Restaurant Review #233: Firehouse Cafe, Simi Valley

California Fireman omelet with hash browns - $7.75

Sitting in Firehouse Cafe, you'll feel like you've been transported out of Southern California and into a friendly Midwestern city--say, St. Louis. There's zero pretense at this affordable, no-frills breakfast and lunch joint. The flooring is charcoal gray industrial carpet, the chairs are standard-issue black metal with padded vinyl seats, and the white walls are somewhat haphazardly adorned with photos and firefighting memorabilia and gear. Red accents throughout, including diner stools at the counter, contribute to the firehouse theme. The space is just one big, rectangular open room, so there's no sense of intimacy at any of the tables, but at least the tables are spaced well apart. The restaurant was busy late on a Sunday morning and we felt lucky to get the only open table.

Huevos rancheros - $6.95

The coffee doesn't break with the restaurant's no-frills vibe--it's of the coffee-pot-on-a-burner variety, so if you're into the gourmet stuff, be warned. But it does come with free refills. The breakfast menu offers everything you'd expect at and is served all day (which, most days, means all morning and early afternoon). I love omelets, but can only make a mediocre one myself, so that's what I almost always order at breakfast joints. Firehouse Cafe's version met my expectations--fluffy, cheesy (swiss), and stuffed with bacon and veggies (mushrooms, onions, bell peppers, avocado). Our food arrived in a reasonable time frame and the portions were so generous that we had ample leftovers. (Not that leftover omelets are terribly appetizing, but I hate wasting food.) The lunch menu offers more than 30 sandwiches, 16 firefighting-themed burgers, and several salads, plus standard appetizers like mozzarella sticks and potato skins. They also serve dinner on Fridays.

The service is supposed to be friendly here, but our waitress seemed like she'd much rather be somewhere else. This wouldn't prevent me from giving the restaurant a second try, though, given my positive experience with the atmosphere, food, and price tag. 

Firehouse Cafe
1244 Sycamore Dr
Simi Valley, CA 93065
Mon-Thu, Sat-Sun 7 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Fri 7 a.m. - 9 p.m.
Firehouse Cafe Menu


Restaurant Review #232: Saddle Peak Lodge, Calabasas

Cream of mushroom amuse bouche

Saddle Peak Lodge, named after the rock formation it sits under, has been around for more than 100 years in various incarnations, including a general store and a summer resort. Tucked away in the hills of Calabasas, sort of on the way to Malibu via Las Virgenes, you'd never know the restaurant was there if you weren't following a set of directions to it. That makes it all the more amazing that the place has been around for so long. We didn't have any trouble finding it with the directions (although we did get lost on the way out since it was pitch black and I was too busy thinking about my meal to think about which way I should be turning).

Saddle Peak Lodge is almost cave-like in the evening, cozy and dark with stone, timber, and lots of prize game heads lending weight to the restaurant's name. A seat by the window next to the patio gave us a glimpse of the scenic mountain surroundings. It's the kind of patio you'd love to host a special event on (if you could afford it--and if you can, the restaurant has several private rooms and special menus available for events).

We were invited to try the restaurant to experience a new event they are offering: every Wednesday from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., Saddle Peak Lodge is hosting Jazz in the Canyon with the Gonzalo Bergara quartet. Since we were invited, our meal was on the house, and our experience probably does not completely reflect what the average diner might expect. It was apparent that the head chef, chef de cuisine, and general manager knew who we were, since they each came to our table and introduced themselves. Our waiter, however, clearly thought we were just regular guests.

Saddle Peak Lodge serves French-influenced American food using seasonal ingredients. The executive chef, Adam Horton, has a more impressive resume at 27 years old than most chefs will have in their entire careers. He attended the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, externed at Saddle Peak, then went to Europe, where he cooked at classical French restaurants with two and three Michelin stars, including Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London. On returning to the United States, he worked at Melisse before heading back to Saddle Peak as sous chef. Horton has been named a top five rising chef by Gayot, and the restaurant’s numerous accolades include a listing in the 2009 Michelin guide, one star in the 2008 Michelin guide, a AAA Four-Diamond award, a Zagat Award of Distinction, and numerous best-restaurant awards. The chef de cuisine, Chris Kufek, also has impressive credentials, but for the opposite reason--he's self-taught. He's also only 25. General Manager Joshua Buckner has twenty-one years of restaurant experience and is also a musician.

We were seated very close to the band, which had me a bit concerned about the noise level, but it didn't turn out to be a problem. The music seems like it's meant to be part of the background--which is good since this is a restaurant, not a bar or club. 

Our meal began with a mushroom soup amuse. It was tasty, but not extraordinary in any way. I found it a bit awkward to sip from the cup because of its thickness; I wished I had a small spoon to eat it with.

Pretzel bread and pumpernickel rolls

Fresh bread arrived right away—a pumpernickel roll and a pretzel bread roll. I was pleased by the interesting choice of flavors and their dense, soft, moist texture. If I have any complaint about the bread—and this is hardly a complaint—it’s that the delivery of every course was so perfectly timed that I had scarcely any time to turn my full attention to the bread.

Salt and butter

The rolls came with butter and a high-end moist sea salt that tasted like it had a hint of anise. I tend to laugh when I see super-expensive salts at the grocery store, since you can buy a huge container of salt for 60 cents that basically accomplishes the same thing, yet when I encounter a really good salt in a restaurant, the memory sticks with me (Lucques comes to mind, for example). Now I will have to finagle some $15 salt out of someone as a gift.

Yukon potato blini, smoked salmon, creme fraiche and caviar

As a second amuse, we tried a mini potato pancake topped with smoked salmon, creme fraiche and caviar. The smoked salmon did not taste different than any other smoked salmon I’ve had, but I could have eaten a whole plate of the blini (the mini pancakes), which were denser and more moist than breakfast pancakes and had a hint of sweetness. Basically, take everything that’s wrong with an ordinary pancake—it’s too dry, it has no flavor, it’s sometimes bordering on greasy—and this blini corrects it. Too bad I couldn’t get it to last longer than four tiny bites. I think they should serve full-sized blini for brunch!

Fijian albacore sashimi with ramp vinaigrette, avocado and pea greens

The appetizer was a Fijian (from Fiji) albacore sashimi. Albacore is probably my favorite raw fish, but this dish didn’t do anything for me. The pea tendrils seemed overdressed and I guess I am just accustomed to eating my raw fish with fewer accompaniments.

Wild mushroom agnolotti with roasted mushrooms, parmesan, herbs, ricotta salata, and truffle butter

For me, the best and most memorable dish of the night was the wild mushroom agnolotti (agnolotti is basically ravioli, in case you were wondering). The pasta was obviously homemade, and it was perfectly cooked. The aroma of truffle butter wafted up from the plate—how can you not like any dish that has truffle butter? The serving didn’t look very big, but it was so rich that it must have taken me 30 minutes to savor every bite (granted, I have won awards for my ability to eat slowly). This dish actually reminded me of some fantastic pasta I had at Melisse (and that was before I even knew the chef had worked there).

Diver scallops with peas, pea tendrils and uni veloute

I’m not sure I can fully comment on the scallop dish since my friend ordered it and I only had one bite, but it didn’t wow me--except for the black garlic that came on the side. Black garlic is regular garlic that has been slowly fermented in heat- and humidity-controlled conditions for three weeks. I’d never heard of it, seen it, or tasted it before. It has a unique, rich, slightly sweet flavor that has been compared to molasses.

New Zealand elk tenderloin with sweet potato and celery root purée, currants, bacon, wilted arugula and sauce chasseur (hunter's sauce)

Saddle Peak Lodge has several game meats on the menu—elk, buffalo, and ostrich. Because game meats are lean and have a high iron content compared to the meats most Americans usually eat, they are challenging to cook. Horton uses the sous vide technique to cook the meat uniformly medium rare.

The elk tenderloin is a house specialty. I didn't think it was "gamey" at all; rather, it reminded me of filet mignon. It was perfectly cooked and so tender I could cut it with the side of my fork (no exaggeration). This dish normally costs $54, so to be able to enjoy it as part of an $85 tasting menu seemed like a real bargain, and the portion was so large that I couldn't even finish it. The sweet potato and celery root puree was delicious but I found myself wanting to separate it from the currant sauce so I could fully appreciate it on its own. The currant sauce acted as a sort of steak sauce (but much better than A1!).

Deconstructed lemon merengue pie: toasted meringue ice cream, lemon curd, liquid sable and graham cracker

The deconstructed lemon meringue pie was hit and miss for me. The cake pieces seemed ordinary, but the “pie crust” was incredible. It had that addictive quality that I find in Persian halva and Spanish turron. And despite the way it looked on the plate, standing up, it wasn't crunchy, but soft. The meringue ice cream seemed to be a feat of molecular gastronomy. It was very cold in places and had such a delicate texture that regular meringue would seem heavy by comparison.

Our waiter obviously didn’t know that we were special guests—and I think that was a good thing, because we got to see what the regular service is like. Our waiter was friendly and endearing, and all of the many servers who delivered and took away our plates, refilled our water and served our bread, were, well, perfect. It’s easy to feel uncomfortable in an expensive restaurant when you normally eat at Chili’s and hole-in-the-wall Thai places, but no one was even remotely pretentious or condescending toward us the entire night. I felt totally comfortable. And the comfy chairs, while not ideal for leaning over the table and eating, certainly encourage you to lean back, relax, enjoy some good wine, and take your time. They’re very conducive to a leisurely evening of good conversation and live music.

Considering that this was a four-course tasting menu with an extremely reasonable price tag of $85, I was surprised that the portions were so generous. For $40 extra (per person), we could have had wine pairings, too, which I also thought was reasonable. (Unfortunately, I did not indulge in those as I was driving.)

Saddle Peak Lodge's description of itself as "rustic yet refined" is perfect and applies to both the food and the ambiance. The restaurant does have a dress code (how often do you see that?), but they basically just don't want you to show up in beach attire. Parking is valet only and has a $4 service charge (and they returned my car very promptly at the end of the night). Total, the tasting menu for two people with sparkling water came to about $100 a person, including tax but not including gratuity (thankfully, since the restaurant invited us, we only had to pay gratuity and parking). Not including the amuses, if we had ordered each dish from the regular menu instead of getting the tasting menu, we would have paid nearly $140 each. Perhaps the portion sizes were pared down for the tasting menu, but it didn't seem like it.

All in all, this was probably one of the best meals I've ever had, even if it wasn't one of my favorite meals I've ever had. The latter has nothing to do with the quality of the restaurant, the food, or the chef--it's purely a matter of my personal taste. I will probably always be someone who gets more excited about a bowl of spicy noodles than a gorgeous piece of meat. But I would really like to go back for the agnolotti, for brunch, and for any occasion that would allow me to sit on the patio during daylight hours. If you like really good food that is different without requiring you to be too adventurous or eat anything "weird," and if you want upscale food at a reasonable price in a comfortable atmosphere, Saddle Peak Lodge is a great choice.

Saddle Peak Lodge
419 Cold Canyon Road
Calabasas, CA 90265
Saddle Peak Lodge website
Saddle Peak Lodge menu
Dinner Hours:
Wednesday through Thursday
6:00 pm - 9:00 pm
Friday 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm
Saturday 5:00 pm to 10:00 pm
Sunday 5:00 pm to 9:00 pm
Sunday 10:30 am to 2:00 pm


Restaurant Reivew #231: Corner Bakery Cafe

Poblano Fresco with roasted chicken

You remember the old SAT question:

Barnes and Noble : Borders
Corner Bakery Cafe : _______?

a) Chili's
b) Panera Bread
c) Ono Hawaiian BBQ
d) Pizza Hut

Yes, the correct answer is B. (Isn't it always?) Corner Bakery Cafe (CBC) and Panera Bread are essentially the same restaurant, except that CBC's empire is not as geographically widespread. But thankfully, unlike Borders and Barnes and Noble, it's not just that one is green and the other is red: the two bakery cafes actually sell different things. Well, different-tasting things. Both serve breakfast, salads, soups, sandwiches, panini, bakery sweets, fresh bread, bagels, lemonade, and coffee. CBC is better if you want a hot breakfast; Panera is better if you want a bagel (they have more flavors). CBC also serves pasta, which Panera does not. Both rotate their soup flavors according to the day of the week, but their only overlapping soup flavor is broccoli cheddar. Panera's You Pick Two is a more liberal version of CBC's Corner Bakery Combo, which limits the types of salad you can get with your half sandwich, though Panera does charge extra for its more elaborate salads. Both offer five panini options, each with different types of meat and each with one vegetarian option. Both have an Asian salad, a Greek salad, and a caesar salad, but CBC forays into non-lettuce-based salads with options like egg salad and pasta caprese salad.

I don't think I can provide any kind of unbiased assessment of which one is better--I used to work for Panera, and I remember it as one of the best jobs I ever had. I didn't even get sick of the food after eating it every day. But I do think Corner Bakery Cafe is a worthy competitor.

Corner Bakery Cafe
1555 Simi Town Center Way

Simi Valley
, CA 93065
and many, many other locations in 11 states and the District of Columbia)
Corner Bakery Cafe website
Corner Bakery Cafe menu
Mon - Sun: 8:00 AM - 9:00 PM