Saturday, December 29, 2012

A WEEK IN SHANGRI LA - Pt. Three - Osteria Monte Grappa

Part Three
(Osteria Monte Grappa)

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening, in the lane snow is glistening…

Well, not quite. I live in sunny southern California after all.  Oh, we had some rain over the holiday, but our annual Christmas Eve fete was a chilly but dry one.  The fire was ablaze and the trees and mantels were decorated and lighted as our 35 guests arrived for dinner to Christmas music playing softly in the background.  We ate, drank and were merry – then it was over and the music was turned off.

Now it’s that sort of limbo week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve where one often reflects about the passing year.  I’m not much of a reflector, but my book came out in 2012 to some pretty nice reader reviews from people I don’t even know and Richard’s softball team won its league championship, so I reflected on that with a smile. 

One truly pleasant 2012 diversion was our week of house sitting in Ojai, Calif., so I thought I’d take this “lost week” to finish my Ojai trilogy and tell you about our last day in “Lost Horizons’” Shangri La.

As we waited for our friends Stu and Kyle to come and reclaim their home later that evening, we spent the day walking around the neighborhood, further exploring the town’s “Main Street” saying silent farewells to the mission architecture

the local bijou...

the shops and walkways. Then we treated ourselves to lunch at Osteria Monte Grappa, a restaurant we had been dying to try.

The restaurant is simply but invitingly decorated with white table cloths, creamy walls, comfortable chairs and vibrant art...

but it’s the outdoor patio that really attracted me with its tables nestled under beautiful trees forming a canopy over the patio.

As we looked over the menu which is filled with a variety of Northern Italian dishes that all sounded wonderful, we dipped some fresh baked bread into really good olive oil and balsamic vinegar. 

Richard finally chose an egg linguini with diver scallops, spinach, pancetta and onion dressed with that good olive oil.  I love scallops, so of course I had to have a bite. Truly delicious.

I chose a pasta with grilled chicken and spinach in a light cream sauce. Rich, fattening, but oh, so good.

A soft breeze blew as we sat under the trees enjoying our lunch and dreaming of the time we can return to Shangri La and, perhaps, come back to Osteria Monte Grappa for dinner when the patio turns romantic with little white lights shining through the leaves above, like a million stars in the sky.

If you get to Ojai before we do, save us a table.

Happy New Year everyone!

Osteria Monte Grappa
205 Signal St.
Ojai, Calif. 93023

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A WEEK IN SHANGRI LA - Part Two - Lake Casitas & Casa Barranca Wines

Part Two
(Lake Casitas & Casa Barranca Wines)

House sitting in the Ojai Valley and the town of Ojai was not rough duty.  I mean really, did Ronald Coleman like living in Shangri La in “The Lost Horizon” (shot in Ojai)?  He may have stayed there in glorious black and white, but he knew that he had found something mystical and magical.  And so did we years later.  Even on a very overcast day that made us feel like we were in a black and white movie, we found new horizons.

The first was Lake Casitas nestled in the mountains surrounded by RV camp grounds, nature trails and a “café” (Marina Café) overlooking the lake. The café turned out to be a coffee shop/truck stop, but since I love diners, drive-ins, dives and truck stops, it was the perfect place to have lunch on a cloudy day.

When we arrived we were the only customers and took a table by the window with a lake view...

 ... and after reading through the menu, it was a cheeseburger and fries for me and pancakes and sausage for Richard.  The pancakes weren’t as good as he had hoped, but my cheeseburger was the perfect, old-fashioned, not super-sized, meat patty with melted American cheese, “special” sauce and sliced sweet pickle that I used to get at Howard Johnson’s in my youth, and at my hometown luncheonette (remember when there actually were ‘luncheonettes?’) in Bayside, Queens, Long Island, New York.  I opted to keep the iceberg lettuce, tomato and raw onion as a “side” salad and not on the burger. The skinny French fries, however, were spectacular. Crispy, crunchy on the outside and soft and mushy on the inside. Just how I used to deep fry them when I worked the Woolworth luncheonette (there’s that term again) counter in high school.

After lunch (just as some truckers arrived), we explored the lake...


...  then drove to a high vista to check out the Valley’s horizons. The sky was dark and angry (I expected to see Thor in the clouds ready to toss a lightning bolt), which made the view all the more dramatic.

By the time we finished driving in the mountains exploring the back roads, nooks and crannies, it was the “cocktail hour,” so we headed back to town for a little wine tasting at the Casa Barranca organic winery tasting room right there on “Main Street.”


Alysia Dewar, the winery’s charming wine club manager, was our barista.  Richard and I decided to share both flights offered.


We started with the 2011 Sauvignon Blanc ($20) made from grapes from the Evergreen Vineyard in Santa Barbara County with tastes of pear and pineapple. The wine was a nice surprise. I don’t usually care for sauvignon blanc, but this wine has a bit of ‘weight’ to it that made me a fan.

Next was the 2009 Pinot Noir ($30) from the Laetitia Vineyard in Arroyo Grande and it had a nice berry and plum flavor. This is a pleasant wine that would pair well with pork or turkey.

The 2010 Bungalow Red, a blend of syrah grapes (Westerly Vineyard, Santa Monica
County) and grenache grapes (Rich Vineyard, Ventura County), ($25) was a nice full-bodied wine with those cherry and berry flavors you expect from a rich red.

My favorite wine in this flight was the 2009 Merlot ($20) made from grapes from Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Barbara County.  Spicy, earthy, with hints of blackberry and even cardamom, this velvety wine is a find at twenty bucks.  Just give me a straw.

Though I liked the 2011 Arts & Crafts Red ($25), a blend of central coast cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit verdot, I agreed with Alysia… this is a wine that needs to “sit” and mature awhile before uncorking.  Interesting note: this wine was named “Arts & Crafts” in honor of the Pratt House, a national historic landmark designed in 1909 by legendary craftsman designers, Greene & Greene which, along with the winery, is featured at the Casa Barranca Estate

The second flight was a totally red tasting experience.

I enjoyed the 2010 Grenache ($25) and the 2011 Cab Franc ($28), both with hints of chocolate, and the 2009 Pinot Noir which won the silver medal at the Long Beach Grand Cru, but…

…it was the 2010 Casa Red ($20), a little bit of this and that blend of grapes from Santa Barbara County that surprised. What a terrific table red for spaghetti or pizza night.

The 2010 Syrah ($25) from Thompson Vineyards in Santa Ynez with herbs, cocoa and berries and a nose that made me think of allspice was just plain delicious, as was...

… the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) from French Camp Vineyard, Paso Robles with its mint and mulberry tastes with a little cassis thrown in and a slight scent of pine cones. The perfect pairing with that Christmas rib roast.

Visiting Casa Barranca tasting room was the perfect way to end another day in Shangri La.

Casa Barranca Wines
208 E. Ojai Avenue
Ojai, Calif. 93023

Saturday, November 10, 2012



Well, if you can, I'd appreciate it. ;D

"Freeze Frame" - my John Grisham meets Sue Grafton suspense thriller is now on Kindle just in time for the holidays!!! Yay!!!

If you haven't checked it out yet, I hope you do...

Click in and read the reviews (most from people I don't even know), the blurbs, etc., etc. And if the spirit moves you, tell all your friends and families - even strangers on the street... I'd appreciate it. (and it's cheap!!!)


Thursday, November 1, 2012

A WEEK IN SHANGRI LA - Part One - Feast Bistro

Part One
(Feast Bistro)

Recently, our friends, Stu and Kyle, asked us if we wanted to spend a week house/dog sitting in their lovely home in the town of Ojai, surrounded by mountains with “pink moments” where the mountains literally turn pink in the sunset.  Who can turn down an opportunity to sip wine and gaze at a pink mountain moment or two?  Not Richard.  Not I.

Made famous as Shangri La in Frank Capra’s “Lost Horizon,” Ojai is a mystical, spiritual valley littered with artists, farmers, hippies and Hollywood stars with renowned theater, music, art and lavender festivals. Some Native Americans believe mankind was born out of its mineral springs.  I’d be hard-pressed to argue that point.

After a mere hour and fifteen minute drive from our home in Studio City, we settled in and explored the neighborhood as we walked the dog and drove around town.  After spending many sleepovers in Ojai, the terrain wasn’t totally unfamiliar, but we found new neighborhood pockets and fun markets to explore.

Saturday was “Ojai Day,” a yearly event in town.  The main street was blocked off and filled with booths selling herbs, jewelry, soaps and scents, sidewalk art and all sorts of local artists’ wares.

Our friend, Candace, decided to drive up from L.A. for lunch and to browse the booths.  The town turned out en masse, enjoying the street food while watching children play in various playground venues set up for the day as they shopped and mingled with their neighbors.

We opted to have lunch at Feast Bistro, one of my favorite restaurants in town. Started by Beryl Schwartz, Elio Zarmati and chef Susan Coulter, Feast Bistro offers healthful, delicious gourmet food at affordable prices.  It has patio dining, a wine/beer/espresso/tea bar where you can also get Belgian chocolates and pastries from local bakers, but we chose a table in the front room where we could watch the action on street.


back room

open prep area

front room
Richard and I had never lunched there and were pleased to see such a full, diverse menu:

from Eel River organic beef burgers to veggie burgers of brown rice, mushrooms, sweet peppers and oats; a Vietnamese chicken sandwich to a Memphis-style pulled pork sandwich; cheese tortellini in bacon and tomato cream sauce to spicy chicken breast w/ greens and veggies topped with bleu cheese crumbles; homemade soups to steamed mussels and clams; salads to a bacon, caramelized onion and smoked mozzarella flatbread.  Something for everyone.

Richard ordered the Memphis-style pulled pork sandwich topped w/ tangy cole slaw and a side of pommes frites.  Of course, I had a bite.  Tender and savory. We both loved it.

Candace had the day’s flatbread special with assorted cheeses and veggies and I opted for the flatbread on the menu (put bacon on something and I’m ordering it) – both were delicious (yes, I had a bite of Candace’s) and both were served with a little salad in the middle.  It looked gorgeous and tasted even better.

We toured the booths a bit more and discovered a collection of antique cars – well antique to some -

This car was just like Candace's lst car

This is the car (an MG) I always wanted
Now that's a real antique car
then waved goodbye to our friend, as she left for her short journey back to L.A. 

It was time to walk the dog and a wait for some pink moments.

Feast Bistro
254 East Ojai Avenue
Ojai, Calif. 93023

Below is the dinner review I wrote a couple of years ago:

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A SLEEPOVER IN ARROYO GRANDE - Part 2 - Saucelito Canyon Vineyard

Part 2
(Saucelito Canyon Vineyard)

When last we “talked,” Richard and I were enjoying a beautiful day wine tasting in Arroyo Grande with friends Candace and Craig and their daughter Liza.  The day was not only beautiful because of the weather (a much welcomed reprieve from the 100 degrees + we were experiencing in L.A.), but also because of the lovely countryside dotted with vineyards.

We pulled into the Saucelito Canyon Vineyard tasting room amid the vineyards

and, after seeing how crowded it was inside, 

we again opted to taste outside.


Liza multi-tasking - tasting & texting

We started our flight with the 2010 Zinfandel Estate ($32) – a full-bodied red wine that had a fruity “nose” and rich berry taste and gravelly terroir. (OK, that’s French which, I’m told doesn’t have a single English word translation and means a wine’s sense of place; the soil in which the vines grow; how much sun the grapes get, the topography – all add up to the wine’s unique personality.  “Topography,” “soil” – in other words, “dirt.” But there’s nothing dirty about this wine, just a wonderful earthy taste. See, I found one English word – earthy.  Well, maybe not.  Recommended pairing from the winemaker: a T-bone steak with peppered shoestring fries or a smoked mozzarella and chipotle pizza.  My mouth’s watering just typing that.

The 2010 Zinfandel Dos Ranchos ($32) – is a robust (love that word) wine with a wonderful spicy ‘kick’ to it. Pairing suggestions:  Open a bottle the next time you grill a rack of lamb or broil some lamb chops or try it with a balsamic-glazed portabello burger. Now I’m really hungry.

Next was the 2010 Tempranillo ($28) – a dry, smoky, hearty wine that I really enjoyed and would be perfect paired with a marinated steak or, perhaps, a tandoori chicken with garlic, as the winemaker suggests.

As the tasting day was winding down, Tom Greenough, Saucelito Canyon’s young winemaker joined us as we sipped a 2010 Sauvage Estate red ($34) - a blend of French varietals.   

Like all the reds, there was nothing “insipid” about this wine… dark, deep and delicious.  No food needed - just give me a straw.  (Gotta wrap this blog up – my stomach’s growling and my taste buds are craving any one of these Saucelito Canyon reds.)

As we chatted with Tom we learned that the vineyard started in 1880 on an original land grant when three acres of zin grapes were planted.  A century later, Tom’s father, Bill, bought and restored the vineyard, which had been abandoned years earlier, and started making zinfandels using modern methods in sustainable wine growing coupled with his own ideas on winemaking.  Son Tom, who became the winery’s winemaker in 2009, has carried on the family traditions.

As the tasting room witching hour approached, we were sated and happy as we reluctantly left Saucelito Canyon Vineyard nestle in the countryside amid the old zin vines.

Ciao – I’m off to lunch now.

Saucelito Canyon Vineyard
3180 Biddle Ranch Road
San Luis Obispo, CA. 93401