Thanks to chef Bradley Miller, the Topanga hideaway now offers cuisine to rival its idyllic setting
I'm writing this in a purple font, the same color as the seventh ray, or so I'm told, which is why the napkins at Inn of the Seventh Ray in Topanga Canyon are violet. So is the bouquet of wispy wildflowers on each table. And years ago (the last time I ventured to the idyllic spot for dinner), so were the tablecloths. Way back then, I remember incense sticks stuck in the ground around the trees on the terrace heaving powerfully scented smoke into the air. And a rich flower child in a Chanel suit and bare feet with a daisy tucked behind her ear.
The food then was not the macrobiotic feast I or anyone else might have envisioned, more like just plain inedible. A cuisine only someone with limited experience and/or limited tastebuds could love.
It's not that way anymore.
The Inn has been many things through the years — the purported summer retreat of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson in the 1930s, later a church (or two), a garage, a gas station and auto junkyard before this neglected property became a restaurant. Until recently, though, it was more a curiosity than a destination for anybody who cared about eating.
Now it has a serious chef and some serious food.
The food from chef Bradley Miller is nuanced and delicious. This is not the hippie cuisine of old — well, except for the fluffy multigrain bread baked fresh there every day and served in thick, comforting slabs. This guy is a hidden talent who has been cooking at the Inn for more than a year now without much fanfare. The son of a butcher attended Scottsdale Culinary Institute, did some stages in Europe and cooked around the West before landing at Patina for a year. He was also a contestant on Fox's "Hell's Kitchen," poor guy.
At the Inn, Miller has made it his mission to buy mostly organic and local produce and is conscientious about naming the farms on the menu. Poultry and meats are naturally raised. He carefully sources his seafood. He's even introduced a touch of molecular gastronomy to the menu.
Shrimp cocktail 2010 (given a date like the dishes on Ferran Adrià's lauded menu at El Bulli) is five not-so-big shrimp, each speared with a plastic pipette, very similar to a dish at the Bazaar by José Andrés. The idea is to bite into the shrimp and suck the loose tomato sauce out of the pipette at the same time. Think of it as a do-it-yourself cocktail. Across from the shrimp, as on a board game, are five perfectly round olive-oil poached tomatoes. The flavors in this dish really pop, but I'm not a big fan of the sucking on a plastic pipette. Or eating out of glass test tubes, for that matter.
But hand-chopped beef tartare with a 65-degree (i.e., slow-poached) egg rides the cutting edge without getting too far out there. I love the way the beef combines with the still-runny-yolked egg, and the fingerling potatoes are dusted with espelette pepper from the Basque country.
When I asked about the chicken, I discovered it's cooked sous-vide. Yowsa! At Inn of the Seventh Ray? How Topanga is changing, despite all the longhairs and rugged types glimpsed as you drive through town. OK, three of the guests at the next table are wearing turbans, and they are not East Indians. But they are scarfing down a Maggie's Farm green salad like they haven't eaten in months.
And in the secluded wooden pavilion that holds just one table behind us, guests are drinking wine with enthusiasm and holding forth on politics. All of which is to say the guest list is diverse. Maybe since this is such a big-ticket restaurant for Topanga, it's mostly tourists and Angelenos who treasure the Inn's unique country-elegant setting.
Most of the appetizers are excellent, even one you'd think might be a little dull, the soup. Cauliflower-red pepper purée is, for example, full of deep-throated flavor, tasting more of the sweet roasted red peppers than cauliflower, but lovely as a first course.
Seared scallops with a summer succotash exudes appeal both because of the quality of the scallops and the quality of the cooking: nicely browned on the outside while still quite rare at the center. Another dish that stands out is the angelhair pasta with the classic mix of tomato with extra-virgin olive oil and basil, a perfect pasta for a summer night.
Grilled portobello mushroom, though, is tricked out with apricot sauce, pesto — and truffle oil. At least Miller uses the oil with a lighter hand than most. The mushrooms themselves are meaty and delicious.
Servers are more professional and savvier about food than before, though the place is so big that sometimes your waiter inexplicably disappears for a while. They're enthusiastic about the chef and know the dishes. I just wish the menu changed more from week to week or included more specials. But this way it's easier for the chef to deal with the ebb and flow of customers to this fairly remote spot.
Of course, I had to be the guinea pig and try the crispy vegan duck. "That's 'duck' in quotes," our waiter explains. "Some people just don't get it." This is a hard one to love, merely strips of tofu skin, lightly crisped. It's not awful, but not very compelling. I'd rather have a square of Meiji soft tofu with grated ginger than this faux duck. But I guess the point is to have vegans feel they're getting something fancy too, just like everybody else at the table.
Loch Duarte salmon is slow-cooked, the better to show off its velvety texture and subtle flavor. Vadouvan (an Indian spice mixture) adds a mysterious note to the smashed potatoes underneath. And that sous-vide chicken? It's rubbed with achiote essence and browned at the end. Inside, the chicken is moist as can be and served with a soft, creamy polenta, baby turnips and beets, sometimes a few ramps or garlic scapes.
Filet mignon gets a traditional oven-roasted treatment and comes out just fine, dressed up with an artichoke, potato and goat cheese cake and some caramelized onions. Roasted lamb loin is fine too, served with a scattering of this and that, including morels with a deep, earthy flavor.
The wine list has some real finds on it, put together with passion and interest, not just by rote. Some of the wines are made from organic grapes to fit the restaurant's philosophy.
I didn't notice anyone skipping dessert, though they tend to be quite sweet. Half or them are vegan, including a carob cake with espresso ice cream. Cinnamon sugar-banana beignets with cardamom semifreddo and pineapple rum relish is a good one to share, but I'm wishing I'd tried the almond milk crème brûlée made with soaked, whizzed almonds and served with organic berries. That sounds like something folks on both sides of the vegan aisle could appreciate.
Maybe all the nights are beautiful at this magical spot. The tables are set far apart. Fairy lights are twined around old California sycamores. Frogs belt out a chorus from the creek, and some nights a jazz combo starts up on the other side of the water.
The mood is deeply relaxed, a place to linger over dinner with friends. According to the printed story of the Inn, "We want you to rest unhurried and partake of the angelic vibrations of the violet ray."
Count me in.