Sunday, February 5, 2012

A California Sunset, Cambria and Louisiana Gumbo...

Since I left my beloved California in the late 1980s and moved my life to Venice I’ve often been asked: What do you miss the most? It never takes me long to reply and check off the first three things on my list: family, friends and the weather. Often I stop there, but if I feel I’m in good hands I proceed to tell how my heart still sheds a tear for the sight and scent of the Pacific Ocean and its sunsets.    
Sun over Pacific Ocean from Moonstone Beach, Cambria California

Throughout my years in Venice I’ve tried to tackle and cure my California sunset nostalgia. I’ve often busied myself in my backyard at dusk simply to see the sun’s rays reflect their magic across my garden or sat at a westward facing café to watch the shadows of medieval churches encroach upon nearby calle, campi or canals.  I’ve turned my back to the east and stood at the peak of the Accademia Bridge hoping to catch a glimpse of the day’s light disappear behind a cluster of Renaissance palaces, and I’ve climbed the stairs to the top of the ferryboat departing the Lido to eye a glimmer of sun pouncing off nearby islands.  But each time I fail to find an unobstructed view of the sun kissing the horizon I’m left with a tinge of disappointment. From the northeastern coast of this beautiful peninsula the best sunsets are layered hues of gold, orange, pink, purple and blue coloring the sky, and though twilight in the Serenissima is marvelous it can’t quite compare to a California sunset. So, this past month when my husband and I traveled back to California I filled myself to the marrow with the things I miss and was treated to one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen. It happened in Cambria, a charming seaside town midpoint between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Boardwalk along Moonstone Beach, Cambria California

The fireplace was lit in our oh my goodness what a view room at the quaint White Water Inn on Moonstone Beach Drive.  Warm and cozy, a glass of cabernet from nearby Paso Robles in hand, we were glad to put our feet up after a late afternoon walk along the boardwalk—a windswept path that lies opposite the Inn for no other reason than to welcome and guide visitors and locals through the indigenous shrubs, trees, flora and sea life that stretch along the rugged central coastline. 

     We had settled back on the sage colored couch in front of the bay window. The sun was moving closer to the ocean and a flock of seagulls were riding the Pacific wind. We let ourselves breath in the peace of Moonstone Beach.  But as so often happens at that hour of the day I began to feel the first pangs of hunger. Where should we have dinner? I turned my gaze away from the Pacific, set the wine glass down and took a guest diary from the stack on the end table. I turned the pale blue pages and read the thoughtful notations left by other travelers. Their words spelled out the same sense of harmony and pleasure I was feeling and it seemed their sojourns at this gracious Inn had gifted them with all the time in the world. I summed up our restaurant options and conferred with my husband. After a quick call to reserve a table at Madeline’s on Main Street I turned my attention back to the window. The sun had gone from being an enormous white globe splashing light on the deep blue ocean to turning its celestial backdrop gold and orange. I threw on a scarf and jacket, grabbed the camera, stepped outside onto the windy porch and started clicking. The sky burned behind the winter wind and the sea turned to ink. 
California Sunset

The sight was incredible and I had to force myself to stop taking photos or risk viewing it alone and strictly through the lens.  Convinced that at least one of the dozen or so photos would capture the moment I returned to the warmth of our room and settled back on the couch next to my husband to watch the longest, brightest and most intense sunset I’ve ever seen slip into night. It was the perfect dose of medicine for my California sunset nostalgia and should hold me over…at least for a while. 

Now a bit about the White Water Inn and Madeline’s Restaurant: A few months ago, as destiny and a Google search would have it, I found the White Water Inn online.  I was drawn in by the photos of crisp-yellow cottages set between a rich green hillside and the sapphire-blue Pacific. The rooms appeared bright and welcoming so I shot off an email requesting more information and then followed up with a phone call. I never expected the voice on the other end of the line would belong to a childhood friend. That’s right! I was calling Cambria, California from Venice, Italy and an old acquaintance from my Southern California neighborhood was answering my call. Not only that, he proudly told me he’s the owner of the Inn. My old friend and I were both surprised and pleased that this beautiful seaside town had put us in contact once again. Coincidence had nudged me in the right direction. I won’t hesitate to return, and I wholeheartedly suggest it to anyone who longs for a relaxing get-away in Cambria.
White Water Inn on Moonstone Beach, Cambria California

We entered Madeline’s—named for the owner-chef David Stoothoff’s daughter—at 7 p.m. We’re not accustomed to eating dinner before 8 p.m. but Cambria is a small town, and most restaurants close by 9. We followed the maître to a lovely private table in an area framed by solid wood racks totting bottles of California Central Coast’s finest wines slipped into pigeonhole slots. We browsed the menu by candlelight and after I assured my husband that an appetizer of Crab and Lobster cakes was simply Polpettine di granchi e aragosta we decided to share an order, and chose our entrees, too. Next, we selected our wine but were told they had just sold the last bottle. No problem. We were open to anything that was red, good, fuller than Pinot Noir, maybe with a hint of Syrah, very little Zinfandel and certainly Californian.  (Now, as I’m writing, I understand our request may have sounded quite high-maintenance and I see why our very professional young waitress was thrown into a bit of a dilemma.) Soon the chef and owner of the restaurant was tableside. He was aware of our wine request and dinner order—I was having the Lamb Porterhouse pan seared and topped with pomegranate and zinfandel sauce, and my husband chose something he’ll never find in Italy: Louisiana Seafood Gumbo. (How gumbo got on a menu in Cambria I’ll explain in a moment.) Chef David Stoothoff was very kind, and very knowledgeable. He diligently pulled out and pushed back bottles of wine from their slots until he came across a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc, aged 20 months in American, French and Hungarian oak barrels. The blend sounded perfect for our plates and palates, and when he told us his father had chosen this wine for the restaurant I was sold. The wine that sounded perfect, and tasted even better, is RN Estate Wine Cuvee des Artistes from Paso Robles.

The restaurant crowd had thinned and we had finished our exceptional dinner. When the plates were cleared and the crumbs were swept from the white linen tablecloth we asked if the chef had a free moment to chat. My curious streak and plans for this blog post got me to ask David about his restaurant and in particular how the Louisiana gumbo my husband was raving about made it onto his menu. His answer was unexpected and revealed that David Stoothoff is more than a fine chef; he’s a fine American and humanitarian. In 2005 when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast David couldn’t bear to stay in Cambria and watch the aftermath of the hurricane that had destroyed another famous coastline. He knew people would need to be fed and did what he knows how to do so very well. He packed up his kitchen gear, got himself to New Orleans and started cooking for the doctors and Red Cross rescue workers who were trying to make sense out of disaster. For twelve hours a day he worked pots and pans on a stove in a tented make-shift kitchen, and it seems most of the time gumbo was on the menu! David Stoothoff was a blessing for the doctors and volunteers during those long, stressful days. He could have returned to Cambria and kept his experience for himself, but instead he decided to pay tribute to New Orleans and continue to forge a deep relationship between the two coasts by making gumbo a star player at Madeline’s.


  1. Marie, I was so blessed to have gotten to see you,again, and meet your wonderful husband, Roberto. I can understand your nostalgia, as my heart aches ever so slightly at the thought of ever moving away from the California Coastline. I don't take for granted and do enjoy each and every golden sunset that I am lucky enough to see. Thanks for sharing your travels and love of California. I may even schedule a trip to Cambria someday soon. Caio.

  2. Janice Hansen-TrujilloFebruary 6, 2012 at 7:55 AM

    Marie, I too missed the California beaches and sunsets when I lived in the mid-west. Every visit to California always included a day at the beach, even if the weather was bad. I enjoyed reading about Cambria and hope to travel there soon.

  3. Marie, when one more of these sunsets embraces me I will now think of you along with my dear sister who when she would come home to California the first words from her as she would disembark from her flight were "Oh the salt air, let's head to the beach. We don't get these sunsets". There are no coincidences in life just connected to the great love that is constantly reaching out to us. Thanks for sharing yours.

  4. It's me, Susie. I don't know what an url from me would be! So let's see if this comment can be inserted.
    Which is: This was LOVELY, Marie.
    I'm NOT a robot.

  5. Hi Ladies,

    Thank you all for your warm comments. I hope each and everyone of you has a chance to visit this lovely area of California. I find it to be one of the most relaxing places I've traveled to. Thank you for stopping by!

    A presto,

  6. I, too, miss the California coastline and its gorgeous sunsets. I lived in Southern CA from 1972 to 1992 and have been in the Midwest ever since. Whenever I get back to Del Mar, the first thing I want to do is walk on the beach in the early morning hours and later in the evening to watch the sun dip below the horizon.

    Years ago, my husband and I camped near Cambria. Next time we're in the area, we'll be sure to stay at the charming inn you've mentioned (we're past our camping days!), as well as dining at Madeline's. The food (and wine) sound wonderful!

    I've only recently discovered your lovely blog and am anxious to peruse your archives. Thanks for sharing your gorgeous photos.

  7. There is just something extra special about California residents. Maybe it's because it's as far west as most of us will ever go and it's almost like seeing the sun set at the end of the world.