Embark on a culinary voyage in California


By AGENCY

The amuse-bouche, consisting of almost a dozen little things, would be reason enough to dine at the Single Thread. — Photos: BERNHARD KRIEGER/dpa

Looking down at your plate, you may ask yourself, is that edible or a work of art?

”Food!” says Kyle Connaughton, rather modestly, given the fact that his California restaurant Single Thread enjoys three Michelin stars, the highest rating available in the Michelin Guide.

Connaughton, seen by many as one of the United States’ best chefs, is among those to have helped put California on the culinary map. For him, too, this state stands out. “California is unique,” he says.

There is no shortage of food to explore in the sprawling suburbs of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, plus the fast food joints along the highways that connect them. But there’s also an exciting world of bars, cafés and restaurants to visit between the Pacific coast, deserts and mountains.

High star density

Beyond Chicago, Illinois and New York, there are few places in the US with as many top-ranked restaurants as California.

Of the 13 three Michelin-starred restaurants in the US, six are in California, and the state is also home to 12 two-star and 68 one-star restaurants.

Of the 17 restaurants in the US that have been awarded a Green Star for sustainable gastronomy, 15 are located in the state.

Simple crab stalls like Spud Point Crab Co in Bodega Bay, Sonoma County are cult favourites, and offer an affordable taste of California’s high level of food.Simple crab stalls like Spud Point Crab Co in Bodega Bay, Sonoma County are cult favourites, and offer an affordable taste of California’s high level of food.

California also played a crucial role in the farm-to-table movement that promotes seasonal and regional produce in restaurants. The sunny, yet mild climate in many parts of the state makes it the fruit and vegetable garden of the US.

It goes without saying that organic produce is also served in upmarket neighbourhoods like Beverly Hills in Los Angeles or Presidio in San Francisco, twinned with an impressive view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Freshly caught fish from the Pacific or from rivers and lakes in the mountains, where the famous Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks are located, are also served.

California is blessed with first-class produce and a variety of culinary influences.

”California is a true melting pot of cultures,” Connaughton says. Mexicans have had the greatest influence on state cuisine – but the long history of immigration from Asia has also had a major impact, he says.

“And of course the Europeans, who not only influenced the cuisine, but also agriculture and, of course, viticulture.”

The climate in Sonoma County is favourable for growing wine as it has a long history here.The climate in Sonoma County is favourable for growing wine as it has a long history here.

Extreme seasonality

In Single Thread, Connaughton combines everything that has made California a top destination for connoisseurs. He also takes regionality a step further, serving fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers grown on his own farm, run by his wife Katina and located some 6km from the restaurant.

They only harvest fruit when it is really and truly ripe. Some are only at their peak in terms of flavour and texture for a few days or even just hours, he says.

As in many other top restaurants in California, the Single Thread has a casual feel despite the high level cuisine served there. This is entirely in keeping with the lifestyle of wealthier Californians.

And you do need to be rich to eat well in California. A simple dinner for two in a mid-range restaurant will easily cost more than US$100 (RM470).

For many international travellers, the costs of travelling there, accommodation and a rented car for getting around (there are few alternatives) are already prohibitive.

Farmers’ markets can be found everywhere in California, like the coastal town of Santa Barbara, where local farmers sell their produce.Farmers’ markets can be found everywhere in California, like the coastal town of Santa Barbara, where local farmers sell their produce.

Sonoma County and the neighbouring Napa Valley are dotted with first-class cellars that also produce world-class wines. Wine is big business here – and prices are likewise high.

Wineries charge an average of around US$40 (RM189) for a tasting of three wines, says Napa Valley Tourism Association. High end wineries charge many times that sum. Add taxes and a tip, and a tour with several tasting stops adds up to several hundred dollars.

Beyond cheesy nachos

Less famous wine regions such as Paso Robles are cheaper. From the Winelands in the north, scenic Highway 1 leads south from San Francisco along the Pacific coast. Halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles lies the small town of El Paso de Robles, which gives the area its name.

Here you can truly see the power of Mexico’s influence.

You can also discover the diversity of Californian cuisine in other neighbourhoods like San Francisco. — dpaYou can also discover the diversity of Californian cuisine in other neighbourhoods like San Francisco. — dpaFood trucks and restaurants serving Mexican fast food are omnipresent on the streets and beaches. And their offerings are far more complex than the cheese-topped nachos many Americans associate with their southern neighbour.

Tacos, burritos and enchiladas become extraordinary, made with good quality meat and fish fillings and supplemented with finely flavoured salsas. The Taco María in Costa Mesa had a Michelin star thanks to its Mexican cuisine though in July 2023, the operators announced the sudden closure of the restaurant.

Happily for fans, Californios in San Francisco, which has two Michelin stars, is still serving Michelin-level Mexican cuisine.

Good, healthy food is far more important in California than anywhere else in the US, partly due to the cult of the body, the popularity of sport and the widespread belief in the power of a balanced diet.

Hollywood stars pay particularly attention to their figures – a fact familiar to chef Wolfgang Puck. Born in Austria, he is the chef to the stars. He has been responsible for the gala dinner at the Oscars for many years.

“It’s a great honour,” says Puck, who runs around 70 restaurants.

His best known is Spago in Beverly Hills, which also serves Austrian schnitzel – a firm favourite among his guests, who also love goulash and Kaiserschmarrn, a kind of scrambled pancakes.

Puck’s Austrian classics are another example of the state’s culinary diversity. California has no traditional cuisine in and of itself.

“This is how immigrants from different cultures from all over the world have created such a great culinary mix.” – dpa

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