Road Trip LA: Diamond’s in the Suburban Rough

It was move in day at Cal Lu, which gave me the opportunity to both take a long run around the campus and to later walk it. Let’s just say I was pretty underwhelmed. On the upside, it’s a good place for a shy kid to go to school. It’s so small that I can’t imagine any of the incoming freshman experience any social trepidation, and the school is in the kids grills with group activities from sunrise to sunset for the first five days. I am clearly intolerant of a lot of things, but forced group activities just about tops the list. However, I suppose that sort of thing is useful to personalities less brash than mine. The dorm rooms are nice, and the campus itself is pretty, with lots of grass and trees, but, it’s about as rinky dink as they come. I think in total there were two food facilities; one a tiny grill, one a tiny student union, a Starbucks, a Jamba Juice, a church, a library, four academic buildings where classes are held, then, across a foot bridge there are the athletic facilities which all looked exactly like those at my small town high school. In fact, I think the football field at my high school is actually more impressive. Also, they don’t even have a track. No track!?

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The real nail in the coffin for me is the isolation of Cal Lu. I did about seven miles that morning, and there is NOTHING within walking distance of that school. Not one gas station, convenience store, strip mall, nothing. Nothing!! On the weekends, those kids are supposed to commute home or hang out with their friends on campus, in the middle of a suburb. Blech. Then there is the town of Thousand Oaks. It’s the kind of place that looks like everything was built at once. The overall impression is that there was nothing there, and they were like “hey, let’s build a town here” and so, they did. All at once. It all looks the same. It’s all peach colored mediterranean, tile roofs, strip malls. I was in panic about finding any good food there, and my search brought us to this strip mall, which I think is possibly one of the fancier ones, called Westlake (haha! I just looked it up. It’s called “The Promendade at Westlake” *snicker*)

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That’s Thousand Oaks. That’s what it’s like.

Our lunch destination was Public School 805, http://www.publicschool805.com/

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a gastropub with a decent selection of craft beer, which is part of a newer and smaller Southern California chain, under the restaurant group Grill Concepts. In nearly every piece of press written about the place, the menu is described as “chef-driven,” which I find particularly obnoxious. Who else is supposed to drive it? Is this their way of applauding Public School for not serving frozen food? Although really, thank goodness Public School does not serve frozen food.

I was pleasantly surprised by the décor when we walked in. It didn’t have that chain feel, the bar was prominent, there were TV’s for sports, and there were baseball mitts all over the wall.

A little kitschy, but cute

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The menu was a surprising step above, representing many of the usual suspects with an extra notch of care. Heirloom tomato salads and kale salads yes, but also a freekeh salad, tater tots with bacon (house made, I assume), mac and cheese with chorizo, a bison burger, a lamb burger, gigante beans available as a side. I was full of hope and happiness reading it. We ordered the Tuscan chopped salad, a delicious mix of kale, cresponi salami, burrata, chick peas, red onion, and prosciutto, in a light and tangy dressing,

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As well as the lamb burger with a side of fries for our main (though that salad is main enough, to be sure)

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The burger tasted like it had a middle eastern flare to it, or so it seemed, I suppose from the tomato cranberry jam. The bun was nicely browned, and soft, the brie and arugula toppings made for an overall creamy and peppery experience. We ate every last bite of that burger and those fries, along with a nice, crisp, cold, craft saison. Life was good.

The only hotel we could find in Thousand Oaks that had any availability on move-in weekend was this rape shack:

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Complete with peeling shower, hair, a musty scent, a loud and ineffective wall A/C unit, and shiny beige comforters that I guarantee have not been washed in a year. We went back there and soaked in the tepid hot tub while we waited for 9:00PM to arrive, the earliest dinner reservation we could score at Thousand Oak’s hottest steakhouse, Mastros. http://www.mastrosrestaurants.com/Locations/CA/41-Thousand-Oaks-Main/Default.aspx

Mastros.

My god. I had NO idea what was in store for me at Mastro’s. My GPS took me there, and because I didn’t know where I was, I turned at the last turn to find myself trapped at a valet stand, even though we were basically in the middle of a business park and there was nothing but parking available on the deserted street. Whatever, the valet was $4.50, so screw it. There were probably ten people milling around outside, smoking, in front of the Mastro’s sign. I tried to avoid them and walk to the front door, but my direction of choice just took me past the Maserati’s and Porsche’s parked in the special valet spots, and directly into the bushes. The valet did not think to tell me I was going the wrong way. All indications were, this place was trying to be really fancy but was seriously missing the point. So I reversed course and headed for the smokers, wading through cigarette stank and an unexpected curtain of perfume and cologne, and into a people watchers Shangri-La.

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We had to wait a bit for our table, so we headed into the bar, where we were assaulted by the craziest, loudest, craziest, music. Crazy loud music of the LIVE variety, that is. Of the lounge singer variety. A woman in a tight leather dress was working the mic, singing a cover song, while a man in a suit pounded away at the piano. The ten or so tables in the room were for the most part inhabited by real housewives looking types, with bizarre plastic surgery faces, looking like they were headed to prom. Literally, there were updo’s, and strapless dresses, and hooker shoes. It was Ahhh-maaazing. I had what could only be described as a look of incredulity on my face. I could not believe my good fortune. I really could not.

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My sister ordered us a couple of martini’s, and sweetly told me that she would buy them. The bartender handed her the $45 dollar tab and…wait, wait, wait. The $45 tab? That’s right. I read it right and so are you.

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Two martinis were forty-five dollars!!! I Never!! I asked what the well martini cost, you know, for shits and giggles. Why, that would be an extremely reasonable $18.50. I’m pretty sure that I live in one of the most expensive cocktail cities in the world and I have NEVER seen such a thing. $15 is about tops for a cocktail in San Francisco. $18.50 for WELL. FOR. WELL. I guess someone has to pay to keep this bar properly color coded.

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They do give you a big old cocktail shaker along with your glass, and, it turned out, my martini lasted my entire stay, though, I’m sure that shaker was filled with a generous portion of ice, and, why wouldn’t the bartender say “it’s a double” when we balked at the price? The whole thing was just bizarre to say the least.

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Once it was time to sit, we were escorted into a much quieter room (though the music could still be heard) with an enormous wine cellar along the back wall. In here, the servers were dressed in white tuxedo jackets, as opposed to the knee-high boots and shorts the girls were wearing out front.

We decided to share a New York, a baked potato, and Brussels sprouts. As we waited, this hot basket full of delectable carbs arrived.

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I housed that pretzel roll and I would do it again. It had a nice, malty exterior, with some give, rocky chunks of salt, and a doughy, hot, interior. I may have even added two pats of butter. Maybe.

After what we saw outside the restaurant, and in the bar, I did not have high hopes for the food. No sir. But I was, to my delight, proved completely wrong. They had split our steak for us in the kitchen which I always appreciate, and, the blazing heat of that plate amplified the mouth-watering smell of hot butter. That thing must have been basted in a pound of the stuff. It was perfectly cooked to our specification and fabulously, thickly crusted. I wanted to clap.

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These brussels sprouts were heavenly. Deeply carmelized, moist, well seasoned, firm.

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The baked potato came salt crusted (plus!) with a service that included smoked bacon.

Things had really turned around. I ate every last bite of the 30 pounds of food I ordered (a theme, that day, but what else did I have going for me?) while we played a rousing game of name that tune to the lounge singers act. And then, our sweet server brought us a slice of their butter cake, accompanied by an enormous “dollop” of whipped cream, a real hit on the menu for sure, as I saw it being delivered to other tables consistently throughout our meal. In fact, I saw quite a few people order an extra piece to take home.

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Look. I know this doesn’t exactly indicate a “pastry program” is in full swing there at Mastro’s. I realize that dessert is of the Cheesecake Factory variety but damn if it wasn’t delicious. There was a big old gooey treasure pot of cream cheese inside there. Yes, I know. But still.

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