USA: West coast

California – San Francisco

Hunan Home’s, 622 Jackson St. Tel: 415 982 2844
Like Chinatowns everywhere, San Francisco’s vibrant and bustling version has a panoply of restaurants from the authentic and well-hidden, to tourist Mecca showcases turning over thousands of tables per night. Though I’d really enjoyed the Great Eastern on previous visits, in search of somewhere different a few minutes Googling seemed to suggest this place would fit the bill. Inside it is somewhat tired and workaday, with some booths down one side and a large ornamental fish tank the only décor of note – save for some awards and plaques proclaiming the restaurant’s credentials, though rather worrying these mostly dated from a decade ago. In truth the food here was neither good nor bad, with some decent battered prawns in a dipping sauce to start, then the best of a couple of shared main dishes being orange peel chicken, with battered chicken pieces in a fairly firey and tangy orange and chilli sauce. With a couple of beers and rice the bill for $45 was certainly good value, but next time I’d probably cross the road to the Great Eastern at number 649. (2010)

McCormick & Kuleto’s, Ghirardelli Square. Tel: 415 929 1730
I could be wrong, but I don’t think there is anything within a mile of Fisherman’s Wharf that isn’t a little bit crass and a big bit touristy. Though you’ll get bowls of chowder and Dungness crab all along the waterfront, at least McCormick & Kuleto’s offers a semblance of style and finer dining. The long, Art Deco dining room has panoramic views of the waterfront. Classic bistro linen and silverware, with plenty of mahogany and polished brass, gives a welcoming and cosmopolitan atmosphere. Fish and seafood are de rigueur, though there is a full range of dishes on offer. My Jumbo scampi shrimp sautéed with white wine, garlic and sweet little chunks of tomato was served on linguini with a twist of lemon and parsley, and was very good. Everyone’s a tourist in this area, and this is about as good as lunch options get. We lingered over a shared apple and walnut upside-down cake and coffee as we watched the endless activity of the waterfront including the extraordinary sight of an airship gliding serenely above the bay and giant Chinese cargo ships creeping under Golden Gate Bridge. (2010)

B44, Catalan Bistro, 44 Belden Pl. Tel: 415 986 6287
My last visit to this restaurant in the heart of the financial district, just a few blocks from Union Square, was most enjoyable so I booked again one unusually steamy hot evening when the outdoor tables in this little alley off Bush and Pine appealed. B44 offers an array of Spanish dishes, with tapas and paella as well as more Californian fusions, but still featuring lots of authentic meats, sausages, cheeses, fish and other Spanish ingredients. We shared a plate of Spanish cheeses, served with quince paste, fig and almond bread and little toasts. These were very good, though disappointingly they were placed on the table with no explanation of the cheeses before the slightly stressed waitress wheeled away to her next order. My main course was absolutely superb, and a highlight of my trip: an inch-thick tranche of sweet, dense Sea bass, pan-fried and topped with a deep tomato and red pepper sauce, studded with slices of roasted garlic and served with braised fennel. The fish was just delicious and every flavour in the dish vivid. For dessert, fresh Mission figs and walnuts came drizzled with a little sweet Port wine reduction and a little millefieulle of filo pastry and creamy ricotta. Including a bottle of good Verdejo from Neiva, the bill for two came in at just over $110, which was good value too. (2010)

Lulu, 816 Folsom St. Tel: 415 495 7810
Lulu is the epitome of the urban and urbane restaurant, bustling and fast-paced and stylishly designed as a central pit surrounded by raised walkways, which include a lively wine bar. The wood-fired oven and rotisserie influences many of the dishes, including excellent pizzas. The food shimmies between California, France and Italy but is always light and contemporary. On my most recent lunch time visit, a table d’hote menu at just $18 was too tempting, with a fine Caesar salad to start, with fresh anchovies in the mix, moving on to a spit-roasted pork sandwich with apple sauce and caramelised onions, served on Focaccia with a mound of truffled French fries. Dessert was included too – a nice, light, easy to digest ice cream parfait with a scoop of fresh berries. With two glasses of Sauvignon blanc and coffee, the bill of $70 seemed very reasonable for the quality of food and relaxed yet quite sophisticated ambience (2013).

First Crush, 101 Cyril Magnin St. Tel: 415 982 7874
This restaurant just a few blocks from Union Square takes its wines pretty seriously, offering a choice of around 10, three-wine flights to accompany your meal, another half dozen flights of three half bottles, plus an extensive list. The space is cosy and dark, with tables either side of the bar that anchors the dining room, and is chic and urban with music and a lively atmosphere. I have to say the food, from a seasonal menu that changes four times per year, was extremely good on this visit. I started with sea scallops, three of them very nicely sauteed with a little carmelization on the outside but succulent juicy flesh, served with a sweet corn and fava bean salsa that was spicy and packed with flavour with a lemon mint vinaigrette. For my main course, pistachio-crusted local halibut came with rainbow carrots (‘heirloom’ carrots and sweetly delicious), sugar snap peas, baby squash and fried shallots. This was a fantastic dish, the fish beautifully cooked and surmounted by the pistachio crust and a mound of super-crisp deep fried shredded onion. With a bottle of the fine Dry Riesling 2008 from Trefethen in the Napa Valley, a total bill of $130 was good value for a most enjoyable meal. (2010)

Great Eastern, 649 Jackson Street, Chinatown. Tel: 415 986 2550
Most of us tourists just end up wandering around Chinatown and plumping for somewhere that “looks right” for dinner. For me, that normally means a busy place, with plenty of Chinese people eating there. Thus, we stumbled into the Great Eastern on our first jet-lagged night of the trip. Good fortune definitely smiled on us this night, as the food was excellent. The large, bustling restaurant is efficiently served by frantically busy waiters, who pour tea, take orders and deliver food with rapid precision. Seafood is big here, and my steamed Pacific oysters in a black bean sauce were plump and delicious, served in a sparky, lime-infused, chilli sauce. Stronger stomachs might examine the giant tanks lining the back wall and opt for the sautéed fresh frog, for example. This was inexpensive and absolutely excellent, and comes with a definite seal of approval. (2007)

Indigo, 687 McAllister Street. Tel: 415 673 9353
This funky and laid-back restaurant has a large downstairs bar that’s cool, dark and atmospheric, contrasting with the airy open-plan dining area on ground level. This was a very good meal served by friendly staff. The menu is a limited choice single sheet of A4 job, and the style is kind of Pacific-rim nouvelle cuisine, though with healthy portions. I had grilled chicken breast with warm puy lentils, asparagus and rocket pesto in a Viognier jus, though the barbecue pork tenderloin on a bed of kale and spiced pecans in a marjoram infused sauce was great too. Winner of a Wine Spectator award for excellence, the wine list looked very interesting and mostly domestic. As we were there for a get-together with a few other wine-nuts however, we arranged a bring-you-own corkage fee. Casual, good value and very good food. Around $90 for two (2007).

Scala’s Bistro, 432 Powell St. Tel: 415 395 8555
A good choice just off Union Square, Scala’s is a huge, high-ceilinged and ornate dining room, that is part of the 19th Century Francis Drake hotel. With the ambience of one of the great Paris bistros like Boffinger, the food is a west-coast take on classic French bistro and Italian cuisine. I had roasted asparagus to start, served with plenty of thin-sliced ham and shaved parmesan. For a main course my Beouf Bourguignon was authentically slow-braised and rich, with plenty of beef, baby onions and lardons of bacon throughout. Service was brisk and friendly, and desserts looked good, though I refused to be tempted. Buzzy and lively, this is a fine city centre choice without hitting the heights of “fine dining”. Around $120 for two. (2011)

Gary Danko, 800 North Point Street. Tel: 415 749 2060
Opened only a few weeks before my visit, this is the restaurant of highly-regarded chef Danko who quit the Ritz Carlton to go it alone. There are two dining rooms with a cocktail bar in the middle. Decor in both is classy with simple artwork and furnishings. The menu offers a mix-and-match approach: half a dozen dishes are listed in each of 5 or 6 sections (appetisers, fish, entrées, salads, etc.) and you choose the number of courses you’d like from as many or as few sections as you like, paying simply by the number of dishes ordered. You may also choose the tasting menu of 7 small courses selected by the chef. The food was extremely good in a lighter, modern style. Best dish for me was probably a grilled lobster tail served with niblets of sweet corn and a fresh tomato salsa but dessert was also gorgeous: a bitter-sweet chocolate soufflé served with hot vanilla and coffee sauces. The wine list is extensive and pretty evenly split between domestic and European wines, particularly French. Prices are on the high side for both food and wine, but its a great “special night out” spot and the standard is very high. Around $300 for two including tip (2005).

North Beach Pizza, Columbus Avenue
A real neighbourhood favourite and a bit of an institution. North Beach’s pizza’s are superb and huge – a regular is enough for two hungry tourists in my opinion! The place isn’t fancy, but the staff are very cheery and welcoming and the pizza toppings fresh and abundant. Cheap, at about $40 for two including beers or wine (2005).

California – Napa & Sonoma

Napa: The French Laundry, 6640 Washington St, Yountville. Tel: 707 944 2380
The French Laundry is widely regarded as one of the best restaurants on the planet. As is the way of these things, a mythology has built up around the French Laundry – it certainly need advance planning to secure a table any night of the week. The French Laundry is a beautiful, timber-clad building dating from 1900. Behind a high hedge lies a secret garden where, cocooned in the warmth of a Californian evening, we sipped Billecart-Salmon whilst perusing the menu and wine list. The dining room is attractively chic, yet simple, and the mood immediately relaxing. Whilst many foodie temples can be up-tight and fussy, the French Laundry has the hallmark of a restaurant that feels comfortable in its skin. There are three menus: a short a la carte menu, and two nine course tasting menus, one suitable for vegetarians and one for meat eaters. Our table of four settled on the latter. At $135 this is comparable to three-star places in Paris. The meal unfolded over the next four and a half hours. Highlights included “Oysters and Pearls” – the most delicate Bagaduce oysters and a generous scoop of salty Iranian caviar in a frothy sabayon, textured with creamy pearl tapioca. This was eaten with a mother of pearl teaspoon, a witty, yet elegant touch that reflected the entire menu: whilst the kitchen here may be deadly serious about its business, eating is clearly meant to be fun. “Macaroni and Cheese” turned out to be butter-poached lobster in a broth of tiny Orzo pasta, enriched with Marscapone. “Pyrenées Brebis” was a wonderful little palate-cleansing dish of sautéed globe artichokes in a preserved Meyer lemon vinaigrette. This was a meal constructed with love and intelligence, so that flavours and textures ebbed and flowed with a genuine rhythm. The meal concluded with a couple of desserts, including a sumptuous Valhrona chocolate tower, built from an aristocratic brownie, mousse, ganache and sorbet.The wine list is excellent, and some well-priced gems can be found if you look hard enough: we drank Knoll’s terrific Grüner-Veltliner Smaragd for $80 (about £50). A bottle of Littorai Californian Pinot Noir and a half of Baumard’s Quarts de Chaume brought the total bill in at something over $1,200 (2011).

Napa: Bouchon, 6534 Washington St, Yountville. Tel: 707 944 8037
Just a block or two along from The French Laundry, Bouchon is chef Tom Keller’s second restaurant in town, run in partnership with chef Jeffrey Cerciello. It is a lovely old building, with a small outside terrace. We ate in the light, airy dining room, which has a very French country feel. The menu is printed on a sheet of brown wrapping-paper, that is folded round your napkin. For lunch we decided to have salad and dessert. Both were really very good indeed, and came in ample portions for a satisfying lunch. My salad came with a goat’s cheese tart, and my lemon tart was very precise and restrained, without too much butter or sugar, and plenty of citrus bite. With a bottle of Napa Sauvignon Blanc and coffees, the bill came in around $80 for two. A full range of more substantial main dishes is served too, and the menu is available all day. An excellent choice. (2009)

Napa: Mustards Grill, 7399 St Helena Hwy. Tel: 707 944 2424
No full review for Mustards, as it is about five year’s since I ate there. I thought it was worth listing because I have very happy memories of it, and it is still one of the “must do” places in the valley. Casual, low-key and friendly, it is a regular hang-out for the winemaking community, has big portions of simple but very good and inventive food, and is both atmospheric and “genuine”, having been around for more than 20 years. (last visited 1998).

Sonoma: Dry Creek Kitchen, Healdsburg. Tel: 707 431 0330
Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen is the restaurant of the Hotel Healdsburg, a wonderfully chic hotel in the centre of a wonderfully chic town. This boutique hotel has terrific rooms, with oversized, overstuffed beds, striking modern design and spa bathrooms with walk-in wet room showers and six foot hot tubs. The restaurant is similarly modern in design, with plenty of space between tables and high quality furnishings and fittings. The food is the epitomé of Californian cuisine, with the emphasis on local ingredients, fusion elements, realy bold flavours and a very light touch with sauces and dressings. My starter of locally-grown organic rocket, grilled Sonoma peaches and caramelised walnuts was just brilliant. Served with a warm, wild berry honey dressing, it was both highly imaginative and really nicely composed. My main course filet mignon of Angus steak came with a pungent garlic potato mash and grilled vegetables, including wild mushrooms, asparagus and baby carrots. A coffee and chocolate dessert platter included a smoothly-textured coffee brulée, a little tower of chocolate ice-cream and brownies, and cocoa-nibbed shortbread biscuit. The wine list is entirely composed of Sonoma wines, with a remarkable choice available from the wine library. Very expensive, but excellent. (2005)

Modesto: Dewz, 1101 I Street. Tel: 209 549 1101
Modesto is a large industrial town in the central valley, between San Francisco and Yosemite, and HQ of the giant Gallo corporation. Dewz is a bustling, noisy bar downstairs and restaurant upstairs serving good fresh food in ample portions. Deep fried calamari came with two dips, one a piquant chilli, the other an aioli-style sauce. My “Fricasee” was basically a creamy chicken stroganof-style dish, with lots of caramelised onions and an arborio rice risotto. The wine list at Dewz is the real highlight: the selection from around the world is outstanding, with regions like Alsace and Germany well represented, which is a real bonus for a casual place like this. Moderate prices. (2005)

Modesto: Tresetti, 927 11th Street. Tel: 209 572 2990
This was probably my best meal in Modesto, in the long-established downtown restaurant, bar and wine store. In fact, the wine shop is excellent, and anything purchased there can be drunk in the restaurant for a very modest corkage charge, which is a bonus. On a Friday evening the bar was jumping and the service in the restaurant towards the end of the meal became a little stretched, but that didn’t take the gloss off of really good food. My starter of roasted garlic and brie was delicious; whole roast bulbs of garlic and melting cheese to spread on really good bread. My main course was a highlight: grilled pork chops with a grain mustard dressing served with a Californian fig chutney. A low-key but quite seriously foodie place, but not the venue for a quite dinner a deux on a weekend. Moderate to expensive. (2005)

Modesto: Galletto, 1101 J Street. Tel: 209 523 4500
A converted bank, Galleto is immediately impressive with its high-ceilinged main dining room with atrium. There is also a broad shaded terrace next door, and downstairs, the private dining room which is actually the old vault of the bank, half of which is a temperature-controlled wine cellar visible through a full length glass wall (visits by arrangement). On my lunch-time visit, I enjoyed food that was good, served by friendly staff in a very striking setting. Fritto Misto had lots of good quality fish, calamari and fennel, served with a spicy aioli. My Kobe Steak salad was competent, though a touch lacking in flavour. Still, Galletto offers a real sense of occasion and was most enjoyable. Moderate to expensive. (2005)

California – Los Angeles

Pasadena: Il Fornaio Cucina Italiano, 24 West Union St. Tel: 626 683 9797
The old town of Pasadena is one of my favourite spots: full of characterful buildings, quirky non-chain stores and restaurants and a great place for strolling: everyone walks here and there’s a thriving café culture making it feel distinctly European. Il Fornaio is a small local chain of Italian restaurants, bakeries and gelatorias. The busy restaurant with its open kitchen was rather noisy, so I was delighted to secure a table on the outside terrace which faces a lovely square full of upmarket shops and restaurants. Gas burners took the chill off the air perfectly once the sun had gone down. Lovely sourdough bread and walnut rolls were served with olive oil and balsamic vinegar whilst we looked through the extensive menu and wine list, both featuring lots of seasonal specials. A salad Caprese was competent with pretty good ingredients: thick slices of vine-ripened beef tomato with fresh basil and a quality mozzarella. I then chose Cappellacci di Zucca – fresh raviolis stuffed with sweet butternut squash and walnuts, in a tomato and brown butter sauce with plenty of parmesan and crisp-fried sage leaves. To finish, gelati misti was delicious – vanilla, chocolate and peach on this occasion. With a bottle of Bonny Doon’s Pacific Rim Dry Riesling 2007 from Columbia Washington (beautiful stuff, sweet edged but waxy textured and pin-sharp) the bill for two came in at Just $95, or around £60 at time of writing. (2010)

Pasadena: Huntington Library tearoom
This isn’t really about the food of course, it is about the stunning Huntington library, museum and gardens which is my favourite destination in the Los Angeles area. The library and art collection are fascinating and will soak up hours of your time, but it is the endless miles of immaculate garden that are just breathtaking. The Huntington moves through various themes, for example a gorgeous Japanese garden featuring lakes filled with giant carp and turtles, crossed by endless bridges and dotted with pagodas, contemplative Zen gardens and a Bonsai park. After enjoying several of the park’s hundreds of acres, one of the essential rituals of a visit here is afternoon tea (be sure to book). Most of it is buffet style, but don’t let that put you off: the finger sandwiches, cakes, pastries, salads and desserts are constantly kept fresh and in impeccable order, and the quality is superb (carrot and cream cheese sandwiches on sun-dried tomato bread were my favourite). Your waiter will bring bottomless jugs of ice-tea or lemonade and a selection of terrific teas and coffees, as well as an overflowing basket of freshly-baked scones. It is not cheap with entry to the garden costing $20 per person and afternoon tea another $30 per person, but what a lovely day out. (2010)

Pasadena: Ruth’s Chris, 369 East Colorado Blvd CA 91101. Tel: 626 583 8122
Ruth’s Chris is at once the most, and the least, authentic restaurant experience in America. Any visitor to the US will have seen its perfect steaks, cut as thick as your arm, sizzling from billboards, newspaper ads and the sides of busses. This is a large chain that offers an ersatz, homogenized, shrink-wrapped version of the all American steakhouse, complete with by-the-yard wood panelling and veneer of ‘sophistication’. Ruth’s Chris appeals to groups celebrating birthdays, young men trying to impress their dates and middle-managers hoping to woo their clients. In truth, Ruth’s Chris is just Sizzler for the aspirational: what it actually delivers on the plate is of secondary importance. It might be a little cruel, some would say snobbish to say it, but it is the preferred blow-out destination only for people who really know or care little about food. They are there for the quintessential American steakhouse experience with the clubby, dimly lit atmosphere, thronging cocktail bar and bustle of waiters bearing trays of sizzling steak high above their heads. I started with a good Caesar salad that had plenty of crunch and sharp flavour, before moving on to a fillet steak. The steak was excellent, juicy and tasty, and cooked very well. All accompaniments are priced separately, and we chose tempura onion rings (very good), French fries that were soggy and tasteless and the most bizarre dish ever: sweet potato bake with a pecan crust (this was quite simply a dessert, complete with sweet crumble topping which would have been delicious with a scoop of vanilla ice cream but which was absolutely hideous with the steak). Along with a bottle of Franciscan Estate’s ‘Magnificat’ at $80, the bill topped $220. A lot of money for a decent salad and steak, but it is what a certain demographic wants, and boy does Ruth’s Chris make the formula work. (2010)

Malibu: Malibu Beach Inn, 22878 Pacific Coast Highway. Tel: 310 456 6444
This upscale hotel sits directly on the beach in Malibu, just 20 miles or so west of downtown LA but a world away. We booked for lunch en route for a late evening flight from LAX, wanting somewhere cool and a bit sophisticated where we could while away a couple of relaxing hours with views of the ocean. On a day when downtown LA registered its highest temperature ever recorded (113F) the temperature at the beach was 95F, but a table on the terrace under a shady parasol and with a slight sea breeze was dreamy, the waves of the Pacific crashing, literally, beneath you feet. This is a chic, contemporary and stylish boutique hotel, the terrace boasting comfy and classy wicker tables and chairs, with all the crystal and silverware paraphanelia of fine dining. We started by sharing a burrata, mozzarella and tomato salad Caprese which was absolutely delicious: the meltingly soft buratta cheese drizzled with a sweet but piquant lemon oil, and the heirloom tomatoes ripe and juicy, dressed with plenty of torn basil and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. For my main I chose a fresh Maine lobster club sandwich, which came on ciabatta fully loaded with sweet-fleshed and moist lobster, bacon, avocado and rocket and a mound of crunchy French fries. The food is elegant but still served in sizeable portions, so I left room for dessert: a ricotta cheesecake served with baby figs and a drizzle of strawberry dressing which was light but dense, and very delicious with a good double espresso. As you might expect, lunch here is not cheap. With a glass of wine each, the bill of $150 seemed like decent value for a two hour lunch in a phenomenal setting with very good food and friendly, professional service. (2010)

2117 Sawtelle, Santa Monica, Los Angeles
This is a nice Japanese-influenced fusion restaurant sited, like lots of good restaurants in Los Angeles, in a mini shopping mall. We dined on the outdoor terrace with evening temperatures in the 70’s and enjoyed a great meal. An assortment of dim sum-like starters were tasty and whetted the appetite. Daily specials are chalked up on a board. I had a beautifully cooked lamb dish that came delicately flavoured and spiced. The tarte-tatin was gorgeous – especially with Baumard’s sensational Coteaux du Layon 1990 (unfortunately not from the list, as this was another bring your own bottle get-together of wine-nuts). Around $140 for two (2003).

Shiro, 1505 Mission Street, Pasadena. Tel: 626 799 4774
Shiro is now a bit of a legend – readers of Gourmet magazine voted it 2nd best restaurant in Los Angeles a few years ago. Chef Hideo Yamashiro serves a distinctive blend of fusion cuisine, majoring in fish dishes that are as fresh and mouth-watering as they are inventive and surprising. My tempura of halibut had two perfect oblongs of thickly-cut fish on a delicious sweet and spicy sauce. The little side dish of a tiny potato dauphinoise and some al dente vegetables was playful and delicious. Wines are well-chosen, biased towards whites and the US. Decor is simple, prices for food and wine moderate. About $150 for two (2003).

California – Santa Barbara

Julienne, 138 East Canon Perdido. Tel: 805-845-6488
Chef/Proprietor Justin West and partner Emma West opened Julienne in 2008. It is a small and intimate restaurant with open kitchen and a bustling atmosphere, and some serious food with ingredients sourced locally, including fish and seafood landed at the harbour and meat and game raised on local ranches. The space is casual, with wooden floors, simply-dressed tables and the walls enlivened by bold abstract paintings. To start I was tempted by Foie Gras Torchon to be served with strawberry-balsamic preserves, but took a more moderate option, with a selection of crisp lettuces, roasted golden beets and nibbed pistachios, served with a creamy and tangy gorgonzola dressing. It was very good indeed: simple, fresh and tasty. To follow, pan-seared halibut was sensationally good: browned and buttery on the outside with juicy and perfectly cooked flesh. It was served in a bowl on a bed of beans and pulses from the Ojai Valley, red onion and broccoli in a light broth, the only other ingredient a slick of chermoula, a spicy and lemony North African sauce that added delicious tang to the dish without masking the delicate flavour of the fish. With a bottle of Carballal’s ‘Sete Cepas’ Albariño from Rias Baixas at $32, the two course meal for two came in at $106. (2010)

Pierre Lafond Wine Bistro, 516 State Street. Tel: 805 962 1455
This bright, modern bistro with shady sidewalk terrace is right in the main shopping centre of Santa Barbara and close to the city’s historic attractions and makes a great stopping point for lunch. It has an extensive local wine selection, offers food-matching wine flights and tastings, and very good modern Californian cuisine. We shared some homemade hummus with garlic flat bread to start with, which came with a deliciously sweet and sour pickled carrot salad. For my main I chose a roasted beets and farro (barley) salad. Large slices of golden and red beets were surmounted by a tower of beetroot, rocket, goat’s cheese and red onion, bound up in a tangy vinaigrette. This was fresh and delicious, albeit verging on the beetroot overload. We enjoyed a couple of glasses of Santa Barbara Winery Riesling with lunch ($10 per glass) and finished off with very good coffee and sharing a plum cobbler that was packed with diced fruit and topped with crème fraiche ice cream. A total bill of $67 for two made for an excellent and very good value lunch, with charming service too. (2010)

Jane, 1331 State Street. Tel: 805 962 1311
Jane is a comfortable, casual restaurant that sits amongst a cluster of Santa Barbara’s best foodie places high on State Street, a few blocks north of the main shopping centre. A lofty ceiling accommodates two mezzanine dining areas, and though some reports had referred to the place being excessively noisy with its bar, open kitchen and seating for around 60 or 70, it was only half full on my visit and relatively calm and relaxed. Pleasant service saw us seated with plenty of iced water and good bread, and soon my first course of coconut shrimp. Three large shrimp, crusted in coconut had been deep fried and were delicious, served with a mild curry dipping sauce, slices of mango and a mound of spinach salad dressed with a tangy, creamy dressing. The shrimp were perhaps slightly overcooked, but really the whole dish was successful and delicious. My main course of chicken piccata (a sauce of butter, lemon and capers) was tasty if slightly greasy overall, the accompanying fettucine also quite oily and a side of sauteed courgette adding to the slightly too slippery nature of the dish. A bottle of Pinot Blanc from Schlumberger in Alsace ($26) was a second choice as the Qupe Chardonnay I’d ordered was out, and along with an ice cream sundae and coffees the bill for two of $100 was pretty good value. I don’t want to do Jane a disservice, but I got the impression this kitchen was run by a cook, nor a chef, and the dishes were a more sophisticated take on standard diner fare that fine cuisine, but it was an enjoyable experience overall. (2010)

Downey’s, 1305 State St. Tel: 805 966 5006
Downey’s has the reputation of being one of Santa Barbara’s best ‘fine dining’ restaurants, and yet at the same time being rather inconsistent and old-fashioned. I have to say that after my visit I understood this dichotomy perfectly. The atmosphere is quite unlike other Santa Barbara restaurants which tend towards an informal and rather noisy, even boisterous ambience, but genteel hostess Liz Downey oversees a slightly hushed atmosphere in this room with its opulently-dressed tables, which immediately sets expectations of quite serious food. I started with the house-cured Prosciutto with Mission figs and roasted walnuts. The meat was delicious, and the salad sweet and packed with flavour in a very nice, simple and (for Californian standards) small portion. For my main course I chose local halibut, served with seasonal vegetables and parsley potatoes. The fish was competently cooked but not as good as the buttery, seared, but moist rendition at Julienne a few nights before, and the veg and potatoes (which are served with almost everything on the menu) nothing to write home about. Desserts are taken from a trolley that is wheeled around the room, and these were good: a raspberry and fresh cream millefeuille was delicious. With two glasses of Champagne and a half bottle of Talley Vineyards Chardonnay, the bill of $140 was acceptable. (2010)

Brophy Brothers, Santa Barbara Harbour. Tel: 805 966 4418
A real institution down on the harbour, Brophy Bros. is queued out the door even on week nights, when places round about it are half empty. Add your name to the list, then have a glass of wine or a micro-brew down in the bar while you wait for a table. The dining room on the first floor has a bustling, noisy, party-time atmosphere, and serves big portions of fresh, well-cooked fish and seafood to happy visitors and locals. An essential component of a visit here. Around £70 for two. (2007)

La Super Rica, 622 North Milpas. Tel: 805 963 2840
This restaurant is basically a small shack with a tented seating area attached, serving authentic Mexican food at rock-bottom prices. Isidoro Gonzalez established his family-run food stand in 1980. Place your order at the counter as you enter, from the blackboard of a dozen or so daily specials. Most plates are tapas-sized, so two or three per person is about right. Beautifully soft flour tortillas emerge from the kitchen in a constant stream, and your food is served in paper plates along with beers or authentic soft drinks made from unusual ingredients like hibiscus or tamarind. The home-made salsas are sensational, and Pechuga Suizo, (sliced chicken and cheese grilled inside soft tortillas) was one of my favourites. You’ll be in and out in half an hour, but great food and great fun. $20 per person. (2007)

Pane e Vino, 1482 East Valley Road, Santa Barbara. Tel: 805 969 9274
Santa Barbara is well-blessed with good restaurants. This Italian eatery was the venue for yet another off-line dinner. We sat on the terrace, where large heaters took the chill off the evening air. The food was quite traditional in style with antipasti, soups and salads to start, then Italian soulfood classics like braised veal shank or hearty pastas. The standard is very high, the bread and olive oil top-notch, and the service both efficient and informal. Around $200 for two (2007).

Aja, 1812 Cliff Drive, Santa Barbara. Tel: 805 962 0337
This one’s off the beaten track and was discovered only with some local insider info. A tiny Japanese-influenced fusion restaurant which is very informal and unpretentious. The food is the reason you’re here, and that is very good: the corn fritter appetisers were yummy: little plump dumplings with a sweet and sour dipping sauce. The sushi is well worth trying. Fish is a speciality, and my Sea Bass was spot-on in terms of cooking, seasoning and freshness. There’s also an intriguing selection of micro-brews (2003).

California – other

San Luis Obispo: Apple Farm, 2015 Monterey Street. Tel: 805 544 2040
Oh my God, how can places like this survive? Arriving late on a Sunday evening for a one night pit-stop in San Luis Obispo we checked in to the basic but pleasant La Cuesta Inn and asked where would be good to eat and, more importantly, open at 9:15 on a Sunday. The clerk suggested this place immediately opposite. It was just horrible from start of finish: a massacred Caesar salad with synthetic-tasting cheese followed by the most singly disgusting dish ever to have disgraced a plate: take a completely dry chicken breast and stuff with slices of processed ham. Wrap in puff pastry and put in freezer. Several months later, remove and microwave until the chicken has the flavour, texture and aroma of rubber and the pastry is as soggy and chewy as a new puppy’s slipper. Smother with a vomit-like sauce, throw onto a plate from several feet away and voila: you too could be a chef at the Apple Farm. $50 for two. (2010)

Carmel: Anton & Michel, Carmel Plaza. Tel: 831 624 2406
Anton & Michel is Carmel’s poshest restaurant in a the determindly upmarket resort of Carmel-by-the-Sea, an hour or so south of San Francisco. Open Daily for lunch and dinner, it is a very elegant dining room, and a little bit old-fashioned. It is very “proper” with its flower displays and gleaming silverware, and windows overlooking a lovely courtyard and large fountain. The food here is traditional French-style, with Châteaubriand and rack of lamb being shared by candle-lit couples dining on special ocassions, and lots of flambéing at the table. My breast and confit of duck was very tasty, and came in an ample portion, served with a cassoulet of white beans and truffle oil. This was a good dish, and was washed down nicely by a bottle of Grich Hills Cabernet Sauvignon from the extensive and Wine Spectator award-winning list, which has several vintages of Latour, Lafite and Yquem, as well as an extensive domestic selection. If candles, flowers and a bit of special-ocassion ceremony are your thing, then Anton & Michel does it very well. (2005)

Edgardo’s, 494 North Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. Tel: 760 320 3558
Edgardo serves up authentic coastal Mexican food that was an eye-opener for me. Here are fish, chicken and pork dishes with terrific flavour and texture, made using traditional and time-consuming techniques. The Cochinita Pibil is baby pork that has been wrapped in banana peel and slow roasted so that it falls apart as soon as your fork approaches. Service was a bit under pressure, but charming. $60 for two with a pitcher of beer (2003).

Oregon – Willamette Valley

Newberg: The Painted Lady, 201 S. College, OR 97132. Tel: 00 1 503 538 3850
Undoubtedly the Willamette’s most sophisticated food, served in a charming Victorian ‘Painted Lady’ house in one of several, equally lovely rooms. The wine list is huge, service friendly, and the food throws the spotlight firmly on local, seasonal produce. Your waiter or waitress will describe the provenance of every ingredient as part of the total gourmet experience. Expensive. (2008)

Dundee: The Dundee Bistro, 100-A SW Seventh Street, OR 97115. Tel: 00 1 503 554 1650
A casual and buzzing bistro and adjoining wine bar, this place has the same owners as the Ponzi winery, but there’s a full, extensive wine list from across Oregon with healthy portions of high-quality comfort food. Local produce features extensively. Moderate. (2008)

McMinnville: Nick’s Italian Café, 521 NE 3rd St, OR 97128. 00 1 503 434 4471
An institution in the pretty old town of McMinville, almost everyone opts for the five-course, fixed-priced menu, though a la carte is also available. Solid, sometimes inventive fare, based loosely on Italian cuisine. The place will be full of winemakers enjoying the buzzy atmosphere and good food. Moderate. (2008)


Picasso, The Bellagio hotel, Las Vegas. Tel: 866 259 7111
One of my best dining experiences in North America without a doubt, the Picasso is – suitablely for the strip’s most upmarket hotel – over the top with no less than 13 original Picasso oil paintings adorning the walls. Ask for a table with views to the spectacular Bellagio fountains. Little amuses were served that included chilled melon soup and foie gras toasts, before I started on the tasting menu. A Main lobster and citrus salad was outstanding, the poached lobster sweet and succulent and the mixed citrus fresh and tangy. Seared scallops on asparagus with hollondaise was perfectly cooked and seasoned, before the second foie gras encounter, this time and delectable slice sautéed with crushed walnuts and honeyed figs. For my main course I chose roast loin of lamb with truffle mashed potatoes, again beautifully cooked, and a refined ratatouille and red wine jus gave it the depth to match to a bottle of Stoneyridge ‘Larose’ from Waiheke Island – at a surprisingly affordable price for one of New Zealand’s top wines. A small procession of puddings included chocolate fondant with cassis ice cream, peanut butter jelly and caramleised honeyed figs with an ice cream parfait. We washed this lot down with Royal Tokaji ‘5 Putts’, again at a reasonable price. Espresso and petit fours rounded off a superb meal. Very expensive. (2007)

Lotus of Siam, 953 E. Sahara Ave, Las Vegas. Tel: 702 735 3033
The Lotus of Siam is one part of the Las Vegas scene that 99.999% of visitors will never see. This small, plain, simply-decorated Thai restaurant sits in an anonymous shopping mall well away from the Strip, yet Gourmet magazine have called it “the best Thai restaurant in North America”. There are clues that this is something special as soon as you enter: awards from Wine Spectator on the wall, stacks of Dom Perignon and Krug behind the small bar. Our extremely friendly waiter (the Lotus is family-run) looked after us really well, suggesting and describing dishes with enthusiasm. Every ingredient here is fresh: the owners drive to Los Angeles twice a week for herbs and other provisions, and Northern Thai dishes are their speciality. These can be super-spicy, so each is rated from 1 to 10 on the fiery scale, and our dishes in the 2-3 range (as recommended by the waiter) were hot enough for me. Everything here was good, from the ubiquitous Tom Kah Kai coconut and prawn soup, to much more unusual dishes like crispy fried rice with sour sausages, and a pungent green chilli, peanut and lime sauce. We washed this down with some Thai beer, and stumbled out into the desert only around $30 per head poorer. (2007).