Portobello Burger and Eggplant Salad

Robin’s Restaurant

The next time you’re on the 101 freeway, around the city of San Luis Obispo, take a 30 minute detour off the beaten path to the quaint enclave of Cambria, where you’ll find plenty of pines, a plethora of painters, and a place that brings the woodsy and artsy together: Robin’s Restaurant.
Robin’s has three dining areas, an indoor dining room, a big beautiful outdoor garden where you can eat under a gazebo warmed by the sun or large patio heaters,

and a commodious sundeck with many windows, which gives it a bright and airy feel. The sundeck feels like a cross between a mess hall at camp and an artist’s retreat space.
Adding to that artsy homespun feel are the many bird houses, flying-insect art, a couple of Thai statues, and colorful mosaic-tiled tables.

If the decor isn’t enough to make you feel that you are in a yoga-retreat, have Kimberly, the world’s friendliest waitress, wait on you. She encapsulates the spirit of Namaste with phrases like, “Are you pleased with your lunches?” and “Have a beautiful day.” Slices of refreshing cucumber in your water round out the vibe that they care about your well-being here.

The only thing better than cucumber in my water is beer in my glass, especially when it’s from one of my favorite breweries, the Central Coast’s own Firestone. I ordered their Firestone DBA which is an English Style Bitter Amber Ale with 30 IBU’s, and is hoppy enough to make me happy.

Robin’s describes their food as handcrafted global cuisine and with dishes such as Vietnamese Banh Mi, Curried Chicken Salad Melt, and Cumin Black Bean Nachos, you can see why. I decided to go Mediterranean with a portobello sandwich topped with fresh tomato and sauteed red onions on a bed of basil, and substituted the included side for a delicious-sounding eggplant salad with red bell peppers, tomatoes, parsley and feta.

I appreciated they were accommodating with my substitution without a charge; I only wish the food was as pleasant as their attitude. The eggplant was too large, too firm and someone in the kitchen added too much vinegar. Also with the Lilliputian portobello on the Brobdingnagian bun they should have called this a porto-bun-o sandwich.
Something’s wrong when the bun tastes better than what’s between it. While the bun was fresh, homemade, and flavorful, the mushroom was dry and in desperate need of a marinade such as a balsamic vinegar. The mozzarella on top would have been better too if it were melted or if a buffalo mozzarella had been used. If this was all I had for lunch, I would have been disappointed with Robin’s; fortunately Gail ordered the Halibut Fish Tacos – Corona beer battered fish with lime crema and fresh mango salsa served with a jicama slaw, tortilla chips and salsa for $14.

I prefer my fish tacos grilled rather than battered and fried, and even though the halibut was a little fishy, with the mango salsa, shredded cabbage, and red onion, I still enjoyed every bite Gail would let me steal. She also had to guard the fresh tasting corn chips and jicama slaw, topped with a very tasty cilantro lime and jalapeño dressing, that came with her tacos.

The well tended garden outside was blooming with fresh flowers when we were there and would have been an excellent place to have lunch if it had been a little warmer.

Robin’s restaurant defines themselves as “creative meets local where international inspiration collides with the season’s bounty. Authentic. Sustainable. Wholesome. Surprising.” I agree but unfortunately with their dedication to Authentic, Sustainable, Wholesome and Surprising, it’s Surprising the food isn’t better. It’s worth checking out if you’re in Cambria but expect more of that Namaste spirit from the vibe and servers than from your meal. Oh well, we were drinking beer on vacation on a beautiful day in a beautiful place so Kimberly, you got your wish, we did indeed “have a beautiful day.”

Robin’s Restaurant
4095 Burton Drive  Cambria, CA 93428
(805) 927-5007

For more about me, check out my About page.

Read More

Fava Beans and beet greens salad

Peter Lowell’s

On a recent trip to Napa/Sonoma, Gail, my partner in wine, and I were on a hunt for the perfect pinot in the Russian River Valley. While we were excited to find beaucoup of Burgundy’s famous red grape in this fog shrouded area of Sonoma, we were equally happy to discover, with a search for “organic restaurants Sonoma” on the iPhone, organic Nirvana at Peter Lowell’s in the town of Sebastapol.

We had the option to wait for a table on the quaint and popular outside patio in the back of the restaurant surrounded by trees, a fountain, and unfortunately cars in the adjacent parking lot.

But since there were pinots waiting and our hunger wouldn’t, we opted for an available table inside which, with tan wooden chairs and tables, a red cement floor, and hanging industrial lighting and exposed ducts, sports a look of country chic meets urban industrial.

It also feels a bit like a European bistro, especially from the chalkboard over the kitchen which communicates the restaurants organic and seasonal convictions including what they are currently harvesting from their own farm.

Many years ago, on a Bay Area Backroads television shoot in Sebastapol, a local jokingly told me that the town was named as a mispronunciation of Zeebestapple because of the area’s storied history as an apple growing region. While many of those apple trees have been replaced by more lucrative vineyards and tract houses, the area still churns out some great organic eats as evidenced by the deli case overflowing with fixin’s for the perfect wine country picnic.

We started our lunch, as every good one should, with a delicious beer such as Gail’s Scrimshaw Pilsner from North Coast Brewing Co. and my hoppy muse: an IPA from Moonlight Brewery Co. in Sonoma. Both were $6 on draft.
The IPA had a great caramel color, a hoppy-rich-full-bodied mouth feel, a sparkling/effervescence, and a lingering earthy bitterness with a looooong finish. To sum up: It was delicious.

Peter Lowell’s menu states they have a “…slightly off-kilter attitude towards business – one where people, animals and the environment come before profits, where organic is a way of life, and where the highest quality cuisine is a top priority…” To paraphrase the Beach Boys, “I wish they all could be California Peter Lowell’s”

A great mantra was just the start of a menu chalked full of tempting dishes but the beans and greens salad sounded especially appetizing: braised beet greens, bread crumbs, garlic, chili flakes, Parmigiano Reggiano and fava beans.

The dish was an explosion of soul-satisfying-melt-in-your-mouth flavors with a nice ratio of creamy and chalky fava beans to crunchy, earthy, and bitter beet greens, with a pleasing background heat, nice garlic flavor and subtle saltiness. I almost wish it wasn’t so perfectly seasoned so I would have had an excuse to use the Himalayan sea salt and peppercorn dispensers on on our table.

After our salad, we ordered the pizza panna off the lunch specials menu: Roasted Spring Onions, Melted Leeks, Green Garlic, Cream, Calabrian Chiles, Fava Leaf Pesto and Parmigianno Reggianno for $16.

Typically I’m not a huge fan of cream sauces on my pizza however it was the perfect base for each Spring-garden-flavor-packed bite of: sweet and succulent leek, green onion, piquant Calabrian pepper oil and earthy green pesto.

Unlike some pizzas that suffer from cheese and dough overload, this pizza had just a highlight of cheese and a thin, charred, biscuity crust which was a great base for each flavorful bite.

I only have two complaints about Peter Lowell’s. The first is that we didn’t return for dinner to sample more of their menu and try their wines.

The second is that more restaurants don’t share Peter Lowell’s philosophy “…where people, animals and the environment come before profits, where organic is a way of life, and where the highest quality cuisine is a top priority…” It would be a tastier world if they did.

Peter Lowell’s
7385 Healdsburg Avenue
Sebastopol, CA
(707) 829-1077

Read More

Organic baby spinach salad

Seasons 52

I don’t like chain restaurants. They’re too often cavernous monuments to suburban disregard for land; havens for soulless corporate drinks rhyming with Smoka Smola and Crudweiser; and feature “themey” food that looks and sounds better than it can ever hope to taste. So it was with the theme of skepticism that I checked out a Seasons 52, perched in a giant mall parking lot in a suburban part of “suburbany” Orlando, Florida.

Normally the Seasons 52 sign would be beckoning to hungry Florida folk but I neglected to snap this photo until the sign had already been put to bed. From the outside, it’s an upscale and attractive building but about as unique looking as a PF Changs if the horse statues had galloped off. (Click the link to see what I mean). Despite this déjà Chu, I thought it was an inviting edifice outside and even though inside the dining room is cavernous, the appealing decor and soft warm lighting make it inviting too.
If a restaurant must have a theme, I can’t think of a better one than a seasonal menu, especially a seasonal vegetarian AND vegan menu.

But a menu is only as good as your servers ability to bring it to life and guide you to a better meal. And that’s exactly what I got in my server, Julian. Based on his recommendation, I started with an organic baby spinach salad for $6.90. The nice price.  The salad was fresh and filled with many layers of flavor: crisp red-skin pears, a nice bitterness from radicchio, creaminess from baby spinach, and a delicious sourness from Gorgonzola. And it was tossed with a baby bear portion of dressing: Not too little, not too much but juuuuust right. My only complaint is the cold and soggy pine nuts which had been sitting around too long in cold storage. If they had been toasted fresh to order instead, it would have added a nice crunch and temperature contrast to the cool salad.

The bread served with my salad was a wheaty masterpiece, hearty with a soft center contrasting with a grain coated crispy crust. As the conversation with Julian turned to wine, he turned to his General Manager, Reece, who happily discussed options and helped me navigate Seasons 52’s interesting wine menu with selections such as: Verdejo, Chenin Blanc and Moscato from interesting places such as: Veneto, South Africa and a Merlot from Slovenia.

I’d return to Seasons 52 fifty two times just to drink my way through their wine list but let’s be honest, the way I drink it would only take 3 or 4 visits. I began with a glass of Raats Family original Chenin Blanc Coastal ’10 $7.50/glass with a pour like I was friends with the bartender.

Usually $7.50 glasses of wine taste like an unoffensive yet only marginally interesting Trader Joe’s wine. Not this one. It had a nice complexity with lemon, grapefruit, pear, white flowers, wet grass and stones with a little earthy/dirtiness. The wine wasn’t the best pairing with the salad but the autumnal flavors of the salad did go decently with the earthy/dirty quality in the wine.

Too often restaurants serve their wines in thick rimmed cheap glasses with all the quality of a stemmed Dixie cup. My wine, however, came in an excellent thin rimmed wine glass from a European company called Stölzle Lausitz which enhanced the aromas, flavors and my enjoyment of the wine.

For my entree, I ordered the Farmers Market Vegetable Plate off the vegan menu which came with:

seasonal vegetables, grilled ponzu-glazed tofu and toasted cranberry-almond tabbouleh for $12.95. Another great price. Reece also encouraged me to try the harvest squash trio of grilled delicata, butternut and acorn squashes.
The Farmers Market Plate was big with more diversity than a Benetton ad: mushrooms, beets, carrots, red onion, asparagus, tofu and brussels (Bet you didn’t know the brussel is spelled with an s on the end) sprouts. The veggies were nicely prepared, slightly al dente, with a little firmness to them, except the yellow beets. They were a bit watery and the only miss on this dish. The squashes were also delicious.

It was a little like working with a whole fish when trying to separate flesh from the skin but each bite was a moist morsel of roasted sweetness. The almond tabbouleh had a nice crunch and grainy flavor with a firm texture and slight sweetness from the cranberries. The tofu was nicely firm and grilled with the tastes of sweet, salty and umami but
it would have been better with a crunchy cornmeal or breadcrumb coating outside to contrast with the soft chewy inside. Also, the ponzu glaze was pedestrian.

Two of the best items on the plate were the mushrooms which tasted meaty with a savory umami character and the carrots which were earthy with a hint of sweetness in the background.
Both the shrooms and carrots matched well with the reds Reece recommended I pit head to head. In this corner weighing in at $13.50, a 2009 Schug Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and the challenger for from the Rioja region of Spain, a $9.50 Sierra Cantabria Crianza.

The Schug started light and fruity with high acidity, yielding to a beef jerky/salted meat animal character and a cigar box woodiness with a long finish that had a hint of liquorice. The Crianza smelled like a fresh barrel sample in an Indian restaurant and had a rich mouth feel with high alcohol. It wasn’t as well balanced as the Schug and would have been better paired with a meat dish than my plate of veggies.

If I have room, I always order dessert. If I don’t have room, I sometimes order dessert. Seasons 52 makes it easy to not only order one dessert but many, by serving what their aptly named “mini indulgences” for $2.50 each.

I present Chocolate Peanut butter mousse on the left and a seasonal offering of pumpkin pie with ginger snap crust on the right. And the winner is…

Chocolate peanut butter mouse which tasted like a moist peanut butter cake. The pumpkin pie was a nice seasonal attempt but a little too creamy and would have benefited from a higher cake to cream ratio.

I’m still not a fan of chain restaurants BUT Seasons 52 gets it right in so many ways that with their service, their wines, the quality of their food and their prices, they’ve made me a believer. And with a theme of seasonality you know each time you go, there’s going to be something new and fresh waiting for you to sink your teeth into and that’s a theme I can return to again and again.

Seasons 52
463 East Altamonte Drive
Altamonte Springs, FL
(407) 767-1252

Read More