Restaurant Review #188: The Black Cat, Cambria, CA

Sauteed shrimp and beet gnocchi

The Black Cat, a self-described American bistro and wine bar, is one of Cambria's top-rated restaurants. "That's not saying much," you may be thinking, given that Cambria is such a small town with about twenty restaurants total. Even if it were subjected to the rigors of the LA dining scene, however, The Black Cat would fare quite well. This isn't quite as surprising once you learn that the restaurant's owner and manager, Deborah Scarborough, lived in LA before opening the restaurant in the summer of 2002.

One room of the multi-room dining room

The Black Cat's cozy space is reminiscent of a home. Its multiple rooms are cheery and warm with yellow walls, white tablecloths, and wood floors. You'll want to make reservations, because the restaurant only seats 42 (though the wine bar has an additional 20 chairs). There's also an outdoor communal table, but it may be too chilly to enjoy dinner outside most of the year. The wine list features plenty of the local wines you would expect from a restaurant situated so close to Paso Robles, but there are also plenty of wines from every corner of the world.

Stuffed fried olives

I started my meal with a small plate of breaded fried olives stuffed with cheese and paired with a house-picked sherry. Normally, I'm a big fan of rich, creamy, full-bodied sherries with an endless nutty finish, but that wouldn't have been a good choice for a first course. The sherry that accompanied my olives was like a muted version of my favorite sherry - slightly sweet, still nutty, with a less protracted finish. It was a perfect match for the salty, tangy, warm olives.

The other small plate I tried was the sauteed shrimp and beet gnocchi (lead photo) with brandied lobster vanilla cream, toasted hazelnuts, and microgreens. The taste of the gnocchi is hard to describe — it was tangy and sweet, but also something else — substantial, for lack of a better word. Umami, perhaps? It’s a small but filling dish that tastes even better than it looks, and at $10, it's quite a good deal.

Next came the baby arugula and goat cheese salad with apples, shallots, crispy pancetta, toasted hazelnuts, walnut oil and aged sherry vinaigrette, and pomegranate molasses. Though the ingredient list sounds impressive, there really wasn't anything above and beyond about the flavor of the salad. It was tasty and well-executed, but nothing unique. Baby greens are the perfect date night lettuce because they're so easy to eat without making a mess (tell me I'm not the only one who can make a mess eating a salad).

Caramelized apple stuffed breast of pheasant
Pancetta, chestnut and celery root puree, haricot vert, thyme, calvados sauce

Normally I'm not carnivorous enough to jump into a dish as adventurous as stuffed pheasant (which I'd never had before), but I was in a curious mood. The pheasant reminded me of pork in that it didn't have a lot of flavor of its own and had to rely heavily on the pancetta (similar to bacon) for its flavor. The apple wasn't noticeable at all. The most interesting part of the dish was actually the chestnut and celery root puree, which had a surprising tang. It's not a dish I would order again, but I mostly enjoyed eating it simply because it was different.

I left my wine choice up to the restaurant again and was quite pleased. The Red Zepplin syrah, a central coast red, had a refreshingly unique flavor abundant with fruit, and I finished the whole glass, which I rarely do.

Natural prime beef filet
Boniata mash, housemade mole, mushrooms, fresh cilantro, chile lime butter, red cabbage lime mojo slaw, toasted almonds

The closest thing on the menu to a steak suffered from ingredient overkill. Mole is a sauce best left to the masters, not to bistros or Trader Joe's -- the real thing is just too complex to imitate well. The mushrooms were no more exciting than canned mushrooms, and the steak lost the spotlight amidst all the toppings. Boniata, a tropical American tuber similar to yucca, was an unusual but fitting alternative to the typical potato side. Overall, the dish had too many competing flavors, most of which would have shone even on their own. However, the filet was cooked perfectly and was very good quality meat. The presentation was very attractive, and the chile lime butter added a bit of a kick that made the dish much more interesting — its flavor was very subtle and didn’t dominate, but was definitely noticeable.

Chocolate souffle

I'm not even sure what the other dessert options were, because as soon as I heard "chocolate souffle" my dessert order was in. Souffles have to be ordered well in advance; fortunately, our waitress told us as we were ordering appetizers so we didn't have to wait. For me, this was the ideal chocolate dessert — neither too sweet nor too chocolatey. I wished I hadn't opted to share my dessert and found myself scraping the edges of the ramekin with my spoon, refusing to believe that the souffle was already gone.

Despite being away from the big city, you may have some difficulty finding parking here on crowded nights. There is a lot, but it's fairly small, so you may have to seek out street parking. Unlike in LA, however, you probably won't find yourself circling the block twenty times praying for a spot to open up.

Despite the food's imperfections and a long wait for the bill, I enjoyed my experience at The Black Cat. I had a prime back corner table that was quiet and not six inches away from our neighbors (unlike some tables -- Scarborough would have done well to leave that element of the Los Angeles dining scene far behind). Our waitress was friendly and unpretentious. The food, if not perfect, was at least interesting and thoughtfully conceived, and the wine pairings were excellent. Most bistros don't have many vegetarian options, partly due to short menus, but The Black Cat has a respectable selection of about eight items (including small plates). This place isn’t cheap, with entrees ranging from $15 to $32, but the quality of the food and service are worth the prices.

The Black Cat
1602 Main Street
Cambria, CA 93428
Black Cat Website
Black Cat Menu



Restaurant Review #187: Golden Crown Wok Palace, Sherman Oaks

Kung pao chicken

Ignore what I've said in the past--Golden Crown is my new favorite restaurant for Chinese delivery in the Valley. Their sauces are flavorful, their meat is cooked correctly, and the food always arrives quickly and piping hot.

I don't know when I will ever find kung pao chicken that lives up to my memories of the stuff I ate as a child (quality chicken, plenty of sauce that was neither too thick nor too thin, and pleasantly spicy), but Golden Crown's is a close second. The sauce is not very spicy, but it is flavorful, and there aren't a lot of obnoxious veggies standing between me and my chicken and peanuts. Yum.

Sweet and pungent chicken

Sweet and pungent chicken is candied meat at its best, if you're into that sort of thing. Most of the time, Golden Crown's version is cooked to perfection, which is more than I can say of most other Chinese restaurants in the area. If you've ever had overcooked fried meat, you know how tough and chewy it can be. If you've never had pungent chicken, it's similar to orange chicken, but a bit sweeter and a bit more sour (hence the "pungent" part of the name).

Cashew chicken

Overall, what sets Golden Crown apart from the other Chinese restaurants I've tried is that each dish has a generous amount of very flavorful sauce and they use high quality chicken cut into easy-to-eat, bite-sized pieces. Almost all of the chicken dishes are excellent (with the exception of the fatty sesame chicken), though I generally order the same trio you see here over and over. Also, their rice is always soft and fluffy while still maintaining a bit of bite. I can't really comment on the beef dishes--I didn't like the kung pao beef, but I never like the beef dishes at Chinese restaurants because I always think the meat tastes fishy.

Ordering from Golden Crown is always easy and efficient since they store your address in their system, and the food always comes quickly and on time.

Golden Crown Wok Palace
4722 Woodman Ave.
Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
Free delivery within three miles
Over three miles add $2.00
$10.00 delivery minimum
Mon - Thur. 10am - 9:30pm
Fri. 11am - 10pm
Sat. & Sun. 11:30am - 10pm
Entrees $8 -$13
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