If you think running around Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Diego searching for the absolute best food-and-wine experiences is a fun job, you're totally right. And it's even more fun when you get to do it with friends who also happen to be plugged-in food and wine experts. With their guidance, I got to pair sushi and old Burgundy, foie gras with sparkling rosé, and filet mignon with California Merlot—and that was all in one crazy night. My sidekicks included Peter Birmingham of Norman's restaurant (by all accounts L.A.'s best sommelier), Richard Betts (who flew from his job overseeing the cellar at the Little Nell in Aspen to join my road trip), Central Coast winemaker Morgan Clendenen and one of my favorite chefs on the planet, Trey Foshee of George's at the Cove in La Jolla. The pace was sometimes insane; on my last night in L.A., we stayed so late at Spago (one of the restaurants I adore most) that I didn't check into my hotel until after 1 a.m. But it doesn't matter how much time we'll have to spend recovering—it was worth it.
FRIDAY, 1 P.M.
My first day in L.A. I meet up with Nancy Silverton (founder of La Brea Bakery and co-founder of Campanile restaurant) and the excellent food writer Jonathan Gold. Our destination: Pacific Dining Car, a railroad car turned dinersteak house that's been parked in the same spot for 80 years. This might be the only 24-hour restaurant with a sommelier, Ron Washam, and a 25-page wine list with status French selections like Lynch-Bages. We could have had pancakes and the legendary 1999 Château d'Yquem Sauternes (though the less acidic 2004 Inniskillin Riesling ice wine from Canada's Niagara Peninsula would pair better with the maple syrup). But everyone orders the dry-aged beef, so we dig into a medium-rare New York strip steak cooked exactly right. Washam is out of Nancy's favorite, a Turley Petite Syrah, a wine so deeply purple she calls it a tooth stainer; instead we pick the powerful 2002 Copain Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah from one of California's most promising winemakers.
As we drive around town, Nancy talks about her megarestaurant project with Mario Batali, Osteria del Latte, opening on Melrose Avenue (fingers crossed) in May. It will really be two restaurants: a pizzeria with a wood-burning-oven and a casual osteria with a mozzarella bar.
FRIDAY, 8 P.M.
Norman's, a branch of the legendary Miami restaurant, has an incredible pig roast every Friday. The restaurant starts cooking the pig in the courtyard at noon in a Caja China, a big wooden box, and lets it slow-roast for five hours; the last 45 minutes make the skin absurdly crispy. Nancy and I each get a slab of pork six inches high—at $19, it's a huge deal. Sommelier Peter Birmingham picks us a 2001 Dominio de Tares Cepas Viejas, a red from Bierzo, an up-and-coming region of northern Spain. It's pig-friendly, he says, because it's both delicate and intense—it doesn't overwhelm the white meat, but it stands up to the rich skin. Peter tells me that sommeliers all over L.A. love Spanish wines because the combination of modern winemaking techniques and old-world grape varietals creates bottlings that are the best of both worlds.
I'm staying at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. It's in the midst of a major renovation that will culminate this summer when Wolfgang Puck opens his steak house there (Richard Meier is designing everything down to the serving spoons). It probably goes without saying about a hotel at the foot of Rodeo Drive, but it's deluxe and the lobby is full of models in curlers prepping for an Annie Leibovitz shoot. My white manual-lock rental car is surely the laughing stock of the garage; every other vehicle is black and I can't count all the H2 Hummers. The Regent's main restaurant is The Blvd, which opened in March with an American-Med menu and a clientele that runs the gamut from Larry King to Jay-Z. Since The Blvd gets so packed, and the hotel has just upgraded its room-service menu, I eat in. I have a Spanish hoagie that's literally two feet long and layered with slices of chorizo, serrano ham and Manchego cheese. Room service now also serves flights of wine: I have the Opulence, which includes an '03 Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc (one of Napa's Cab Franc pioneers). Each of the four glasses has a cute little coaster with the wine's name and vintage printed on it to keep everything straight.
SATURDAY, 6 P.M.
Providence was L.A.'s big '05 restaurant opening. Chef Michael Cimarusti came from Water Grill, so the fish-oriented menu is unsurprising. I didn't make a reservation, so my friend Julia Otey (assistant to Lee Hefter, Spago's superstar chef) and I are sitting at the bar. It's a great spot because the enthusiastic bartender, Vincenzo Marianella, who was imported to L.A. from England for his cocktail-making skills, knows a lot about wine, too. He recommends the under-the-radar 2000 Optima Pinot Noir from Sonoma's Russian River Valley, because it's fruity enough to balance the very spicy squid sautéed with piquillo peppers and pig's ears.
SATURDAY, 8:30 P.M.
On to Sona, which has a brilliant French-Asian menu that makes it one of L.A.'s top restaurants. It's both delicious and ridiculously fun. Everyone who works there—from hilarious bartender Andrew Douglas to chef David Myers (an F&W Best New Chef 2003)—is obsessed with surfing, food and wine. Sona's excellent sommelier, Mark Mendoza, has about 2,200 wines on his list, from heavy-hitting Napa and Bordeaux bottles to more esoteric selections like the 2001 Cyan Crianza from Spain's northern Toro region, a big robust red that he pairs with succulent grilled squab. David, who is rock-star good-looking, tells me about his Japanese place, Sokyo, which he'll open this summer with iconic chef Kazunori Nozawa of Sushi Nozawa fame. Then I tour Sona's swanky new wine room. Among the trophy bottles on display is a 1947 Pétrus (a Bordeaux known as the most decadent wine of the century) that sold the other night to a client Mark identifies as a conservative broadcaster. He won't name names, but tells me that Rush Limbaugh, for instance, is a conservative broadcaster.
SATURDAY, 11:30 P.M.
Most L.A. restaurants close at 11. Not the Hungry Cat, chef David Lentz's seafood shack. Peter Birmingham, Julia and I have killer-good burgers with Danish blue cheese, smoky Nueske bacon and avocado; even the lettuce tastes perfect ("L.A. is burgerland," says Peter). All the wines on the minuscule list pair with specific dishes. Our burger wine is the 2003 El Masroig Sola Fred, from Montsant, Spain, which is smooth with intense fruit. Peter hasn't heard of Montsant, but the next morning he texts me this message: "Good morning. Montsant region is old but the name is new (est. 2001) with grapes primarily of Grenache and Carignan." You've got to love Peter.
SUNDAY, 1 P.M.
Another place that scores high on the quirky list is Greenblatt's Deli. It's an old-school deli from the 1920s attached to a outrageously good wine store. There are cases of '85 Clos de Tart and '88 d'Yquem ("One of the most remarkable bottles on the face of the earth," says Peter) and every single one of the great Champagnes. We pick up a chilled NV Pol Roger Brut and grab a booth. Most people have Cabernets and Merlots with their sandwiches, and David Myers recommends Côte-Rôtie, but I think my fat Reuben's crunchy, buttery crust goes beautifully with the Pol Roger bubbles. We drink it out of the deli's gorgeous Spiegelau stemware, and we only have to pay retail for the bottle, plus a measly $5 surcharge.
MONDAY, 6 P.M.
Shibucho is located in a sketchy neighborhood on Beverly Boulevard. When we walk in, the place seems sketchy too. Most sushi places put their most pristine fish front and center, but at Shibucho the display case is lined with curly parsley and a hunk of monkfish liver. At first glance, the wine list looks like a joke: No wine seems to be younger than five years old or cheaper than $100. Peter was skeptical about the wine storage, but the 1986 Morey-Saint-Denis 1er Cru Les Sorbets (a good deal at $150, he said) was appropriately cool, so we stayed and had an awesome time. The chef, Shige Kudo, says he started drinking wine because he doesn't like sake and beer; he thinks old Bordeaux and Burgundies, whose tannins have mellowed over the years, are great with sushi. And he's right. The luxurious toro slices brighten up the fruit in a beautiful old red (a little hit of wasabi enhanced the pairing; soy sauce did not). At the end, Shige presents diners with their wine label wrapped in parchment, just like at a three-star restaurant in Paris.
MONDAY, 8 P.M.
Two-year-old Silverlake Wine is especially groovy on its Blue Mondays, a weekly nighttime tasting. Along with cheese from a nearby shop, the store serves flights of three wines for $12—co-owner Randy Clement, a former assistant sommelier at Campanile, says the choices are random to show off the scope of his wine selection. These tend to be artisanal and inexpensive, such as House Wine from Washington State's Magnificent Wine Company, a full-bodied Bordeaux-style red. The guys at Silverlake are smart: They put glass tops on their wine cabinets so they double as bar tops for the 100-plus people who drop in for the tastings. Soon the place will be less crowded, since Silverlake is doubling its space. Meanwhile, they've just launched Secret Restaurant: Once a month, 50 guests are invited to a secret location for a dinner by a star chef (Nancy Silverton did one) with Silverlake wines. Hope I get an invitation to go one day.
There's a new steak house on every corner in L.A. The Lodge Steakhouse is the best of the bunch, with a luxe log-cabin decor, a greatest-hits steak house menu and a talented sommelier, Caitlin Stansbury. "My specialty is foisting Merlot on unsuspecting customers," she says. "Especially after Sideways, when you had to beat people away from Pinots with a stick." She gives Merlot a 100-point rating for its high-tannin, high-acid affinity for steak; the '02 Waterstone Merlot, which she calls "a big mouthful of luxury from a small boutique winery," is great with a medium-rare bone-in filet mignon (all filet mignon should be served bone-in; it keeps the meat juicy and pumps up the flavor). The obligatory side is a sea saltbaked potato with tiny bowls of butter, smoked bacon and chive sour cream. I fall victim to the problem that afflicts most guests at the Lodge—the overstuffed chairs covered in glove-soft leather are so comfortable that you just can't leave.
MONDAY, 11:30 P.M.
My last stop of the night is Spago, where I meet up with my friend chef Suzanne Goin (of AOC and Lucques fame and an F&W Best New Chef 1999), drink 1999 Soter Rosé (America's best rosé) and eat one of my all-time favorite things, the signature pastrami-cured foie gras terrine. We shut the place down at 1:30 a.m.
The first thing I do when I hit Santa Barbara is meet up with my friends Sara Floyd, a wine importer, and Richard Betts, the sommelier at Little Nell in Aspen. Richard is also winemaker for Betts & Scholl, and I'm in awe of him because he recently sold a case of his Barossa Valley Grenache to the rapper Dr. Dre; the wine is called The Chronique, after Dr. Dre's multiplatinum CD The Chronic.
We head out to the dusty town of Los Alamos to check out Morgan Clendenen's about-to-open tasting room for her fantastic and beautifully complex Cold Heaven Viognier; they've only just put down the giant slab of pine that will be the wine bar. She has some very specific ideas for items to stock her shop: Instead of selling tacky picnic baskets, like so many other wineries, Cold Heaven will offer pashmina and a few key pieces of jewelry. "No scented candles," Morgan says emphatically.
We move on to Foxen winery, a funky shack that looks like it could be a cool bar in the Caribbean. Foxen has some of the juiciest, fruitiest Pinots I've ever tasted, including the 2003 Julia's Vineyard (Robert M. Parker, Jr. called the 2002 "hedonistic and intellectual" and gave it 90 points). They are about to break ground on a new building that will be solar-powered and made from recycled wood, but they've promised not to tear down the shack.
We spend the late afternoon hanging out with Doug Margerum in the cellar of Margerum Wine Company. He's the guy who started Wine Cask in Santa Barbara, a complex that includes an eponymous fancy restaurant, a tasting room for Margerum wines (the winery itself isn't open to the public), a wine bar and a store with great bottles from every corner of the world, especially every corner of France and California; Margerum also sells futures on Santa Barbara county wines, which is a brilliant way to get your hands on them before the rest of the world snaps them up. We taste his superstar 2004 M5, a blend of five Rhône varietals with hints of raspberries and licorice. The stark label has the year spelled out—"two thousand and four"—and each of the 15,000 bottles is numbered.
TUESDAY, 8 P.M.
We have dinner with Doug at the new Wine Cask Los Olivos in Fess Parker's Wine Country Inn. The 1,800-wine list is almost as big as the one at Santa Barbara's Wine Cask. The rule at dinner is that none of the winemakers can order his or her own wines. "Too self-referential; only losers do that," Doug says. The food is on the elegant side, and tasty. Spicy harissa-roasted prawns with seaweed salad are lovely with the 2003 Deux C, a nicely acidic and fragrant Cold Heaven Viognier that Morgan is producing with the great Rhône winemaker Yves Cuilleron. "Spice is good with Viognier," Morgan tells me. Since I ordered the wine, not Morgan, I figure we haven't broken the rule.
WEDNESDAY, 2 P.M.
We head for the Lompoc Ghetto, which people have been saying is the epitome of everything that's great about Santa Barbara's wine scene. Plus, it's one of the few local places not featured in the movie Sideways. It's a huge industrial park in the city of Lompoc, made up of a dozen or so anonymous-looking warehouses that are invariably filled with giant barrels of terrific wines.
Our first stop is Brewer-Clifton, a partnership between two excellent winemakers: Greg Brewer of Melville and Steve Clifton of Palmina. When we walked into the huge Brewer-Clifton space, they were playing the Chemical Brothers on the iPod. Greg is 36, hyperarticulate and obsessed with the ripeness of his grapes. At Brewer-Clifton, he's making six Chardonnays (bright, with fat notes of pear and light oak) and seven Pinots (floral, with beautiful pure fruit). We're the first to taste Greg's newest project, Diatom (or so he tells us). For Diatom, he's making only Chardonnay and he's storing it only in stainless steel, not oak, so it's elegant with lovely minerality.
Then we head to Palmina, one of the two tasting rooms in the wine ghetto that is open to the public. It's a sweet little place that makes you forget you're in an industrial park. The wines are predominantly Italian varietals, including the 2004 Mattia, which is a chocolaty blend of red grapes like Refosco. Mattia is a version of a wine New York restaurateur Joe Bastianich made for Steve's wedding (the two friends are collaborating on a new project, Tritono, a Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina). Another great thing about Palmina's tasting room: There's cheese with the wines, like nutty Vacche Rosse—the ne plus ultra of Parmigiano-Reggiano—brought all the way from the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills.
I'm still hungry when we walk across the alley to meet Sashi Moorman of Stolpman (Stolpman has a public tasting room, but it's in Solvang, not Lompoc). Sashi, who's 34, worked as a line cook at New York City's Oceana before becoming a winemaker, and he has a cool John Lennon vibe. (The big difference between Napa Valley and Central Coast winemakers, they say, is that you see a lot more liberal arts degrees in the Central Coast than U.C. Davis enology degrees.) Sashi has picked up fish tacos from a nearby store; we pull a table out into the parking lot and eat right there. Then we go inside and taste some wine. His 2003 Hilltops Syrah is delicious, with outstanding texture and tannins—Sashi says it's got a "good grip." In addition to the wines he makes for Stolpman, Sashi turns out a couple of his own Syrahs with his assistant Peter Hunken: Piedrasassi, which tends to be elegant and exquisitely dry, and Holus Bolus, which is fruitier, less complex and not too expensive ($25). Sashi makes the Holus Bolus with three partners—that might explain why the label features an eight-armed octopus.
After our tasting, we talk about trends in California winemaking. Sashi thinks that West Coast winemakers will become obsessed with terroir on a micro level—finding the very best regions for particular grapes. "It's pretty well known that Napa is the place to grow Cabernet. With the varietals I work with, Syrah and Pinot, the search for the ultimate site is still on," he says. As Sashi sees it, the all-encompassing trend is to push west, to cooler and cooler sites in California, like Mendocino Valley and Santa Rita Hills; he thinks those grapes have more concentrated flavor and create wines with amazing aroma and finesse.
After running all around the town of Santa Barbara, my posse and I wind up at the beachside bar at the Mission-style Biltmore Four Seasons, where I'm staying. It's everyone's favorite grown-up bar and has excellent margaritas on the rocks (I've learned that when wine pros need a break from wine, they go to tequila) and homemade wasabi-coated peanuts. Then suddenly it's 2 a.m. I've got an early flight back to New York, so I have to go to bed.