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For a brunch beyond compare, it’s Saddle Peak Lodge in Calabasas |

For a brunch beyond compare, it’s Saddle Peak Lodge in Calabasas

It is said of New York that it’s a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. (Largely because, frankly, I couldn’t afford to live there!)

The converse can be said of Southern California: It’s a great place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit here.


LDN_L_DINE_SADDLEPEAK-3I was reminded of this one recent warm Sunday morning when I considered where to take visitors from (as it happens) New York.

Every year, they head west for a month to escape the chill of winter. So, they’ve been here. They’ve played tourist: Mann’s Chinese, homes of the stars, Universal Studios, Disneyland, the beach towns, the coastal drive and so forth.

They’ve done it. And I’ve done it. And I didn’t want to do it again. And so, I opted for the always-dramatic Santa Monica Mountains, a wondrous sight that quickly rises when you get off the 101 at the Los Virgenes exit. And I headed for one of the Valley’s — and the region’s — hidden gems: Saddle Peak Lodge for Sunday brunch. It’s a reminder of why I live here. Not just for the weather, not just for the sushi and the Chinese food, but also for the drama of the landscape and the history concealed within it.

Brunch at Saddle Peak makes you wonder why you’d ever want to live anywhere else.
Saddle Peak Lodge is a restaurant with a history. It dates back at least a century — a brochure available at the entrance titled “History” suggests no one is really sure — as a destination for gold miners, a place to camp, a general store, a roadhouse, a movie set, a weekend retreat and, since 1985, in its current incarnation as an upscale dining destination, a place for game — elk, buffalo and emu are found on the menu, separately, and in a Chef’s Game Trio.

But game is found just once on the brunch menu, for which most opt to sit outdoors, on the patio with its view of distant Saddle Peak, its hummingbirds, its foraging critters — and the occasional wedding on the edge of the patio. The menu is decidedly fancy, a sit-down brunch (rather than a buffet, which would probably thrill the foraging critters!) with dishes that are recognizable — but also given a steroid boost to make them so much more than they usually are.

But first, let us deal with the skillet hoecake. The popular story behind the name comes from the contention that field hands would cook cornmeal over an open fire, using their hoes as skillets. Which is sweet — and possibly apocryphal. For there’s also evidence that “hoe” was simply a colloquialism for a skillet. Whatever.

The hoecake at Saddle Peak is an essential side dish — or, as the menu refers to it, “For the Table” (along with the wild game sausage trio, the goodie basket of breads, the bacon, breakfast potatoes and fruit) — and is a joy to dig into. It’s served in a small skillet, dripping with maple syrup, impossible to resist. This is time to forgo your low-carb diet; it’s worth it.

LDN_L_DINE_SADDLEPEAK-4
Even a simple toasted bagel is accompanied by smoked salmon and veggies at Saddle Peak Lodge in Calabasas. (Photo by Merrill Shindler)

The brunch menu meanders from a proper platter of house-cured, smoked Norwegian salmon with a toasted bagel, cream cheese, cucumbers, red onions, tomatoes and capers, through a goat cheese and broccoli quiche, a salmon or bacon eggs Benedict, a flat iron steak with eggs, French toast, buttermilk waffles.

The choices do not include anything that might be confused with a Denny’s breakfast Slam — though I guess you could create one with the two-egg side added to the waffles. But I’ve long preferred the lunch side of brunch to the breakfast side. And Saddle Peak does not disappoint.

The flat iron steak certainly pays homage to the savory joys of lunch. But even more so, there’s the rosemary roast leg of lamb sandwich with sweet potato fries — a delicious reminder that the kitchen at Saddle Peak is a bastion of fine meat cooking.

There’s an oversize Snake River Farms wagyu beef burger on a brioche with blue cheese, a fried egg and French fries on the side. Should you want to go even lunchier, the roasted Skuna Bay salmon is a finely turned hunk of fish, with a mixed grill of veggies — a perfect lunch, say I.

And since we cannot live without salads here in the Santa Monica Mountains (or anywhere else in the region), there’s a fine seared albacore model, and a first-rate Mary’s chicken Cobb.

For brunch, we also need our alcoholic-tinged exotica — which the moody bar in the front cranks out — Bellinis, mimosas, a properly spicy Bloody Mary and even a bottomless mimosa for $18.

For dessert, there’s banana bread pudding, cappuccino pots de crème and a trio of housemade sorbets.

As you leave, consider the taxidermy in the main dining room, and the half timbers and the fireplace. Consider returning for some elk fillet, or bison short ribs. And then, head for Malibu Creek State Park. And hike out to the old “M*A*S*H” set. And be glad you live here, and not there. As they say, that’s a nice place to visit — but this is a grand place to live.

Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him email at mreats@aol.com.

Saddle Peak Lodge
Rating: 3 stars
Address: 419 Cold Canyon Road, Calabasas
Information: 818-222-3888, www.saddlepeaklodge.com
Cuisine: American
When: Dinner, every day. Brunch, Sunday only.
Details: Full bar. Reservations essential.
Atmosphere: Century-old rustic hunting lodge, in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, one of the most dramatic restaurants in Southern California, and probably in America, with as fine outdoor patio for Sunday brunch, and an inside dining room with a roaring fire and many animal heads. A great place for brunch, with dishes both traditional and modern.
Prices: About $75 per person for dinner; $25 per person for brunch.
Suggested dishes: For brunch, Smoked Salmon with a Bagel and More ($18), Goat Cheese and Broccoli Quiche ($18), Eggs Benedict ($21), Flat Iron Steak ($35), Buttermilk Waffles ($16), French Toast ($17), Leg of Lamb Sandwich ($21), SPL Burger ($21), Roast Salmon ($24), Albacore Tuna Salad ($21), Chicken Cobb Salad ($21), Skillet Hoecake ($7), Wild Game Sausage ($12), Bread Basket ($12).
Cards: MC, V.

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