Time Traveling the Saddle Peak Lodge
Raise your hand if you would enjoy chowing down on game meat sitting across from what may have been your entrée’s relative mounted to a wall? Let me add, you’ll be doing this in a Michelin starred restaurant choosing between the “New Zealand elk tenderloin” or the “Mesquite grilled Texas antelope.” Does that help you pick up the fork?
For Sunday brunch I took a detour from civilization and trekked to Saddle Peak Lodge in Calabasas. OK, so it’s not really in the middle of nowhere. Still you can’t help sink into the feeling that the drive through the Malibu Canyon is like a slow departure from man. Houses are replaced by wilderness, and Malibu Barbie holding a Starbucks is replaced with an equally intelligent tree. Then when you do finally pull up to the lodge, stride through the lobby with mounted antique firearms behind glass, and into one of the various dining rooms where the majority of the providing light is what’s streaming through the surrounding windows, you’ve completed your time traveling.
I’ve been to Saddle Peak several times in the past, both for brunch and for dinner service. It was pleasant to be back and find that it was still the turn of the century and nothing had been messed with. There was no horridly large television screen or modern art plastered to the walls. Such things would not belong here.
To start our meal we ordered the weekly changed muffin basket of the morning.
Out of the apple cinnamon, the banana pecan, the orange cranberry with a bourbon glaze, and the wild blueberry, the orange cranberry and the wild blueberry were my favorites. Each contained whole berries that burst ever so slightly with every chew. The tastiest part of the apple cinnamon was the streusel top, and the banana pecan was too delicate in both flavors to really stand out.
To accompany the meal we ordered the trio of homemade sausages. Today was (from left to right) wild bore cranberry, duck jalapeno, and pheasant cognac.
Between the three my favorites were the wild bore cranberry and the pheasant cognac. Both had a sweet taste and and a wonderful texture. The duck in the duck jalapeno was took mellow a flavor to be paired with the mildly spicy jalapeno.
Jennifer had the duck confit hash described in the menu as “served on rye toast with tomatoes, shallots, arugula, fines herbs and an egg sunny side up.”
Perhaps my brain had been living to long in a Jewish deli, because I had imagined something different then what finally arrived. Plated beautifully the portion was paltry. The rye toast was more of a toast round, and the duck hash was equal in size to a short stack of poker chips. With the abundance of arugula it came across more as a salad that happened to have some hash. This would have probably been better suited on a tasting menu then as a main course. Presentation aside the duck was over salted and overshadowed by too much hash and underplayed by not enough egg.
My buffalo burger is what a real meal should look like. A specified medium-rare slab of buffalo “with Swiss cheese, avocado, mushrooms, apple wood smoked bacon” and “onion rings” replaced by sweet potato fries.
As burger buns often do this one also fell pray to having an off “bun:burger” ratio, being unnecessarily larger then the contained meat and ingredients within. Thankfully I can deal with too much by peeling away.
I did have some worry that the naturally leaner then beef buffalo would be overcooked. Gratefully my buffalo was grilled exactly to medium-rare. It was juicier then I’m used to experiencing and much less gamey tasting then I’ve come to encounter in the past. This was the first time I’ve ever really appreciated buffalo, and it wasn’t outdone by layers and layers of lettuce leaves or powerful flavors that smother the meat. The swiss was mild and the mushrooms and avocado were sparsely included to really give the buffalo it’s time to graze my palette. The bacon added a nice bit of saltiness and bite to the burger, cooked to just under crisp the way I like it. There was certainly no mayo, ketchup, or mustard to complicate things.
The sweet potato fries that I ordered instead of onion rings made the entire dish a delicious whole. They were fried to crisp thin golden ribbons, salted just enough to yield a strong sweet potato flavor. I’ve had my fair share of sweet potato fries and I’d rank these near the top of my list. Thinking now it’s hard to remember a time I’ve enjoyed them so much.
For dessert we split the brownie “smore.”
The word “smore” was quoted in the menu because the brownie smore is not a smore at all. It was a graham cracker lava cake encased in a light marshmallow crust. When you broke the outer shell into the cake it oozed chocolate. It was a heavily sugared concoction that was a nice finish, albeit not mind blowing close the Sunday brunch. Next time I’ll give the coffee crème brûlée a try.
At Saddle Peak Lodge time moves at a crawl with Sunday brunch being an immersive and welcome addition to anyone’s brunch rotation. It’s hard to decide which I like more, brunch or dinner. Both obviously offer different menus. Brunch is the more affordable option and includes dishes like “game gravy with biscuits” and “eggs benedict.” Dinner leans more heavily on the meat dishes which do appear to be Saddle Peak’s strong suit. Whichever you do choose just prepare to fall into the experience, where the only sense of time is the passing of the sun over the rolling hills.
Saddle Peak Lodge
419 Cold Canyon Rd., Calabasas, CA 91302
SPL is my go-to place for dinners on VERY special occasions -- wedding anniversaries and the combined-birthday dinner (my birthday and my wife's are 6 days apart, so we hit SPL on the day halfway-in-between). Only for VERY special occasions, because dinner is expensive, though always worthwhile. ReelMike is right about the location; if you have not been there before, you are sure to think, in the moments before you actually find the driveway, that you are completely lost and perhaps will never find your way back to civilization again. Those of us who actually live in the Santa Monica Mountains, however (SPL only a 20-minute drive from Topanga Canyon!), know that the area is as civilized as pretty much anywhere else in the Greater LA area, and a lot purtier.
Brunch is, as ReelMike says, a more affordable alternative, and the lodge has a lovely aura on a sunny morning -- particularly the main dining room downstairs, which is dim but not TOO dim (kind of, I don't know, burnished) and very inviting. On a really nice day, brunch on their patio is even better, though the chairs are not quite as comfortable as those big bent-willow ones inside.
What ReelMike didn't mention is the service, which manages to be simultaneously friendly and impeccable. Their servers are professionals who not only know the menu but know how to serve it. And not just the waiters, but everyone else as well. Kudos to management for their hiring skills.
And by the way: for dinner, try the elk tenderloin. Like the best filet mignon you've ever had, but with actual flavor.
You are absolutely correct ozhead. I did neglect to mention that that service at SPL (as I will now call it thanks to you) was totally on-the-ball. Granted it was a slower morning then I'm used to seeing here, but even when I have been here with wines clinking and plates floating by in all directions, they never seem to be fazed into customer forgetfulness.
I really enjoy that no matter how booked they may be I'm never rushed. Meanwhile I've been to other fine dining (and low dining) venues where the waiter or hostess has me feeling like I've camped out too long.