The Saddle Peak Lodge, in the hills above Malibu, accomplishes such a marvelous fusion of the rustic and the sophisticated both for the palate and for the imagination that eating there is like stepping into a storybook. The charm of the restaurant has long drawn local devotees as well as Hollywood notables, but the transformation of the kitchen by a young and inspired staff that recently earned this landmark a Michelin star is still something of a secret. World-class dining tucked in the hills of LA’s backyard means a meal to rival any you would find in the finest restaurants of Paris served in an American atmosphere of casual warmth.
Step into the Saddle Peak Lodge and you step into American history. The entry foyer is the original 100-year- old general store/Pony Express stop. The glow of wood and stone ignites the imagination to the tales of cowboys, hunters, and miners who passed through the doors to stock up on supplies or belly up to the bar.
When the area transformed into a summer resort in the twenties, Saddle Peak Lodge evolved into a dry goods, beer and sandwich shop. Soon, Hollywood discovered it, and the Lodge became the roadhouse for stars working at the nearby studio ranches, occasionally serving as a film location in its own right. Over the years, Saddle Peak Lodge has continued its remarkable journey, in part thanks to the affection of its patrons and friends who began contributing the amazing collection of relics and memorabilia that are the foundation of the Saddle Peak Lodge’s magical decor.
The Saddle Peak Lodge is unabashed in its hunt history. Animal trophies, donated over the years by patrons, look out over the dining rooms, reminding you of where the meat on your plate originates. This is not a place for a PETA convention, nor would this be a place to bring your vegan friends. Here you are at the heart of the hunter. The dark wood interior, the stone hearths, and the polished briar room dividers give the whole restaurant an ambiance of a deep woods fable. The stunning contrast of the 18th Century French paintings of nymphs and nudes that grace the walls adds to the sense otherworldly charm that permeates the property. (Actually, the current paintings hanging on the walls are copies of the originals currently being cleaned and restored at Sotheby’s.)
Outside dining is possible on the bowered stone patio and on a treetop open-air balcony. The back terrace overlooking mountains and canyons is a favorite location for weddings and private parties. The tranquility and elegance of the setting also make it a popular daytime retreat for corporate executives. Inside and outside are permeable and paths wend around the grounds where many herbs and spices used to flavor the food grow. In fact, an 80-year-old, three-story rosemary bush that reaches to the balcony is still the kitchen’s favorite source of the herb, its flavor having an incomparable depth and subtlety.
The entire place has been perfected over the years into an idealized woodman’s lodge, with nature at the doorstep, at the edges, and around the corner, but with the Lodge itself a haven from trials and travails.
Location and decor are all very well, but they did not earn the Saddle Peak Lodge its Michelin star. As beautiful as the physical environment is, the food is every bit as marvelous. The current owner of the Lodge, Ann Ehringer, took a gamble on a young general manager, Iain Walling, and an even younger kitchen staff (Chef de Cuisine Adam Horton is only 28), giving them the scope to re-invent the classic game-and-potatoes reputation of the restaurant into a culinary destination. They have succeeded, and spectacularly so.
The menu is still dominated by game, but fish is also an important part of the menu. The products served are the finest in the world: New Zealand elk, Texas antelope, Fijian albacore, Jidori chicken. Each main dish is prepared with a chorus of supporting flavors that sing in perfect harmony, though frequently with surprising cadences and tonalities. A sublime elk tenderloin served with sweet potato gnocchi, a parsnip mousselin and a ragout of braised bacon and cherries tastes, well, like Christmas. A dish that began as a kitchen snack, beef tartare with quince mustard served with a quail egg on toast, is fit for summer brunch on Mt. Olympus.
It is not only flavor, but texture that is perfectly harmonized here. A sautéed scallop in a corn relish pleases so much because both are so perfectly cooked that the the crunch of the corn and the softness of the scallop do a little dance in your mouth. The amuse bouche smoked salmon on potato pancake is a satisfying tiny morsel with the warm pancake and the cool fresh salmon playing well together in the mouth.
Not all the flavor combinations are exotic. The mushroom agnolotti is a pasta dish that has no superior anywhere in the world. If you like pasta, this is a gastronomic must. The roasted carrot and ginger soup has a velvet texture without heaviness, and the ginger, rather than announcing itself at first bite, shows itself in how the flavor of the soup continues to develop in the mouth.
Many of the ingredients are local, some coming from the restaurant grounds. They go the the farmers' market every Wednesday and will taste 20 carrots before deciding which one to buy. Other, more exotic ingredients cannot be found locally and must be flown in fresh, something which is reflected in the price. A true gourmet will say that the chance to eat the real deal justifies the cost and my own experience bears witness to the truth of that statement. I have never particularly liked raw fish sushi or sashimi. I would eat it to be polite if I had to. So when I was served the tuna sashimi with pea tendril salad, I dutifully took a bite and found I had to change my opinion. It turns out I love raw fish–when it is superb.
The wine list of the Saddle Peak Lodge runs from the excellent to the exquisite. Most of the wines are American, though they have a few imports that are only seen at a handful of the finest restaurants in the US. You can order your wine yourself or you can enjoy it by the glass in pairings suggested by the staff and have a different one for each dish.
One way to get the most out of a visit at Saddle Peak Lodge is to order the chef’s tasting menu. You can select the 4 or the 8 course meal, and the menu offers two options for wine pairings. The 8-course meal is an evening of dining unlike any I have ever had in the United States. In France, in Italy, I have often spent three hours at the table, tasting, drinking and enjoying the company of friends. From the champagne to the fish and whites, the meats and reds, to a rosé champagne finish, the night was pure nectar and ambrosia. The night air out on the patio blew softly as we ate by candlelight and once, when we looked up, a shooting star flared across the sky. I made my wish: another dinner at the Saddle Peak Lodge.
Saddle Peak Lodge
419 Cold Canyon Rd.
Calabassas, CA 91302
Adam C. Horton
Chef de Cuisine
Dr. Ann Graham Ehringer