Epicurean star shines in Malibu’s mountains

Executive Chef Steven Rojas

Saddle Peak Lodge gets a Michelin star.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

If you’ve never had the opportunity to visit a Michelin star-rated restaurant, get ready to revamp your standard of fine dining. The 100-year-old Saddle Peak Lodge at the border of Calabasas and Malibu has received one of the highest gastronomic honors accorded to dining establishments-a coveted Michelin star.

The local restaurant, which serves game such as duck, deer, buffalo and elk, as well as a host of other items, was one of only a handful of Los Angeles area restaurants receiving a star last month from the “Michelin Guide.”

“It is a wonderful honor to receive the Michelin star,” General Manager Iain Walling said. “Steven has put together a very talented team.”

That would be Executive Chef Steven Rojas, a Southern Californian of Argentinean extract, who met Walling when they worked together at another L.A. area restaurant, Patina (also receiving a star from Michelin).

“After I worked at a three-star restaurant in Spain called Martin Berastegui, I realized I knew fine dining,” the 28-year-old Rojas said. “They took it to another level. It’s not just the food. It comes down to the service, the food, the ambiance, everything.”

Michelin first started awarding stars to European restaurants in its 1926 travel guide and they quickly became the industry rating par excellence. Standards are high and rivalries are furious, with many a restaurant’s fortunes living and dying by a Michelin notice.

Saddle Peak’s rustic ambiance, with timbered rooflines, massive rock walls, saloon portraits of naked ladies and stuffed heads of boar and moose is derived from its history as a local hunting lodge in the late 1800s.

“Saddle Peak is such a beautiful place,” Rojas said, while leading a tour through the dining rooms festooned with twinkling white lights and warmed by flickering stone fireplaces. “The first time I ate here, before I worked here, I thought the food doesn’t match the restaurant. Now, I think the food matches the restaurant.”

The lodge went through several incarnations as a pony express shop, a roadhouse, a general store, and possibly a bordello, along a rugged mountain trail, evolving into a summer resort camp in the 20s and became a local hangout for movie stars filming at nearby ranches.

Purchased in the 1990s by Ann Ehringer, a makeover that was in the process was completed with antique items found from barn and yard sales throughout the country.

The stone terrace is inviting during ambient months, with a view so spectacular one could envision a storybook wedding there. In fact, many do. “We set up tents here for weddings,” Rojas said. “We take all our rosemary and lavender from these bushes.”

But Michelin stars come down to the food, and, as Roja’s sous chef Adam Horton, 27, said, “It’s about consistency of quality. That’s the reason you maintain stars.”

“Ann had a particular vision that we try to uphold without sacrificing creativity,” Rojas said. “Creativity in everything from sauces to dessert. Our menu changes every Wednesday, according to what we pick up from the local farmers’ market.”

“It’s all about mixing and matching, developing new tastes,” Horton said.

Rojas considers a key element to maintaining a Michelin-rated kitchen is in having a training staff. “Knowing how to control a kitchen, how to teach and how to use salt. These are the three most important aspects to running a good kitchen and the three easiest things to screw up,” he said.

Inside this Michelin-rated kitchen, Roja’s crew members are also young, smiling and eager. One is earnestly tossing almonds at a prep station while another is carefully turning out tiny, fresh-from-the-oven Madeleines for desserts. It melts in your mouth.

“You want to see what makes really good purée?” Rojas asks. “We don’t just mash our potatoes and put them through a ricer, we use a special sieve,” and he points to a young man pushing mashed potatoes through what looks like an industrial-strength water-filter.

“See?” Rojas offers a spoonful. “Creamy, huh? That’s with clarified browned butter.”

“We use a wood grill for our game, no gas, very clean,” Rojas continued. “We get our game from Oklahoma and Texas, hare and guinea fowl from Scotland, elk from New Zealand. But we also have sweet potato agnolotti (stuffed pasta) for vegetarians.”

GM Walling says Saddle Peak has already seen a boost from the star rating during weekly reservations. “And we are booked up the next three weekends,” he said.

“When we got the star, Ann wrote my and Adam’s parents, thanking them,” Rojas said. “She told them she decided to get us new ovens, a new refrigerator and French flat tops. Our equipment is 15 to 20 years old, so this will give us a powerful kitchen.”

One of Roja’s workers interrupts to say, “The spiny lobster. I don’t know, it tastes different.”

“Go check it out,” Rojas said to Horton, who is already halfway through the door to the kitchen which, with the new upgrades, might, as Rojas said, “soon be worthy of two stars.”

The Saddle Peak Lodge is located at 419 Cold Canyon Road, Calabasas. 818.222.3888