IRVINA LEW

Travel Writer & Author

Tag: California

Farm-to-Spa Cuisine at California’s Famed Golden Door

The spa has always been at the forefront of local, organic cooking

The Golden Door, considered the world’s best destination spa, is named for its entry door, emblazoned with a gold-colored, bronze and copper, gem-encrusted Tree of Life, which opens to a raised boardwalk through a verdant canopy that leads to the minimalistic, art-filled, Honjin-inn-style retreat

During my sixth visit this past August, I was as impressed as always with the farm-fresh, creatively cooked, perfectly-presented spa cuisine. And I felt lucky to once again meander amid the Japanese-inspired landscape — with its antique bell, waterfall features, and koi pond — and receive daily massages, beauty services, and an individualized fitness routine (my favorites take place in a warmed exercise pool). Yet it’s the beautiful, clean, pure food that I have most appreciated since my first magical seven-night stay, in 1996 (and which I try to replicate at home).

Eating healthfully has always been a priority to Deborah Szekely, who founded
The Golden Door in 1958 as a more luxurious and intimate (for 40 guests, one to a room) option to Rancho La Puerta, which she created in Tecate, Mexico, in 1940. This daughter of vice-president of the New York Vegetarian Society grew up listening to health lectures on the radio before she established her well-deserved reputation as the “Godmother of Wellness.” Perhaps those early “speeches” influenced the decades of weekly after-dinner talks, where she has inspired countless guests at both spas to choose natural, organic, and mostly vegetarian food in appropriate quantities for a person’s size. I have always taken notes when she speaks and found this memorable quote from “The Door,” December 2011: “Our body is our best friend, but we have to treat it like a treasure.”  At 95, Szekely’s active life continues, but she is no longer involved with The Door.

Joanne Conway, a former guest, purchased it in 2012, and while maintaining its original vision and ambiance, she has also renovated the facilities, refurbished the décor, greatly expanded the acreage and created The Golden Door Foundation, which benefits charities, primarily to help abused children. Now, with 600 acres, there are avocado groves, 60 acres of citrus groves officially certified as organic, and a newly transplanted olive orchard with 250 trees. These will soon produce Italian varietals to be harvested and pressed into gourmet olive oils.

The daily program has changed little over the 20 years of my experiences. Year-round, seven-night women’s, men’s, and coed stays continue. There are more men’s weeks now and the occasional option for shorter (even three-night) stays. Newly launched theme weeks, activities, and treatments have been added, but the culinary routine remains constant.

Most breakfast trays are delivered to rooms at 7:30 a.m., after many guests have returned from a hike (with 25 miles of trails, there are a multitude of choices). Of course, the orange juice is freshly squeezed, the salmon is smoked in-house, and the berries for the yogurt are grown on site. (In 2003 or 2006, I was served a quinoa-stuffed baked apple, and it was the very first time I had tasted the crunchy, gluten-free grain.)

By 10:50 a.m. — after hikes, yoga or tai chi, cardio or private training sessions — the staff sets out the crudité platter and mugs filled with hot tomato-potassium broth. The easy-to-replicate, V8-style beverage (mostly low-sodium tomato juice and vegetable trimmings) has long been my microwave-warmed, mid-day drink of choice.

the bento boxThe bento box

Lunch is served poolside at umbrella-topped tables. Lump crab and avocado stack, grilled chicken Caesar salad, or a turkey sandwich sounds ordinary but tastes extraordinary. For example, turkey arrives on a rosemary-studded focaccia, spread with a spinach and microgreen pesto and topped with grilled red onion and avocado. My favorite is the sushi-style bento box (presented in a beautiful compartmentalized box for sale at the gift shop), which contains togarashi seared hamachi (tuna); Golden Door shrimp; a California roll; udon noodles, turmeric and ginger pickled vegetables, soy-marinated shiitake mushroom, and a pickled cucumber salad.

At 3:50 p.m., a tray of berries and fruit appears in the lounge.

Promptly at 6 p.m., the antique Japanese bell rings to announce dinner. Most guests dine together in the redecorated dining room and arrive for hors d’oeuvres wearing long yukatas —white Golden Door logo-decorated kimonos — sometimes over the provided sweats and T-shirts.

Dinner entrées include a variety of fish, poultry, and vegetarian options. I enjoy fennel-dusted poussin (a tiny chicken), sea bass en papillote (steamed in paper), Mexican dishes such as chicken or bean fajitas, and a variety of Asian-inspired items: miso soup, miso-glazed black cod, teriyaki tofu, Vietnamese spring rolls or a ginger garden soba bowl with wild mushrooms. Herbs and house-made preserved lemons, pickled vegetables, or candied pecans enhance dishes. Satisfying desserts delight, such as cookies or yogurt with berries at lunch, and crème brulée, spiced nectarine cake, orange blossom ice cream and persimmon pudding cake, at dinner.

I always opt to tour the garden. This summer, farm manager Wil Ryan led four of us through the five culinary, floral, and herb gardens (among the 20 herbs are tension-dispelling lavender and mood-boosting lemon verbena); he pointed out vegetables and rare heirloom fruits (there are 50 tomato varieties) starting in the 3,000-square-foot computerized greenhouse. Then, he introduced the fenced-in flock of chickens, which provide farm-fresh eggs, before others joined us for a garden lunch, set under a tent.

Executive chef and culinary director Greg Frey Jr. conducts the weekly cooking classes and heads the staff, who prepare pre-hike coffee and mini-muffins, three meals, and two snacks daily — including vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options — and service a multitude of individual requests, from dietary preferences, restrictions, and “druthers” to extras. While salt, sugar, fat — even carbs and calories — are carefully considered, this “cuisine minceur” hardly seems anything like “diet” food.

One evening, Frey greeted the kimono-clad guests in the bamboo garden, where we were seated at three long tables strewn with floral arrangements and lighted by round, electric chandeliers hanging from a huge tree. Each bamboo tree had been planted in honor of a guest’s 10th visit; these days, with a plethora of bamboo, name plaques that honor guests hang and tinkle with the breeze, like a wind chime.

Details are what continue to keep The Golden Door so special!

Allegretto Vineyard Resort

Earlier this February, I took a road trip on Highway 1 Discovery Route, through San Luis Obispo County, a 100-mile stretch of topographically stunning, coastal California, midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. From Los Angeles, I drove north as far as San Simeon, where I revisited the wondrous Hearst Castle; en route back, I spent six nights discovering a myriad of tasting rooms for which most of the vintners grow or source grapes from vineyards in nearby Paso Robles.

I extended my stay to visit Paso Robles and spent two nights at the Allegretto Vineyard Resort by Ayres, which had just opened in late 2015. Douglas Ayres, its visionary owner, fell in love with the rolling ranches in Paso Robles and decided to build a Tuscan-style inn here. The villa — complete with hundreds of antiques, a chapel, Mediterranean-style gardens, a bocce court and vineyard — sits on a 20-acre site near Route 101, just a few minutes from downtown Paso.

From the portico, I entered a soaring lobby where a huge glass chandelier changes color and the fireplace warms the seating area. The wide galley is lined with paintings by Russian Impressionists and landscapes by local artists, statuary and sculptures, antiques from India and family photographs. It leads to the central courtyard, an intrinsic part of the villa lifestyle, which can also be reached from the small, non-denominational, French-inspired Abbey through a Romeo and Juliet Tunnel, scaled to accommodate a horse and rider (or small carriage). There’s even a fountain and a double staircase, ideal for a bride and groom. Inside, there are small private dining rooms and boardrooms, plus a trio of meeting rooms that expand to a ballroom.

Allegretto Resort

© PARKER SANPEI & ASSOCIATES

Off the lobby, Cello dining room serves freshly foraged and locally sourced, Italian-inspired fare prepared by Chef Eric Olson, formerly of Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, and local wines including at least one made by Allegretto. The restaurant opens to an open-air, covered terrace on one side of the portico, while the spa opens to a private outdoor lounge on the other. The six-treatment room spa offers a tiny boutique, a lounge, wide corridors, high ceilings, a sauna and a couple’s suite. I received my Caudalie vinotherapy facial from Ashley, the aesthetician with a golden touch.

There are 171 accommodations in the mostly two-story structure, of which mine was a large, ground-floor room with 14-foot ceilings. The entryway held an armoire closet (with safe) and a piece housing a fridge and Keurig coffee pot. Farther inside the room included a king-sized bed, a sitting area with a couch and desk and French doors leading out to a terrace abutting the central courtyard. In the bathroom were a large glass shower (the 16 suites have bath tubs), double sinks, a monogrammed black washcloth for makeup removal and the perfect makeup light.

The resort is a 30-mile drive across Route 46 from Cambria on the coast, a beautiful drive that cuts through the hillsides and is worth it for those accustomed to a touch of luxury, even while visiting wine country.

Read more Global Traveler

The Belvedere Review

The Belvedere, the fine-dining restaurant at the Forbes Five-Star Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, reopened Jan. 19 after a fall closure, during which the dining room and adjacent patio were renovated. I lunched there again, just two weeks after its debut, and recalled memorable family celebrations and an al fresco lunch once at which I was invited to become the spokesperson for Contadina Pasta Ready.The Belvedere

Upon entering — and it’s an easy, short walk from the valet drop-off — I noticed a lighter, brighter, more contemporary and less formal French country look, complete with white oak floors in a geometric pattern and well-spaced tables dressed in white linen over traditional blue and white Toile de Jouy skirts. The color scheme continues in the floral arrangements and the leathertopped seats, both on the whitewashed wooden Provençal armchairs and the curved banquettes. Seat backs are an oversized check on the armchairs and plush, tufted blue velvet on the banquettes.

Remarkable contemporary art on the white walls adds to the color spectrum and creates the feeling of dining in a collectors’ spacious home. Two commissioned works at the entry are by contemporary French painter Fabienne Verdier; each a spectacular polyptych —Linescape I and Linescape II (2015) has nine panels. Among the 11 works are paintings by Josef Albers, Nancy Graves, Robert Indiana, Yayoi Kusam, Tsuyoshi Maekawa and Sean Scully. At one point during our meal, I recognized a major music industry name, who stopped near our table to admire the Alex Katz painting, Anniversary, which captures a couple in a special moment in time.

The BelvedereDuring the four-month construction period, David Codney, the executive chef since 2013, revamped the decidedly Mediterranean-inspired menu, which incorporates seasonal and local ingredients he sources from The Peninsula’s rooftop garden and from his favorite fishmonger.

Our shared lunch for two started with a taramasalata, the popular Greek dip made with fish roe, olive oil and lemon juice. An entire branzino filet followed; it tastes as simply perfect as if it were just grilled outdoors on a stony, Mediterranean beach. This was followed by a tagine, in an exquisite pottery vessel filled with grass-fed lamb, raisin-studded couscous, cumin-flavored yogurt and an array of carrot preparations, including a purée. Dessert featured a Fabergé chocolate egg within which, the surprise — though sadly not a pearl- and diamond-crusted miniature — is a smooth chestnut mousse topped with black cherries and dark chocolate.

With 50 wines by the glass and an amazing list of cocktails prepared in the bar within the new kitchen, dining at The Belvedere brings a new and exciting experience to the established signature restaurant.

The Belvedere

The Peninsula Beverly Hills
9882 S. Santa Monica Blvd.
Beverly Hills, CA 90212

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