I’m Goin’ Back To Cali

When I was living in Washington, DC., I was always amused by the average “East Coaster’s” perception of California and Californians. Repeatedly, I had to convince people that I was not worried about my impending doom when the Golden State breaks off and sinks into the ocean after an earthquake, nor did I know how to surf. Tops on the list, however, was the impression that we all lived in Hollywood, or very near Hollywood. Even if you mentioned San Francisco, it was presumed that that too was not far from Hollywood, and that there were no other areas of any consequence in the whole state. With that in mind, let me take you along for two of my recent outings in this great state of mine.

Since I’ve now mentioned Hollywood about 4 times already, we’ll start there. Well, not really in Hollywood, but the Greater Los Angeles area. After a day of traipsing around the Third Street Promenade, making a detour to one of the esteemed spots on L.A.’s fabled “cupcake tour” (yes, these are actual desserts and not a clever euphemism for… well, we’ll let your imagination take care of that one…I’ve got a word count to be mindful of here), and sipping libations by the pool at the Loews Hotel like I’m auditioning to be in the video for the remix of Jay-Z’s Big Pimpin’ with Freestyle Fellowship backing him (okay, I made that part up, but wouldn’t that be a cool collabo?), I was ready to check out a new wine bar that a friend of mine had been raving about in Culver City called “Vinum Populi.”

This place is great. It is open late, there’s no stuffiness or pretense, and it fits any budget. My friend was especially tickled by my likening this place to a high-tech arcade for winos in the “Dave and Buster’s” mold. They have you charge up a “power card” so that you can then operate the self-serve wine dispensing receptacles. If you want to just get a sip of something without the hassle of a wine list - or a sommelier trying to convince you that this particular vintage scored very well and is high in tannins, while being simultaneously complex yet oaky - then this is your place. Ever wondered what an $829 bottle of wine tastes like, but they wouldn’t let you and your Payless Shoe Source pump wearin’ friends into the VIP at the after party? Again, this is your spot.

You pay for an individual one ounce pour by inserting your card and then pressing the button of the wine that you’d like to try. Most pours that I tried were in the $2-$4 range, but some, like that $829 bottle was $16.76. I tried wines from the Buches du Rhone region in France, to the Marlborough region of New Zealand. I hit the Bio Bio River Valley of Chile, and even some good ol’ Napa Valley wines, with which a San Francisco Bay Area native like me is much more familiar. A cool $20 will get you a first rate, international wine-tasting experience, right in the heart of the industrial-retro-chic-nouveau-dog-walking-game-show producing district, otherwise known as Culver City.

Okay, East Coasters, California is a big place and unlike driving through Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania in 4 or 5 hours, that amount of time on the road would still have you somewhere in the middle of California, struggling to find a decent radio station. So hop a Southwest flight up to San Francisco. In 55 minutes you can be smack dab in what many say is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Sure, it’s a little chilly most of the time (you know the saying, “the coldest winter I ever experienced was a summer in San Francisco…”), but with hundreds of world-class dining establishments to choose from, I’ll vouch for it every time.

Until last night, “Paul K Restaurant” was enjoying its 37th week atop the “Destah Owens Hot 100 Restaurants” list (don’t go googling that just yet). Chef Daryl McDaniels (not from Run DMC) (http://www.paulkrestaurant.com/chef.htm) does amazing things with a pomegranate, creating a colorful fusion of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods, as well as comfort foods like BBQ ribs. With a completely satisfied look on my face, I turned to the folks whom I had never seen before in my life at the table next to mine and proclaimed, “You have GOT to try this!” Last night though, if I may borrow the parlance of my main man Emeril, “Restaurant Gary Danko” http://www.garydanko.com/ “kicked it up a notch.”

It was quite fitting that on this hottest day you’ll ever see in the City by the Bay (it was 94 degrees yesterday, and about 78 when I stepped in for my 10pm reservation), the color scheme and lighting of the interior looked like a beautiful sunset. Although having the requisite white table cloths that all restaurants of this ilk possess - the burnt orange, sequined throw pillow, the mirrored back wall, and eclectic artwork gave - this place a very loungy feel. Sipping a tasty cocktail equipped with an illuminated red neon stirrer (Hibiscus Royale) as I browsed through the menu, it occurred to me that the bar alone might be worth visiting. The spot has a “chef’s tasting menu” where several courses are pre-chosen for you based on the way that the chef feels they complement each other. My adventuresome palate decided to go freestyle on the 2nd page of the menu, choosing my own 5 courses.

If I got into every minute detail about how the waiter brought out an empty bowl with what looked like a paint brush stroke of parmesan, and 4 adjacent dots of the tarragon aioli sauce across the bottom of it, and then proceeded to pour the asparagus soup with hearty pieces of duck prosciutto napoleon from a fancy little white ceramic canister into said bowl after he placed it on the table in front of me, the UTC editors would kill me. I passed my word limit right after my Run DMC reference. Besides, you don’t want to hear about the Risotto with lobster, rock shrimp, zucchini and crispy artichokes in a lemon butter sauce, nor the Citrus Crusted Yellow fin Tuna with the baby artichokes and yellow pepper sauce.

I won’t even go into how I opted for an additional course, since I just couldn’t see denying the waiter the chance to present a cart full of Farmhouse and Artisanal cheeses (I don’t know exactly what those distinctions are either, but don’t they sound good?!) at tableside. Unlike many places that have the waiters looking like the help, the wait staff at “Gary Danko’s” is dressed to the nines in smart black suits that would make Hugo Boss proud. Furthermore, they were about as excited explaining the nuances of the food as I was about eating it.

But really, if I don’t stop running my mouth and talking about the main course that made me look for a neighbor to tell about it again (Lemon Herb Duck Breast with Duck Hash and Rhubarb Compote. Rhubarb…it’s not just for pies anymore) the UTC editors might reprimand me. One last thing though. I was thinking about y’all when dessert rolled. Despite many other great options, I did my version of the proverbial “pour out a little for the homeys that ain’t here,” and made sure to order the Raspberry Souffle with the Blackberry Sorbet. All this talk about these “Slept on Heaters” is making me hungry again.

Destah Owens is a single father of two from Northern California and proud UCLA Bruin who travels the world for his job as a computer engineer. His blog “Souffles in Saigon” is exclusive to Urban Thought Collective.

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May 19th, 2008 at 2:06 am SweetSis says:

my mouth is watering.

May 19th, 2008 at 3:08 am kamalp says:

Wine spot’z soundin’ real fly

May 19th, 2008 at 3:52 am CeaseNYC says:

Laughin on the Cali stuff cause i do that to my cousin like ALL THE TIME lmao but i aint never been there so how’m I sposed to know a sense of where stuff is.

May 19th, 2008 at 6:45 am Coretta Scott Queen says:

You are a SERIOUS foodie! Love a black man with diverse interests. Good 4 U.

May 19th, 2008 at 9:28 am PATTY CAKE says:

I’m visiting San Fran in three weeks. I will definitely make it a point to try one of these spots. They sound amazing.

May 19th, 2008 at 9:38 am Regina Holloway says:

Please tell me you weren’t dining alone. Curiously, no mention of a companion. Makes a girl go hmmmmmm.

May 19th, 2008 at 9:44 am heatmizer says:

now i see where the souffles part comes from! dude is living nice!

May 19th, 2008 at 9:45 am gotyourmadness says:

i love the bay area it is the treasure of cali

May 19th, 2008 at 9:50 am 2knw2love says:

yum yum yum!

May 19th, 2008 at 9:57 am lolalova says:

the pic set it off. what a presentation! i wanna eat like that daily…let me cut on this food network and do this thang!

May 19th, 2008 at 10:10 am Ed80 says:

The wine place sounds ingenious. Just my kind of place sounds like. Cheap yet different.

May 19th, 2008 at 10:12 am Tamara T. Gregory says:

Good looking out on the Vinum Populi spot. Can’t wait to check it out. Thanks for hooking an LA girl up with what’s happening in her own backyard.

May 19th, 2008 at 11:31 am superjonsey1 says:

i’ll have to check these places out!

May 19th, 2008 at 11:53 am Tina says:

So funny whenever I travel I get the same response from people who have never been to Cali.

May 19th, 2008 at 11:55 am culturepop says:

this young man knows how to describe a meal. quit your day job LMBAO!

May 19th, 2008 at 12:00 pm daydreamer says:

frisco is a treat for real. from the top transpo to the food and the history - its the west coast new york. i would live there if the cost of living were not so high. but a visit is in order. thanks for the restaurant heads up man

May 19th, 2008 at 12:10 pm turninheads says:

Dayum. This top raman for lunch ain’t looking too good now.

May 19th, 2008 at 12:25 pm Destah Owens says:

California Loooooooooooove! I know the feelin’ CeaseNYC. My boy was trying to make me understand Bronx/Brooklyn/Queens last time I was there. Check out Calle Ocho on 82nd/Columbus if you haven’t already. ReginaH: Peep the Pomegranate Cosmo in the pic. Wasn’t mine. Unfortunately, dinner for 2 will make you use your Tax relief check. But it’s worth it! Me Too LolaLova…but that’s why I keep my gym membership. As for my day job? Um, well, if all of you will mail checks to 1511…LOL. I hope this wine idea catches on. I was sampling the vino and it had me hummin’ the Too Short/B-Legit hook (Classic Bay Area “heater” if you didn’t know): “The places I go, make me sooooo International…” LMAO

May 19th, 2008 at 1:02 pm pmatters says:

May have to check Cali out one of these days

May 19th, 2008 at 2:00 pm Ashley says:


May 19th, 2008 at 3:00 pm nicq says:

Love Cali

May 19th, 2008 at 3:55 pm letsunite says:


May 19th, 2008 at 3:58 pm mindyomanners says:

Mr Owens do you provide PERSONAL delivery?

May 19th, 2008 at 4:42 pm Destah Owens says:

Whew! It’s gettin’ hot in here! The better question is, what are you going to do with your 30 minutes? (thanks, Pizza Hut). And, um…mind your manners