Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Adam Horton @ Saddle Peak Lodge: Experience it while you can

Its not often that my expectations are wildly exceeded or that I have an outstanding meal from a chef who not many of the Los Angeles food cognoscenti are speaking about, but both happened at my meal last week at the Saddle Peak Lodge cooked by Executive Chef Adam Horton, who at only 28 is turning out sophisticated and assured cuisine, dish after dish.  Saddle Peak Lodge is located in the Malibu Hills, between Pepperdine and Calabasas and is an expensive restaurant.  I suspect that its location far from the Westside, the price point, and its reputation as a wild-game-focused restaurant have all conspired to keep Adam's talent a secret from many.

Go now!  Adam shared with us the news that he is leaving the restaurant as of Valentine's Day, only a month away.  After a sojourn to travel, he will be assuming the chef position at a restaurant on Ventura Blvd in Studio City.  So the bad news is there remains only weeks to try his food at Saddle Peak Lodge; but the good news is that his new restaurant's location will be much more convenient to many diners.  As it is impossible to predict what he will be serving at his new restaurant, I highly suggest that you  get yourself over to the Malibu Hills ASAP to enjoy an amazing feast.

I was joined at the meal by DJ Jewelz, Olivejina and Kung Food Panda.  Panda has an excellent writeup and way better photos than me of this meal as I did not use flash, you can see it here.  As he noted this was not a media dinner.  We arranged in advance for a tasting menu so when we sat down, we were off to the races.  The meal began with a house-made brioche roll.  It was warm, flavorful and had a great texture.  A good start to the meal.

The amuse bouche was a roasted tomato soup in a small cup.  The soup was hot, rich and perfect to combat any lingering chill from outside.  If only we had a crouton or perhaps a very large bowl of soup, it would have been perfect.  Some may scoff at tomato soup in winter, but I think a hot tomato soup is a treat to look forward to in the cold months.

Another pleasant surprise were the cocktails by the bartender/mixologist Chris Barragan.  A traditional formal restaurant specializing in wild game and decorated like a hunting lodge is not where I expect to find innovative cocktails, but Barragan's En Fleur (above) was a refreshing and tasty.  It included Hendrick’s Gin, St Germaine, Sauvignon Blanc, fresh lime juice, and thyme served on the rocks.

Egg caviar with oscetra caviar, egg, dill yogurt espuma and house smoked salmon served in an egg shell.  I am a fan of eggs and roe and this was a delicious flavor combination served attractively.  Many others have served egg dishes in a shell, but Horton made this version his own with the combination of the eggs with the yogurt and salmon.

Albacore Sashimi: with cauliflower, green apple, almond, soy, mirin, ras el hanout.  The albacore (click here to see Panda's pic) was light and the sauces, especially the mirin, complemented the delicate raw fish.  The apple was crunchy and again provided a textural counterpoint to the fish.

Crispy skin wild striped bass with variations of salsify and brussel sprouts.  The fish lived up to its billing and the skin was indeed crispy, which made the dish.  Texture is often underutilized, but here Horton let it shine.  The chef's skill with fish as well as the signature game was evident.

Guinea hen "galantine" with wild mushroom agnolotti and shaved perigord truffles.  The guinea hen lay on top of the agnolotti and a generous shaving of truffles topped off the dish.  This dish had many layers, both of flavor and of components.  The agnolotti were great flavor packets and cooked well and on top of them the galantine was beautiful.  Horton has a way with game birds.  The truffles were gilding the lily but I didn't mind as these truffles actually had that wonderful earthy truffle smell and taste.

Wood grilled Muscovy duck breast with persimmon, sweet soy, yuzu, ash and flowers.  This dish was very artistic, and as some of my fellow diners pointed out, would have fit in well at a Wolvesmouth dinner.  The visuals on this dish were stunning, but more importantly the duck tasted wonderfully rich.  The ash was interesting touch, though one that wasn't really essential to the dish.

Seared foie gras with a sherry maple sauce, brioche and a study of organic apples.  (Unpictured)  The foie gras was a decadent way to continue the meal after the duck, but as a fan of foie, I don't mind turning up the decadence meter an extra notch every now and then.  The foie, brioche and apple combined for a mid meal dessert that unified together the three flavor components.  The acidity of the apple prevented the dish from being too sweet.  The foie was just unctuous.

Texas Antelope with cauliflower, truffle, pear and foie gras.  The antelope was cooked a beautiful medium rare and served with foie gras on top with more of those fragrant truffle shavings.  The antelope taste was reminiscent of venison.  Again the sauces were streaked artfully across the plate; Horton's food is visually appealing as well as delicious.

New Zealand Elk tenderloin with celery root, sweet potato, arugula, currants and hunter sauce.  The key to the elk was how soft and tender it was.  We used regular knives, not steak knives with this course and we could have probably just used forks.  The meet was sweet and tender and covered by crispy potato shavings.

Intermezzo: Lemon meringue ice cream, cherries and ginger.  For the dessert courses Horton passed the baton to Pastry Chef Kasra Ajdari.  The desserts while good were not as stellar as the savory courses.  The first of the dessert courses was labeled "Intermezzo" and the lemon meringue ice cream was very light and had the nice sharp citrus acid of lemons.

Flan abstract: Bell pepper croquante, flan, spiced yogurt and pepitas.  At this point I was full and waving the white napkin of surrender (literally).  The bell pepper crystalized was cool looking but aside from adding a visual component, none of us felt it added to the flavor of the dish.  Something simpler might have been a better way to ease us out of the meal.

Chocolate: Crustless chocolate torte, white chocolate namelaka, cocoa nib brittle and chocolate sorbet.  This was enjoyable but I only had room for a bite or two.  I am not a fan of "white chocolate" but otherwise this was a good dish.  Memo to pastry chefs: when you have adventurous eaters, you don't have to put the obligatory chocolate dessert on the menu.

This was an A dinner overall and well worth the drive.  As Horton will only be at the Lodge for four more weeks consider his remaining tenure there to be a one month pop-up, a la LudoBites, and get it while you can.  For Horton 2.0 will be unlike his 1.0 at Saddle Peak Lodge and it would be a shame to miss out on food this precise and food with such strong flavors and soul.  There is real personality in Horton's cooking and it was a pleasure to get to taste so many of his dishes.  This was my third dinner in three months that was outstanding, along with Grant Achatz's Absolut dinner and Craig Thorton's Wolvesmouth dinner.  If Horton is cooking like this now, it will be exciting to see him continue to develop.  I'm glad that he is staying in Los Angeles for his next venture.  So what are you waiting for?  Book that table now.

Saddle Peak Lodge: 419 Cold Canyon Road, Calabasas. (Malibu/Calabasas hills).  Phone: (818) 222-3888.  Website: http://www.saddlepeaklodge.com/

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