We had heard about the Saddle Peak Lodge for years, but in more than two decades of living in Los Angeles, we’d never been there. So on our way back from Santa Barbara one recent weekend, it felt like the perfect time to stop and enjoy what promised to be a truly unusual dining experience at this bucolic retreat, nestled in the hills above Malibu.
Upon entering, you know immediately that it’s special. The log cabin interior has walls adorned with fancy stonework, mysterious paintings, photos of famous people, and large fireplaces. But it’s the multitude of wild beasts peering down at you from the walls that creates the sensation that you’ve just stepped into a deluxe hunting lodge in some exotic, faraway place.
We were seated in the main dining room near one of the fireplaces, warming us just enough on this cool, spring evening. The general manager, Josh Buckner, described a little of the history of Saddle Peak Lodge to us, all the while ensuring that we were comfortable and happy with our surroundings.
As we perused the menu and sipped a superior
Foxen Pinot Noir, our waiter, Bryce, presented us with an
amuse bouché – a
Demi-tasse of Truffle Potato Leek Soup. The smooth and light essence of its flavors was a preface to the exciting eating adventure that was to follow.
The menu offered a vast variety of meat and fish dishes. Its specialty is the game selections. Bryce was happy to help us with our choices, by describing them in more detail and telling us House favorites. There are many dishes you won’t find at the corner diner or even at the best Beverly Hills Bistro! Most are prepared in a way that very few cooks have the knowledge and skill to employ, but more about this later.
After completing our order and awaiting our appetizers, our waiter surprised us with another amuse bouché. This one consisted of House-Smoked Salmon on Potato Puree Pancake with a Dollop of Crème Fraiche and a Sprinkle of Caviar. Just the subtlest of flavors combined into a major taste treat.
Eyeballing each other, we were starting to wonder just how big this meal would be. Then, Marilyn’s appetizer of sizzling, apricot glazed Pork Belly with Heirloom Tomato and a dab of sweet/heat Peppadew arrived and we promptly stopped caring about portion control. Although we usually share everything, after devouring her first mouth-watering, fat-laden morsel, Marilyn was reluctant to leave any of this incredibly aromatic dish for Dennis. However, her penchant for fairness kicked in, and she saved him one last piece. Dennis scarfed it down in one bite, wishing out loud he had dived in sooner. It’s difficult to describe something that is so good and satisfying, that you literally feel it, as well as taste it.
The salad that Dennis ordered was the winner of a kitchen contest for “most beautiful presentation.” The artistic combination of vegetables, in different shapes and sizes on the plate, was a visual as well as an edible delight, although he wasn’t sure whether to eat it or hang it on the wall. After sharing the salad, we took a little break before the main courses arrived.
Marilyn loves to be adventurous in eating, so for an entrée, she chose the Game Trio, tonight consisting of Antelope, Elk and Ostrich which were served over a variety of accompaniments. These are exotic cuts of meat, arriving from specialty purveyors to the Saddle Peak Lodge from all over the country. Think of the complexity of preparing, cooking, and simultaneously presenting three different types of meats, delivered to the table hot, moist and done to perfection.
Most restaurants struggle to get one meat done right.
Adam Horton, the 28-year-old Executive Chef of the
Saddle Peak Lodge, apparently does this with ease many times each night, as Marilyn’s trio treat was pure gastronomic ecstasy. He is ably assisted by Chef de Cuisine Chris Kufek.
Speaking of complexity, these very low fat meats require a special cooking technique that takes many hours at low temperature to prevent them from drying out. When Adam explained the process to us, it sounded more like a college science class than Cooking 101. Even cooking has gone high-tech, with specialty kitchen equipment and skill required to get it right.
Researching Wikipedia, we discovered that the method, called, “ sous-vide” was first described by Sir Benjamin Thompson (Count Rumford) in 1799, and much later re-discovered by Georges Pralus in the mid-1970s for the Restaurant Troisgros in Roanne, France. Another pioneer in the science of sous-vide is Bruno Goussault, who further researched the effects of temperature on various foods and became well-known for training top chefs in the method. Even in cooking, “what goes around, comes around.”
Marilyn’s fave on the trio plate was the antelope with an au jus that accentuated it perfectly. The elk was another delectable taste. Both were tender and moist, much more so than we expected from these extremely lean cuts of meat. Although we have had ostrich burgers before, the ostrich filet at Saddle Peak Lodge was quite different. It was very tasty, but chewier than its four-legged companions on the plate.
Dennis tasted (and loved) Marilyn’s meaty melody. Not usually a big meat-eater, Dennis was awed by the flavor and texture of the Elk, exclaiming, “We’ll have to come back soon for one of those Elk Filets.”
Sounding less daring than Marilyn’s choice, the Pan Roasted Idaho Rainbow Trout with Sunchokes, Asparagus, Sesame, Lemon and Pumpernickel Grenobloise that Dennis ordered was superb. Sweeter than artichokes, the sunflower hearts were a nice companion to the fish dripping in sweet, browned butter.
Sure, you may be thinking, “Who orders fish at a specialty meat emporium?” Well over the years, some of our memorable fish dishes have come from restaurants like Smith & Wollensky’s, Peter Luger and The Palm. Tonight’s trout was a winner, ranking amongst the best for freshness, taste and moisty finish. A great establishment must succeed at everything.
By this time, we were full and ready for coffee. However, Bryce and Adam realized that we hadn’t tried one of their most popular appetizers earlier. To be sure we didn’t miss out, they brought us the Diver Scallops with Black Garlic and English Pea Puree on a Bed of Peas and Sea Urchin Veloutte. We thought we would be polite and take small tastes, but when Bryce came back to the table, he found an empty plate and big smiles on our faces!
Scallops are one of Dennis’s favorite foods, and he orders them everywhere. For subtlety there is nothing like their sweet, delicate sea-taste. These were as fresh and flavorful as if we were sitting on the dock in Digby, Nova Scotia, watching the trawlers unload from the Bay of Fundy.
Now it was definitely time to go! We would skip the coffee and walk off the meal. However, unbeknown to us, Adam and Bryce had other plans. Dessert! For each of us!
Oh no, the pain of eating one more bite. Did we hear Bryce say, “Chocolate something…and beignet?” Almost instantly, the Chocolate Textures, consisting of flourless chocolate cake, white chocolate ribbon Grenache and chocolate crumbles, was set in front of Dennis and the Apple Beignet with apple-cinnamon dipping sauce went to Marilyn. OMG! Foodie heaven.
After dinner, we took a self-guided tour of the Lodge. A central staircase leads upstairs, where we found smaller, cozy dining areas and private rooms for special occasions on the second floor. Wall space was again filled with dramatic animal heads and artwork. The top floor is a library, where small groups can enjoy the restaurant’s special fare amid shelves of books and more animal trophies, with views of the surrounding countryside.
Saddle Peak Lodge ranks as one of the most distinctive spots in the Los Angeles area. Over the years it has been transformed from a rustic campsite to a first-class, award-winning restaurant. Under the tutelage of
Ann Ehringer since 1992, her daily presence is an inspiration to the highly professional staff and her guests as well. You sense it when you arrive, and know it when you leave;
Saddle Peak Lodge is a special place.
Don’t wait as long as we did to enjoy this rare and truly exceptional dining experience. High in the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking Malibu, it’s a little off the beaten track, but well worth the trek. Isn’t everything that’s worthwhile?
419 Cold Canyon Road
Calabasas, CA 91302