Santa Cruz Perfect Ending to 2014

Sunset at Stagnaro Bros. Santa Cruz, CA
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There are just a few days left in the year 2014, and moments from the past year dance through my mind. Travels I’ve undertaken, time spent with family, both good and heartbreaking, laughs with friends, new people experienced and new friends made. It was mostly a good year — actually, a great one.

The best way to end this year is in Santa Cruz, a place I call my hometown, although I was not born here. My family moved here when I was 12 years old. I left at age 21, traveled the world and ended back in Los Angeles. But my mother, brother and his daughter still live in Santa Cruz.

I find the beauty of Santa Cruz — the redwood-filled mountains, and it’s cove-filled beaches — the perfect setting to relax, and reflect on the past year. Just stepping outside my mother’s little home and taking a walk down the street in Felton, one of the first little communities people pass by on Highway 9 when entering the mountains, re-energizes me. The clear blue skies, fresh air and green all around — I inhale deeply and when I let my breath out, I am renewed.

Hiking and biking trails are located all throughout Henry Cowell State Park, which is in Felton, CA.
On clear days, you can see all the way to the ocean from a trail peak in Henry Cowell State Park.

Many homes are quaint craftsman in style. Others are basic redwood cabins, the kind I lived in when we first moved to Brookdale, which is further up Highway 9. Thin cabin walls barely kept the cold out during winter back then, but a huge river rock fireplace in our living room kept us warm.

One of my favorite things to do is watch the sunset from Pleasure Point, at the end of 41st Avenue in Capitola. In high school I learned how to surf  this spot, where the waves on the southern end usually are low and long. The other day I stopped at Pleasure Point Pizza, which is featured in the surf film “Mavericks,” and got a huge slice of Pepperoni Pizza and a coke, and went to the cliffs to watch the sunset. It’s calming to gaze at the ocean, and watch the sky change colors from a warm gold to a deep, rich red-golden hue.


View from Pleasure Point cliff at the end of 41st ave. in Capitola Santa Cruz, CA

Another great aspect about Santa Cruz is the history, food, and the variety of live music. I had dinner the other night at Stagnaro Bros., which has been located on the wharf in downtown Santa Cruz for almost 75 years. It was founded by brothers Ernesto and Giovanni Stagnaro, whose parents came from Northern Italy to Santa Cruz via Ellis Island in 1918. The brothers ran the fish seafood market and restaurant until 2004, upon Giovanni’s death. Family members still work at the restaurant to this day.

On Monday nights the restaurant offers a fantastic special, Cioppino, for $10.95. Normally the price is $24.95. A shallow bowl is filled with baby scallops, shrimp, crab legs and shellfish, and bathed in a thick, tasty tomato broth. I added some tabasco to spice it up a bit.

I went back the next day with my mom to try out their happy hour specials on the upper deck. We were just in time for a beautiful sunset, and snacked on calamari strips, clam chowder and a seared ahi tuna on a bed of greens. All dishes were $8.95 each, and house wine and draft beers were $3 each. Not bad. Warning, don’t order the prawn tacos. They are not made with prawn, but baby shrimp, and are not tasty enough to make up for the difference.

While the weather dipped to near freezing just before New Year’s Eve, people were out and about in Santa Cruz, at the wharf, on the West Cliffs, Downtown and elsewhere, spending the last days of 2014, I imagine, enjoying the quirkiness and beauty of this coastal town as much as my mother and I.

“Santa Cruz is great isn’t it,” my mother said, as we drove down River Street, past downtown back to the mountains.

“Yes it is,” I answered.

Foodie heaven comes to Los Angeles

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Two weeks of heaven for foodies in Los Angeles are taking place this week and next.

dineLA, which recently celebrated its 5th anniversary at the W Hotel in Westwood, is taking place this week through Jan. 27, and resumes Jan. 29 through Feb. 3. Specially priced three-course lunch meals ( $16, $34 or $28) and dinners ($26, $34 or $44) are available at Los Angeles County neighborhood restaurants for those who want to try out new places without breaking their wallet. Although, I must warn, it is very easy to spend more than the fixed prices if you add alcohol or other extras to your meal.

Participating restaurants include those such as Napa Valley Grille in Westwood, which has a new executive chef,  Taylor Boudreaux. Boudreaux, who was previously the corporate executive chef for Wolfgang Puck Worldwide for many years, is offering a $34 prixe-fixed dinner menu of first, second and third course choices such as Celery Root and Apple Soup, with truffled apple slaw, Beer Braised Short Rib, with parsnip puree, butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, and onion jus; and Apple Guava Galette with Chantilly cream. Sounds delish to me!

The Napa Valley Grille is a great place for Happy Hour. In addition to its tasty and reasonably priced happy hour menu and drinks, the patio with its  comfortable couches is a great place to hang out with good friends. (

Executive Chef Dakota Weiss of NineThirty restaurant at the W Westwood-Los Angeles is offering during dineLA some tasty bites like Porcini Bisque soup for a first course choice on both lunch and dinners menus, and Seared Idaho Trout with Haricot Vert on the dinner (lunch menu is $22, dinner is $34). Weiss will compete on Bravo’s next Top Chef series, “Top Chef Texas,” one of the many places she’s lived.

NineThirty offers a chic, yet comfortable place to dine, with many delicious menu items. During a visit celebrating the opening of the W’s CHILL ice skating rink, my companion and I had a dinner of spaghetti squash lasagna that had grilled Portobello mushroom, charred tomato coulis, house-made ricotta and fresh basil, a side of sweet potato fries with truffle aioli, and a delicious flat-iron steak. The food is simply, yet elegantly presented and the flavor of all the ingredients in each dish can savored fully with every bite. Small plates are priced from $15 to $22, and large, $18 to $48. There’s also a special fixed priced menu at $52, which includes one small plate and one large, dessert and coffee. If you add a wine pairing, it’s $82. (

More information about dineLA can be found online at






Fresh Fare at Mogan’s Cafe (Pacific Palisades)

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Mogans Cafe in Pacific Palisades offers fresh fare at reasonable prices.

In any new restaurant owner’s venture, there is the attempt to make a mark, to put your own stamp on an eatery, and to offer the best fare possible, with hopefully reasonable prices. Ryan Newcomb of Mogan’s Cafe in Pacific Palisades is such an owner.

A few months after he and his partner bought the place, he was found at the outside patio of the cafe, which is located in Highlands Plaza at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Palisades Drive, building a wall to separate the dining area from the food serving station. Newcomb said he knew exactly what he wanted and to get it right, he decided to build it himself.

It is such care and concern that make a visit to Mogan’s Cafe a breath of fresh air. This care extends to the extensive menu, which Newcomb said has not changed much since he took ownership in December.
Whether for breakfast, lunch or dinner, the offerings are extensive. The dinner menu lists breakfast, lunch and dinner items on its own. The variety of almost a dozen sandwiches-from the Cajun chicken breast, with red onion, cilantro pesto and mozzarella cheese on grilled sour dough to the hot brisket sandwich, prepared with slow roasted brisket with onions, apple juice, wine and herbs and served with caramelized onions and roasted garlic mayo-will whet the appetite of any food aficionado.
Oh yes, there are the paninis, too, and the salads, gourmet burgers, stir fry, a large range of appetizers and the specialty main courses, which include a plethora of chicken dishes, from Marsala and Picatta to Flat Grilled Chicken. For a Mexican flair, try the steak or tofu fajitas, or the tostadas of chicken, fish or veggie. There’s even fish and chips that can be downed with beer, or wine if you prefer. A recent daily menu listed fresh halibut served with steamed veggies (cooked perfectly, with some crispness) and freshly whipped potatoes. The daily soup, butternut squash, was creamy, sweet and simply delicious.

Newcomb is definitely not new to the restaurant scene; he’s been the manager of Mogan’s for the past five years, and after much consideration and consultation with his business partner, he decided to make an offer to the previous owner that couldn’t be refused.

Once you’ve made a visit to Mogan’s, which is only about a 15-minute drive from the Malibu Pier, you won’t be able to refuse a second visit, and a third, and ….

Mogan’s Cafe, 548 Palisades Dr., Pacific Palisades, 90272; 310.454.0040;

Tasty Dining, Smart Surroundings (Pacific Palisades)

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The moment you walk into Taste at the Palisades, you feel right at home. The decor, in a palette of brown and

Taste at the Palisades offers an elegant, yet cozy environment for unique fine dining.

white with black-and-white photos by artist/celebrity photographer Paul Robinson adorning the walls is upscale, yet welcoming. Curtains separate tables, giving a sense of privacy, yet are short in width, enough to allow one to take in the buzzing scene. A library (a bookcase, literally) of wines separates one dining area from a small bar in the back, where guests can enjoy a special bar menu, with items priced less than $10.

Opened earlier this year by owners Morten Kaag and John Halter, the cozy ambience sets the scene for a wonderful meal, created by Chef Brian Sheard. Kaag said they wanted to create a neighborhood spot where people can come in and use it as “their kitchen.”Taste offers a fine selection of wines such as the Terrazas Malbec Reserve 2006 and more than a dozen starters, like the Ahi Tuna Tartare and the Roasted Red and Golden Beet Salad. The tuna tartare, made with little squares of ahi tuna and avocado shaped into two small towers, is light and served with a gentle spicy aioli. Dill gives it a pleasant tang, and jicama adds a nice texture. The presentation, with a sprinkling of black and white sesame seeds, surrounded by a quartet of thin crostini, is quite nice as well.

The roasted beet salad is served with fresh arugula, which compliments the tasty beets, and two fried goat cheese balls served on the side are rich in flavor, yet light in texture.

Entrees range from the crispy Parmesan Chicken Paillard (chicken breast, garlic potato puree, white gravy, baby arugula salad and red onion jam), an eight-ounce Kobe Beef Cheese Burger (served with onion jam, arugula and tomato on a sesame bun) to the Meyer Lemon Risotto (asparagus tips, shallots, Meyer lemon zest, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Parmesan cheese crisp) and the ravioli of the day.

During a recent visit, I had cheese ravioli topped with fresh spinach and Parmesan. The ravioli was light and thin, and the ingredients simple, yet bursting with flavor. For dessert, the Chocolate Brioche Bread Pudding was divine. Served with vanilla gelato and creme Anglaise, the bread pudding was just the right blend, not too moist and definitely not dry.

Taste is child-friendly, offering a prix fixe selection of three courses on its Kids menu. The restaurant also serves brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. Dinner menu entree prices range from $16 to $26; starters are $8.50 to $13.

The ambiance of Taste does not fit its new location (the other Taste is on Melrose Avenue), a small strip mall on the corner of Palisades Drive and Sunset Boulevard, just a quarter mile north of Pacific Coast Highway. But once you walk in, you’re enveloped in an elegant environment, served by a friendly staff and made to feel as if you’re right at home.

Taste at the Palisades, 538 Palisades Dr., Pacific Palisades. 310.459.9808

Ojai Delights

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The Gecko room porch looks out onto the grounds of the Emerald Iguana Inn in Ojai. Architect March Whitman used the 1900s river stone- and woodwork of the original buildings on the site as inspiration for the Art Nouveau inspired cottages. Image courtesy of Emerald Iguana Inn

Ojai Valley is a unique place for visitors and residents alike in that it offers distinct settings and activities, from the famed Ojai Music Festival to camping and fishing, to fine dining, wine tasting, and art gallery and spa hopping.

The Ojai Music festival, now in its sixth decade, happens next month, and it might be tough to find a place in town to stay near Libbey Bowl, where the main concerts take place, or anywhere in the “village” (as the local government describes itself) of 8,000 people, however, it’s worth a try to get a room at The Emerald Iguana Inn, which is a few blocks walk to the main part of town, and to Libbey Park. If booked, its sister lodging, The Blue Iguana, is off Highway 33, the main road into Ojai.
Ojai natives Marc and Julia Whitman bought the property that houses the Blue Iguana Inn about 13 years ago. They transformed a broken down motel into a rustic, stylish inn with a desert-like feel. The Emerald Iguana Inn was the second such venture for the couple that at first faced opposition from local residents, but the result is such a delight it is hard to imagine anyone opposing such an eye-pleasing establishment.Marc, an architect, designed both inns and Julia focused on the interiors. The feeling when arriving at the Emerald Iguana Inn, located in a cul-de-sac at the end of residential street, is that of a private retreat surrounded by lush foliage, flowers and a grove of California native oak and sycamore trees.
A multicolored, tiled “Emerald Iguana” fountain greets guests at one side of the gravel driveway. A medium sized pool is surrounded by an iron gate, and more plants, flowers and trees add a tropical feeling to the area. Breakfast of boiled eggs, an assortment of pastries, yogurt and fresh fruit, along with coffee or tea, and fresh orange juice is served daily, and in the evenings, guests can stop by the poolside office for wine and cheese. Both inns are beautifully appointed, with the Emerald furnished with items from Europe and Asia, and some rooms having wood- burning stove fireplaces, whirlpool or claw-foot bathtubs and private patios or balconies.

The focal point of the Emerald is the original “River Rock” house on the property that is nearly 100 years old, which Marc used with his unique style of architecture, featuring organic materials, and shapes and lines. Much of the artwork at both inns features Ojai artists, including that of Marc’s mother, Nancy Whitman.

Guests of either inn can be treated to private tours of the Taft Botanical Gardens, which is a must-see if one if visiting Ojai.

Situated on more than 20 acres, the gardens are renowned for their South African and Australian native plant collections. With the many unusual and colorful species of cacti, flowers and plants, it is an extraordinary experience to walk through the gardens; it feels as if you could encounter one of the fanciful characters from the story of Alice and Wonderland.

Dining in Ojai

The Ranch House is a legendary eatery in Ojai.

The Ranch House is a legendary eatery in Ojai. Founded more than 40 years ago by Alan Hooker, current owner David Skaggs (along with wife Edie) first got his start as a waiter there. Using herbs from its onsite garden, the gourmet dishes are fresh and delicious. The wine list is extensive with more than 650 selections, and the service is excellent. It’s as if you are dining amongst good friends or family members. The dining areas are set amongst lush foliage and one can take a walk through the gardens, where a stream wanders. If you dine there, the Grilled Diver Scallops are a must. Huge, tender U-1 0 scallops are grilled and served on lightly curried sweet corn sauce with oil infused with dry vermouth and basil, and shredded bok choy.

For a casual, no hassle lunch try Antonio’s Mexican Cantina at the east end of the main strip of Ojai. Nick Moeller, a former Hollywood nightclub manager, and his wife decided that Ojai was the perfect place to raise their two children, and bought the place from the original owner five years ago. Basics such as cheese enchiladas and nachos will fill you up as you take in the sun in the outdoor patio.

Vesta Restaurant also offers outdoor dining behind the main avenue (the restaurant can be accessed off Ojai Avenue across from Libbey Bowl, or from the courtyard in the back). Tasty, fresh lemonade is the perfect accompaniment to their sweet potato, garlic or rosemary-salted fries (order the Three-Way and you can have a taste of all three.) A variety of salads, sandwiches and wraps is on the lunch menu, and the macaroni and cheese is very good. The restaurant has a full wine and beer list, as well as specialty drinks. Before or after dining, you can browse for home or culinary accessories in the front store.

Ojai is filled with a plethora of wine tasting opportunities. If you’re downtown and don’t want to go too far, try the Casa Barranca Winery Tasting Room and Art Gallery, located a few doors down from Vesta.

You can get a Shangri-La Flight for $10, featuring organic and vegan wines, or the Chiefs Peak Flight for $15, which also features organic and vegan, and unfiltered wines. Their 2007 Cabernet Franc, which is unrefined, unfiltered and vegan, is a smooth red that sells for only $30 per bottle.

If you love the music and crowds, do visit Ojai during the festival; if not, an off-season visit in February or March is a perfect time to visit. The weather may be a little cooler, but the quiet and the beauty of Ojai Valley are worth it.





– Emerald Iguana Inn: 108 Pauline St. Ojai, 93023; 805.646.5277;

– The Blue Iguana Inn: 11794 N. Ventura Ave. 805.646.5277;

– The Ranch House: 500 S. Lomita; 805.646.2360;

– Vesta Restaurant: 242 E. Ojai Ave.; 805.646.2339;

– Antonio’s Mexican Cantina: 106 S. Montgomery; 805.646.6353

– Casa Barranca Winery Tasting Room: 208 E. Ojai Ave.; 805.640.1255;