A Diamond In The Forest

The Mountain Idyllwild, CA 11.March.10
eat: 10-hour Slow Cooked Short Ribs, Roasted Garlic Sautéed Kale, Banana Walnut Cake

My interest in food began as a byproduct of my love for travel. Each place I visited was memorialized by taste: thick dollops of clotted cream in Oxford, greasy, cheesy poutine in Montreal, that transcendent, ruby red tomato in Firenze that put the pale, supermarket versions to shame. Nowadays, when I head out of town, I endlessly forage the internet, an abundant and time-sucking resource, researching for restaurants that embody the essence of place. Although I enjoy these culinary quests, I sometimes relish a respite from my planning persona and head out of town without an itinerary. In spite of the wealth of information found online, local flavors are often best discovered with an old-fashioned approach, whether it's chatting up a native for their favorite haunts or by simply letting spontaneity lead the way.

Last week, I stumbled upon Idyllwild, a rustic, artsy town nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains between L.A. and Palm Springs. I had heard such disparate reviews about Idyllwild - some raved about the mountainous beauty, others lamented the lack of things to do - that I was eager to form my own opinion about the place. After spending three days in there, I can wholeheartedly say I'm hooked. It's a tranquil town that embodies all the traits of a stereotypical, mountain enclave - the air is woodsy & fresh, log-cabin cuteness abounds, and there is a dated quality, as if time stopped in Idyllwild forty years ago - plus, there are also a plethora of galleries and artisans. Indeed, this is a sleepy town, especially without crowd-attracting lakes and snow sports, but it is the quiet that makes it, well, idyllic.

When I arrive at the Fireside Inn, my charming, yet faded motel, I ask the front desk clerk for a restaurant recommendation. Her answer, which is wholeheartedly echoed by everyone I query, is Aroma Cafe. Aroma Cafe is the social nucleus of Idyllwild: it's an all-day restaurant, a coffee shop, a live-music venue, a gathering spot, a bar, and a place to soak up the sun on the patio. Since this is the most-reviewed restaurant in town - most folks say it's the "only joint with decent food" - I won't dwell on the details, but highlights of my dinner are a tasty salad of Blood Oranges, Avocado, and Arugula, a hearty Shrimp, Jalepeno Pesto Pasta, and fluffy, freshly-baked bread dipped in garlicky olive oil. All in all, the food is good, but it is definitely enhanced by the convivial hum and pleasant waitstaff that warm the place.

At my motel the following day, a sleek, modern postcard catches my eye. The Mountain advertises "Slow Food inspired", "Le Cordon Bleu graduate", "food made from scratch", "ingredients prepared with passion". I am surprised that such a gourmet place could exist here and am excited about the possibility that Idyllwild might be more than a one-restaurant town. When I arrive at Mountain, I am greeted by Courtney, the delightful, talkative co-owner. Considering it is an off-season Thursday night, the place is nearly empty (a factor that can sometimes add awkwardness to a meal), yet in this case, I am able to chat with Courtney about the inception and running of the restaurant. Since I'm unabashedly inquisitive and harbor a restaurant-owning fantasy, I am overjoyed to converse with her throughout my meal. The decor is homey - wood-beamed rafters, pine cones along the walls, butcher-paper tablecloths - and behind the bar, a gorgeous mural of the native Manzanita tree, painted by local artist, Darwin, honors Idyllwild's artistic roots.

With a nod to his haute-cuisine past, Chef Brian Ayers begins each meal with an amuse-bouche; tonight's is a palate-cleansing Salmon Mouse with Roasted Red Pepper and Garlic Toast. Ordering is a challenge because the menu mirrors a list of my favorite foods (house-made pate, brown-butter sage gnocchi, Coq au Vin, sweetbreads). Due to a lingering cold, and my waiter's enthusiastic advice, I opt for the comforting 10-Hour Slow Cooked Short Ribs braised in Merlot.Reminiscent of Boeuf Bourguignon, the tender, melt-in-your-mouth meat is served with sweet Vidalia onions, Crimini mushrooms, and garlic confit atop a mound of luscious mashed potatoes. For my greens fix, I get a side of the Roasted Garlic Sautéed Kale. Since the dining room is small, I can overhear the interactions of my fellow diners with the waiter. The service is exceptional; each order can be pleasantly personalized (whether putting sauce on the side or serving a half-portion of an entree) in order to fulfill one's dining desires. Also, each diner gushes effusively each time a dish appears, an unabashed compliment to the chef.

I finish with a moist Banana Walnut and Crème Fraiche Cake. Chef Ayers classical training is further reflected in his elegant presentation; here a simple cake is dressed up with a quenelle of cream cheese frosting and a dusting of cinnamon. The pièce de résistance is a mini-carrot cake that accompanies my check; nice touch to soften the blow of the bill, no?

The beauty of The Mountain is that it perfectly combines the rustic, laid-back, simplicity of Idyllwild with 5-star flair. It would be jarringly offensive if the decor was fancy, the menu was high-falutin', and the prices were exorbitant; the locals would never allow it. Instead, there is such a harmonious balance between city and country that the Mountain feels organic, like it could only have sprouted here in Idyllwild. Sure, I wish that the Mountain was in L.A. so that I could savor the fine fare often, but part of me loves that it's a destination, an inspiration for a romantic weekend, a fancy pit-stop en route to the desert, or a reason to jump in the car and leave life behind.