By: Guest Wine Chix, Linda Milks
Linda Milks, a former English teacher, is a food, wine and travel writer living in Southern California. Linda has been involved in the culinary arts throughout the years. She publishes on a variety of sites including Life-Uncorked.com and has a passion for sharing her experiences with her readers. She counts her food and wine experiences in Spain and the Tuscan region of Italy as a first-hand lesson in all that these areas have to offer, and she has proof of her enthusiasm by the wines she acquired during her travels. Linda is an active member in the Wine Review Council which meets regularly to taste and pair wines from all over the world.
CLAREMONT, CA–CITY OF TREES AND MUCH MORE
Claremont’s Restaurant Week brought a group of IFWTWA (International Food, Wine, & Travel Writers Association) to this beautiful city to see what it has to offer. The large, established trees, for which the city is known, and the small village atmosphere welcome visitors. In addition, the diversity in architecture found in its homes and commercial core reflecting various architectural periods from Victorian to Craftsman to Spanish Colonial Revival, charm those visiting this community in Southern California. In addition to all this beauty, Claremont is known for the Claremont Colleges, some of the most prestigious schools in the country. Pomona College was established in 1888 in “the New England style” and more colleges soon followed to make up the five undergraduate colleges known as the Claremont Colleges.
The DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel in Claremont at 555 W. Foothill Blvd. provided the perfect contemporary and comfortable accommodations for our trip, including a divine Sweet Dreams bed. The DoubleTree Hotel also served as the location for our preview of Claremont’s Restaurant Week. The hotel’s courtyard is able to accommodate large groups in a lush, tropical environment, and our group enjoyed sampling all that was to come during Claremont Restaurant Week that ran from July 10-19. This peek into the dining in Claremont confirmed that the city has a plethora of fine dining establishments.
Our first stop of our tour was Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, the largest botanic garden dedicated to California native plants. The highlight of the visit was its Butterfly Pavilion where we learned that the butterflies only have a temporary home in the pavilion during the spring and summer, and on August 2, 2015, there will be a Butterfly Release Party. It was a joy to walk among all the butterflies and to my delight, one landed on my finger and traveled there until I had to encourage it to leave.
Next door to the DoubleTree that evening PianoPiano Dueling Piano Bar called out our names. The two pianists provide great entertainment with their banter back and forth while challenging each other to provide crowd-pleasing songs. Birthday guests are frequently called to the stage, and our group was not to be denied the chance to have one of our own perform. What a great ending to a wonderful day.
After a large breakfast freshly prepared for all guests at the DoubleTree, we trekked out for a walk of the Village of Claremont. This city is filled with locally owned stores in Claremont Village, the Packing House and Claremont Village Square.
Some Crust Bakery at 119 Yale Avenue welcomed our group with freshly baked pastries. A bakery has stood at this Claremont address since 1916. The prestigious Claremont Colleges request many deliveries a week from Some Crust. In addition to the colleges, Some Crust is known for its beautiful wedding cakes. The bakery prepared 32 wedding cakes the week of our visit. Locals who often eat at Some Crust call themselves “Crusties”, and the bakery provides a bumper sticker to that effect.
Owner, Fred Zitar, greeted us at 42nd Street Bagel Café at 225 Yale Avenue. Bagels are authentic to New York City methods of preparing those perfect delights. Being a lover of Manhattan, I was thrilled to see that the interior reflects the roots of this fine establishment with a scene straight from 42nd Street with many popular plays displayed on the paintings of the buildings. Once again, the Colleges of Claremont provide a significant amount of business for 42nd Street Bagel Café with approximately 30-40 dozen bagels delivered to the colleges every week. Currently you can find 27 types of bagels and 10 types of cream cheese schmear.
Since we had only gone to one bakery and one bagel stop this morning, we ventured out to Last Drop Café, 119 Harvard Avenue, owned by Mike Manning. We were presented with yummy cookies (the banana chocolate chip being a crowd favorite) and a variety of freshly made sandwiches. One in our group eats gluten-free and vegan so Mike prepared a special sandwich meeting those requirements. Last Drop Café serves Italian-made Illy Coffee and espresso, one of my favorite coffees, to accompany those scrumptious cookies and sandwiches.
After all this eating, the perfect attraction to visit was the Folk Music Center at 220 Yale Avenue. This magical place opened in 1958 and is home to hundreds of rare and antique musical instruments. If you are in the mood to learn a new instrument, you can take lessons on the harmonica, harp, ukulele, slide guitar, banjo or mandolin. In addition to lessons, the Folk Music Center hosts a range of top performers and for 32 years has presented the Folk Music Festival with the likes of Ben Harper (whose mother, Ellen Harper owns the Folk Music Center), Jackson Browne, and Taj Mahal.
One of my favorite visits in the village of Claremont is the Cheese Cave at 325 Yale Avenue. A large, silver cow greeted us in the window of this shop where we sampled a goat cheese, a pasteurized sheep’s milk cheese, and a cow’s milk cheese. All of these cheeses come from small artisan cheese-making farms. My favorite was the River’s Edge Chevre from Logsden, Oregon. Marnie Clarke, co-owner with her sister Lydia, shared her knowledge of the wide variety of cut-to-order cheeses. One of the facts we learned is that sheep’s milk is higher in butter fat than either goat’s or cow’s milk, but sheep give a smaller amount of milk. If you are thinking of adding one of these animals to your backyard so you can make your own cheese, keep that fact in mind.
Hotel Casa 425, 425 W. First Street, was our next stop. This stylish boutique hotel and lounge with a tranquil courtyard merges California Mission architecture with a contemporary flare. Twenty eight guest rooms as well as meeting and event space invite either the traveler who enjoys a sophisticated atmosphere or an organization that wants a quality venue for meetings. We saw a beautifully decorated outdoor living room complete with water fountains and fire pits as well as Casa 425 Lounge, creating an atmosphere of total relaxation for its guests. With prices ranging from $195-$230, this hotel would be an ideal stop to indulge yourself while visiting Claremont.
Time for more food! We were welcomed for lunch at The Junction, 232 Yale Avenue, known for its contemporary fusion of Spanish and Chinese cuisine. Our first glimpse enticing us as we approached The Junction was the signage on the window advertising “Ginger Butter Escargot”. My thoughts were that this restaurant is right up my alley. Chef Johan’s mission is to add a twist to his dishes so it’s something no one has tried. The name, The Junction, comes from the idea that it is a meeting place of food and friends.
Once we were seated, the plates just kept coming. I highly recommend you do as we did and enjoy a meal consisting of small plates. Some of what we sampled were the Jalapeno Bomb made of crab, jalapeno and cheese; and the Scallop Carpaccio, both tantalizing our mouths as well as our eyes, consisting of thinly sliced U-10 Scallops, Seaweed, Micro-Greens, and Extra Virgin Olive Oil and topped with small bits of Nasturtiums. Tempura Battered Soft Shell Crab topped with Salad Mix and a special Honey Wasabi Aioli appeared in a soft Taco Shell, again, another fine example of fusion and a wonderful taste surprise. Not to be disappointed, the Jumbo Escargot baked with a twist of Ginger Infused Butter arrived next in the lineup of small plates. Our taste buds were refreshed once we were served the Watermelon Salad consisting of Watermelon, Arugula, Grated Aged Parmesan Cheese, Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar Glaze. This salad was worth every refreshing bite.
Being totally sated by all this amazing food required some help with digestion, and we found that at our next stop. We journeyed to the Packing House, the largest historic building in the Claremont Village, remaining from the citrus packing days in this city. Today the Packing House is occupied by establishments of dining and entertainment, arts, shops, and professional services. The Packing House Wine Merchants at 540 W. 1st Street invited our group to experience some fine wines. Recently named one of Wine Spectator’s “Best of,” it is a regionally recognized source for boutique wines offering a classic, seasonal menu (and yes, we had more food–a beautifully prepared amuse bouche). Owner, Sal Medina, hosted a wine tasting for our group from his vast selection of 1400 different wines. Sal’s knowledge of wine and his charismatic personality make The Packing House a necessary stop on your exploration of Claremont.
One last stop that we insisted on visiting was Vom Fass, 101 N. Indian Hills Blvd., a specialty grocery and liquor store. Here we found all those specialty oils (nut oils, seed oils, wellness oils, and infused oils) as well as vinegars, gourmet foods, spirits, wines, and gifts. Co-Owner, Kim Peeples, helped us with whisky and scotch tastings, straight out of the large barrels. When we found a particular spirit we liked, we were able to buy it in a variety of small bottle sizes. In addition to scotch and whisky, Vom Fass carries liqueurs, rum, absinthe, and grappa that can be purchased in small quantities after sampling. I will definitely be returning to this visually appealing and unique shop in the future. Before I have that opportunity, I may shop online at their website and will certainly take advantage of their recipes for some amazing dishes.
With Claremont’s close proximity to so much of Southern California, a day trip is feasible, but another overnight trip is what I see in my future.