California Road Trip: Day One

May 19, 2017

On Sunday morning, I woke up and took this picture from my bed…. Gulls swooped, and off to the right, where you can’t see it, an egret fished. Breakfast was oysters from Hog Island next door, with a splash of lemon. (And yes, I will tell you how to stay in this magical mystery place.)

That will give you a sense of what this mad odyssey of driving, talking and eating was like. In a word, wonderful.

Over the next few days I’m going to post the highlights of the food we ate as we meandered through California, from Los Gatos to the Napa Valley, Healdsburg, Point Reyes, San Francisco and finally Carmel.  Along the way we had what I think was one of the best meals of my life… But that comes later.

Our first meal – it was meant to be just a snack – was at Bywater in Los Gatos.  We didn’t want to eat much because we were having dinner at Manresa that night… But we started with that bam bam shrimp above, and after that, well, we were lost. Really fresh, sweet and tender, the shrimp was split, dipped in cornstarch and then fried to an astonishingly crisp crackle.  Utterly irresistible.

After that we had one of the finest gumbos I’ve ever encountered. Deep, rich, clarion clear, and singing of the sea. I just couldn’t stop eating it.

And then, of course, a po’ boy.  Fried oysters and the greatest pickled okra.

At that point, happily, we had the sense to stop. Dinner at Manresa was only an hour away.

There’s something wonderful about eating at a chef’s casual place and then moving on to see what he does when he gets really serious. David Kinch gets both experiences: Bywater is the kind of place you could happily eat in every day (if you were lucky). Manresa is a slow it down, think about it, special occasion place.  And for a three-star Michelin restaurant, it is wonderfully lacking in pretension.

I’m not going to go through all of the twenty or so courses we had at Manresa, although there wasn’t one I didn’t love. It built slowly, from the pure simplicity of this…  

Two clean, simple bites of perfection.

To this tricky little mouthful. What you can’t see from this photo is that the fried anchovy is in a “puttanesca” sauce made of strawberries.  It turns your head around, and suddenly your mind is playing with you, jumping back and forth between tomatoes and strawberries.  I loved it.

Panna cotta with clams and salmon roe.  The trick here was the way the richness of the custard was edged with the saline tang of seawater vinegar.  Again, you found your mouth vibrating between rich and astringent, a boomarang, an echo.

The loveliest little salad – a walk in the spring woods,

Asparagus. Salmon. Asparagus.

Abalone in a “gumbo” of its liver.  I often find abalone disappointing; this was not.

We had duck. We had lamb. And then we had a slice of beef- the richest, most intense piece of steak I’ve ever experienced. The mineral tang of that meat still haunts my mouth. (And I’m sorry, but my photograph is just so ugly I won’t subject you to it….)

Afterwards there were strawberries, ice cream – and a whole bag of breads to take home and eat in the morning. Eating that toast the whole meal came back to me… a truly wonderful ending.

Then we packed up and headed north to two truly astonishing meals. Not to mention the most spectacular salad I’ve ever eaten.

Stay tuned….

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  • Carolyn Schultz Plakias says:

    And the ‘magical mystery place’ is?
    Next time you’re in Los Gatos if you want a clean, simple and fabulous meal check out Oak & Rye – and be sure to order the Cortez pizza. Angelo is a Bushwick transplant and makes the best pizzas I’ve ever had.

  • admin says:

    I’ll post the place we stayed near Point Reyes on Sunday. Sorry I missed Oak & Rye – next time!

  • Cyndy says:

    I wish tasting menus would go out of style. Call me old-fashioned, but I think they are just teasers–tiny bites of exquisite food that leave you lusting for more. And constant interruption of serving and clearing plates. Give me three or four courses of excellently prepared food and enough of it to satisfy. And then leave me alone to savor it.

    If the chef serves exquisite food, I will go back enough times to try many things on the menu. In sufficient proportions. Two bites of twenty things leaves me frustrated.

  • Mary Daily says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your adventure, Ruth. It looks and sounds wonderful. I’ve enjoyed your writing since I used to fact-check your articles for California Magazine. Remember the story on women chefs — that was such a rarity then. Over the years I’ve reminded Susan Feniger and Evan Kleiman of that story.

  • Bywater has such great food , I can’t get enough and I only live 30 minutes away. I am sorry I missed you in Carmel .

  • Julie Morris says:

    Hi Ruth,
    I am a follower and fan 🙂 Enjoyed your talk and grilled cheese sandwich lesson at the Carmel Sunset Center while you were n California! I have sent you my book, Exit Strategy: A Novel and wondering if you ever received it? (I left a copy for you after your talk in Carmel and mailed a second one – via your agent – to NYC). It’s the story of a large, organic produce company’s reaction to an E.coli outbreak and the people involved. I hope you’ll get a chance to read it, I would love your feedback! You can read the reviews & learn more on my website: Many thanks for all your work to promote good food!

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