“Bon fuckin’ appetit!”
With that, Dave Grohl bade cheerful adieu outside Gwen, Curtis Stone’s west Hollywood restaurant, where we’d both just tucked into serious carnivore fare a couple of tables apart.
An encounter with the instantly likeable rock luminary was a surreal bonus on a southern California food safari that was already turning out as well as you’d expect, being soaked in sunshine, Santa Ynez wine, bonhomie and the odd celebrity sighting.
We had met for an interview a few years back on a Them Crooked Vultures tour through Brisbane, where Grohl had developed a taste for Moreton Bay bugs. Indeed the rocker mentioned his passing disappointment that Stone had not included this Australian delicacy on the menu.
It’s hard to tick every single box.
Stone, the TV chef and Coles spruiker, now has two restaurants in Los Angeles: Gwen, the larger and newer establishment on Sunset Boulevard, and Maude, his more intimate fine dining offering in Beverly Hills.
The meaty focus at Gwen has raised local expectations that Stone, probably the best-known Australian chef in the US thanks to a stint with Oprah Winfrey, will be bringing a slice of home with him.
Unfortunately my tour group was a night too early for Stone’s first batch of prime Aussie beef to arrive from Victoria, slabs of wagyu from David Blackmore, whom the chef calls “the most premium beef producer in the world”.
Texan beef was just fine instead, when eaten in a smoke-scented room and carved off the bone on your plate with a knife selected from a box of blades presented by Gwen’s maitre’d.
The restaurant is named after Stone’s grandmother whose life as a market gardener on a freezing Victorian farm involved cooking meat cut from a sheep hanging in a wet sugar sack from a tree in the backyard.
It is also a butcher, a standalone rarity in Los Angeles, featuring glass cases of meat ageing up to 120 days and whole carcasses hanging from hooks. It’s the only place in LA you can buy freshly-slaughtered pheasants and guinea hens.
Stone says people have been telling him he’s crazy. “A butcher shop in LA? ‘LA’s the opposite of that. Everyone’s turning vegetarian.’ I don’t agree with it. It’s just stigma,” he says.
“Yes of course there’s a lot of vegans here, a lot of raw people here, but there’s also a lot of people that just love good food. If you can show a process for what it is and make someone stop and think, I think it’s a good thing.”
Stone feels our ethics and eating habits have been led astray by the availability of cheap meat and our distance from the act of killing, so that we eat without appreciation, eating too much of animals who were reared cheaply and treated improperly. This means, with Stone, you’re confronted with the sources of that charcuterie on your plate, if you care to look.
Altogether more confronting – to me at least – were some of the offerings at Maude, Stone’s much smaller original restaurant in Beverly Hills, named after his other grandmother.
Stone’s inventive touches such as lamb and honeycomb matched with a Lebanese red, a 2008 Chateau Musar, and the chicken with nasturtium were savoury highlights. But the chocolate bavarois with cucumber was a bridge too far for a culinary simpleton like me. It was just as well Maude put no small emphasis on the fine-art of wine-food matching. The attentive and well-rehearsed wait staff – wannabe actors are verboten – could not be faulted.
And as far as throwing cucumber into chocolate mousse, Stone seems to have a fast moving menu at Maude, which he describes as “super detailed… a really refined little product”. And cucumber is in season.
Over at Stone’s produce supplier, McGrath family farms in Ventura county, the “in season” sign declares other specialties: tomatoes, corn, all beans (including edamame and lima), summer squash, peaches, plums and nectarines.
In the southern California summer, a touring foodie will keep coming across these last three stone fruits in all sorts of salads and savoury dishes.
For some of the best in SoCal regional dining and wining, you could do much worse than start at Santa Barbara, where Stonemarried Lindsay Price in 2013, about 90 minutes north-west of LA.
Santa Barbara is the self-styled American Riviera, notable for being a gateway to the Santa Ynez valley, which is wine country and a tasting trail to which you could devote an entire overseas holiday. The Santa Ynez trademark wines include pinot noir, syrah (shiraz, as we know it in Australia) chardonnay and merlot.
In Santa Barbara, in a renovated light industrial precinct dubbed the Funk Zone, there’s an old fish market building transformed into a popular eatery called the Lark, complete with flower-filled steel bathtubs out the front.
Here stonefruits make their way into a smoked pork belly dish glazed with bourbon and peach and served with peanut brittle, pickled peppers and crispy pig ears.
It was at the Lark that I first came across an ollalie, a kind of mulberry on steroids that can only be harvested about two weeks every year, as well as learning what a decent pairing apricots and olives can make.
I also learned crispy brussel sprouts are a year-round staple in California, so just as well the Lark worked out how to make them interesting, withmedjool dates, garum, sesame and lime.
The eatery serves pinot noir and chardonnay from a label called Tyler, which operates in what is affectionately dubbed a “wine ghetto” of a warehouse in Lompoc.
Santa Ynez is best known as either the place where Michael Jackson had his Neverland ranch or the backdrop for the 2004 Paul Giamatti film Sideways, which was a huge boost for tourism in the region.
At the Brander winery, founded by a family of emigres from Argentina in 1975, you’ll recognise the room from the Sideways scene where Giamatti chastises his friend (Thomas Haden Church) for tasting wine with gum in his mouth.
In the barrel room, you’ll notice a brilliant collection of Mexican ceramic folk art assembled by owner Fred Brander, who observes “both folk art and wine carry a sense of place”.
Stone is not the only Australian to have fallen for Santa Barbara’s wine county, which boasts around 200 vineyards and 250 wineries. At nearby Bridlewood winery, former Yarra Valley winemaker Matt Steel has carved out a US career on an idyllic estate that was once a recuperation facility for horses.
It is centred around a large Spanish colonial-style building with spectacular rooftop views of rolling vineyards. It features a cavernous, barrel-filled tasting room with a turntable and an array of LPs so guests can have “vinyl parties” with a dozen wines to sample.
Steel says it’s a setting unlike many Australian tasting rooms in his experience, where you can find yourself “herded in and out”. The idea is to make it as relaxed and convivial as possible. Between mouthfuls of pinot noir and chardonnay, and platters of cheese, nuts, honeycomb, cold meat, dried apricots and fresh figs, you start to get the sense you’re as spoiled as those horses who once had the run of the place.
If your appetite has not been sated by the platters and wine tastings, chef Luca Crestanelli brings a native touch to rustic Italian at SY Kitchen in Santa Ynez itself. Set in a California farmhouse with a porch and a courtyard, SY Kitchen does Italian Sunday breakfasts right through to lunch, afternoon aperitivo and dinner.
My tour party had the good fortune of dining at the private estate of SY’s owners, where Crestanelli, who previously worked as a private chef for what they call in the US “high net-worth individuals”, showed his wares behind an outdoor barbecue.
This included the stone fruit theme, a fetching summery salad of grilled nectarine, beans, rocket and mozzarella, among other delights such as freshly-cut pasta with cream and mushroom sauce and a truly sinful tiramisu.
Travelling through the dry, sunny Santa Ynez valley after the suburban sprawl of LA, it’s easy to see why southern California strikes a chord with Australians such as Stone and Brown. “On the outside it looks similar and feels similar straight off the bat,” Stone says.
“I think California and Australia, there’s so many similarities. California’s so democratic and so chilled and relaxed.”
The local perception of Australians is that “we’re still pretty unaffected and relaxed, they like our chilled way of life”, Stone says.
The laconic approach for Stone in the city of stars extends to the fact most guests in his restaurants are more likely to recognise the long list of famous diners than he is.
“What’s fascinating to me is I never know who any of them are, because I spend my life in such a bubble of food. My wife thinks it’s hilarious. She’s like, do you know who you were just talking to?”
Stone was once eating sushi with his wife when a glamorous blonde woman approached him to say, “I’m always trying to get a table at your restaurant and I can never get in”.
“I was like, just call right at the start of the month. She’s like, I’ll give you my number and you can give us a call and we’ll hook you up. I’m like, sure babe,” Stone says.
“Then Sean Penn walks in and sits down and I said, I know that guy.” The woman was Charlize Theron. “My wife’s like, you’re unbelievable. Just make sure you call at the start of the month.”
Joshua Robertson travelled to California as a guest of Visit California.