adorable fourth of July parade every year. If you wanted to break up the trip between North and South with an overnight, Los Olivos would not be a bad choice. The town website offers a historical walking map http://www.losolivosca.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/LOWalkingTour_web.pdf, so you could spend the day wine tasting, shopping, and soaking up a bit of California history, all without the need of a car since everything is centrally located.

On to the food. Our lunch destination was Sides Hardware & Shoes http://www.brothersrestaurant.com/

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a rustic little box of a spot, really, just one room, divided into a dining area, bar, and kitchen, with worn wood floors and a pressed tin ceiling.

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I was thrilled to find a specialty cocktail menu sitting on our table; it was the first indicator that we had made a wise choice. We ordered a couple of margaritas, mine with pineapple juice and a healthy dose of spice, hers classic, both of which tasted like absolute heaven after emerging from five in hours in the car into 100 degree heat.

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For lunch, we split a little gem salad and the “chef’s burger” a selection that changes daily or weekly. I forget which. Both were positively delightful. I don’t know, maybe anything would have tasted amazing then, but I’m more apt to think that almost anything would have disappointed me, because I craved for an awesome meal so badly. The little gem lettuce was, true to promise, crisp and firm, accompanied by some simple watermelon radishes and carrots, tossed with a healthy dose of creamy dressing and parmesan cheese.

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The burger was a pork patty with a few thick chunks of Asian flavored pork belly atop it, peach, and cheese. It was just fantastic.

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It was one of those “local sourced, sustainably raised” places, and from my vantage point at the table, I was able to watch the kitchen crew, who took a clearly passionate and serious approach to what they were doing. Places like that, in little towns, are typically not an anomaly. It tends to be that if one places operates under those standards, others do as well. I’d hazard a guess that an overnight in Los Olivos would yield some tasty results; just a guess.

After a somewhat lengthy wait to use the one toilet in the restaurant, we were on the road again. 101 South is a pretty drive, full of palm trees and ocean. It really doesn’t matter though, because the whole thing just takes waaaay too long and it sucks the absolute life out of you. We hit Thousand Oaks around seven hours in (including the hour stop for lunch) but our destination on this night was Los Angeles proper. We were not going to suffer this drive without hitting one of the many restaurants in LA where I’ve longed to eat.

So, you know, it took two hours to go forty miles. TWO HOURS TO GO FORTY MILES. When did so many goddamned people move in to California, making it impossible for anyone to move anywhere in a reasonable amount of time? It’s just heinous! Where is that damn bullet train already? My niece thinks going to college in Thousand Oaks means she is basically going to college in LA. Well, I got news for you honey.

We used the waze app to help us find the best route (if you haven’t downloaded waze, stop reading and do it. Now.) which zipped us through about a half hour worth of LA city streets, through what appeared to be Russia town, then Korea town, then…just LA. I would rather be doing that than rotting in my car on the freeway. Finally, we reached our destination, the Hotel Bon Aventure, downtown. http://www.thebonaventure.com/ I think our room rate was $300/nt, plus $50 for parking and breakfast.

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We parked in the subterranean hotel garage and made our way up to the front desk. As the outside would suggest, the Bon Aventure is round inside, with an open atrium surrounded by round walkways and a lobby bar in the middle. It was very cruise ship-esque, due not only to the shape, but also to the amount of goods and services located inside. It’s like a full service city. There is a brewery, a dentist, boutiques, a food court, a proper restaurant, a travel agent? Oh right. Domed glass elevators. So cruise ship.

We dropped off our junk and freshened up, then headed over to check out the brewery, which is on the same level as the outdoor pool.

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It’s pretty, there is a big open roof space where you can walk around, and some outdoor tables by the brewery, but the pool is not next to the brewery exactly, and you have to go up some stairs and into an enclosure to get to it. The brewery was looking pretty lame, like a Knuckles in a Hyatt, so we moved on the revolving bar on the 35th floor. Yes, I did just say revolving bar. http://www.thebonaventure.com/bona-vista-lounge

Revolving bars are just weird in theory, and they call to mind the space needle, which just repulses me ever since I watched the chef masturbate all over himself in a video on the website (OK, not really, but he totally thinks he’s amazing and he’s not doing anything amazing at all). This one had some crazy 80’s cruise ship décor going on, but I have to say, it was pretty fun to revolve ever so slowly through the Los Angeles sky.

The other inherent issue with a revolving bar is you just know you are going to get ripped the f**k off. You just know it. I am happy to say that in this instance, we were not at all ripped off, the prices being in keeping with bars in San Francisco. We each enjoyed a couple of giant martinis

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And a very generous portion of dry, under-seasoned, drumette-only wings.

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Time for the main event. Dinner at Bestia. http://www.bestiala.com/

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Bestia, Bestia, Bestia. How I have longed to sit within Bestia’s walls and taste what would surely be amazing food. I can’t open a magazine or talk to an LA bartender or chef without mention of Bestia. It is just everywhere, lauded by seemingly everyone I talk to.

Bestia is super hiply located at the end of a dark alley in what appears to be a converted brick warehouse. There are two outdoor seating areas, one, in the atrium area just outside of the entrance, another, on a long, covered, wood deck attached to the alley side of the space. Inside, the industrial theme is maintained, and the place is ALL the rage. Like, it’s bumping. We had to wait a bit for our table so we stood for a long time at the bar while the hipster bartenders glanced disinterestedly over our heads.

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Eventually, some dude appeared behind us, and he was totally sweating us to get through the two of us so he could sit on the one available stool. He clearly knew the bartenders, so we cut him a deal that he could sit if we could order a drink. Success. My sister had chatted with a sweet young hostess prior to our trip, Chelsea. Chelsea came to meet us in person (at my sister’s request, but still, she complied with a smile) She was cute as button and sweet as pie; our drink order of a “Little Cloud” came at her suggestion and it was a perfectly delicate bourbon, lemon, ginger, rose refresher. Highly recommend.

I do wish that I had been at Bestia with a larger group. The menu is so meat and carb dense that it was hard to fathom getting through any more than three dishes, when of course I would have love to have tried a wider selection of apps and to have sampled their pizza. Also, the menu is severely lacking in any real vegetable presence, so in the end, we basically ate a lot of pasta and heavy meat. They do offer three salads, but the last thing I want as one of my three dishes is a freaking kale salad, or a little gem, or faro. Boring. Not gonna waste a visit to Bestia on that. I would have loved just a simple heaping mound of broccoli rabe, and I realize that too is “boring” but it’s just plain and simple veg, that shouldn’t be in the $15 dollar range like the aforementioned salads.

The menu is also fairly offal heavy, which I love, but again, some lighter options to break that up would have been nice. We ordered the lamb heart, the bone marrow, and the cavatelli with house-made pork sausage.

The lamb heart was to me, wonderfully gamey, but to my sister it was off-puttingly gamey. I think also the idea of lamb heart was a little tough for her, and the slices were fairly sinewy, which I think makes eating a more “challenging” cut of meat a harder prospect for people. I really loved the flavor but the sinewy texture didn’t work for me, with the length and size of the slices. There were a couple of near choke moments.

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The accompaniments were a welcome and light surprise. Frilly, soft dill fronds, extremely crisp, bright peas, and salty feta. I could have eaten that on its own and been happy.

The bone marrow was hands down my favorite bone marrow dish of all time. It was INCREDIBLE. How many times have I eaten this dish, marrow spooned on to toast points…too many to count, to be sure. This time, no toast. No eating the marrow by itself. The roast bone was served atop spinach gnochetti; we were instructed to scoop the marrow onto the gnochetti and mix the whole mess together.

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This created a rich, sumptuous, umami packed, flavor bomb. It tasted as though the gnochetti were actually al dente pieces of parmesan, coated in luxe, glistening, fatty, bone marrow. *orgasmic*

I clearly wasn’t paying much attention to the menu, because the goal was to get three distinctly different dishes, one a grilled meat, one the bone marrow, and one a pasta. However, the bone marrow really was a pasta dish, and now, our second pasta dish was set to arrive. I know, the cavatelli looks like diarrhea or vomit in the photo.

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This dish was really well executed. The sauce was velvety, lightly coating that perfect hand made pasta, and the house made sausage was a fennel laden delight. I have an almost sexual relationship with truffle, which is a prominent feature/flavor here, so that certainly did not hurt either.

We were too full for dessert, and the sweet table full of industry folks sitting next to us loaded us up one fork full of the famed chocolate budino and one fork full of the strawberry crostata, which were both expertly made and our forkfuls were the perfect size for our send off. Next time, more people, more dishes, and, I suppose I’ll have to go kale salad to accommodate my roughage needs.

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