Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Pinot & Pizza: Saffron at the Walker House

In 1887, the Walker House was completed along the Santa Fe Railroad line. A land boom was envisioned and the building - then known as the San Dimas Hotel - had 33 rooms and 14 fireplaces. But the boom never came and the hotel never had a single paying guest. It was one of the first buildings in San Dimas and the house went through various uses over the decades - home, school, church, social club - but by 1997 it was vacant and rotting.

Then the city purchased the building and renovated it, and the Walker House became home to organizations like the San Dimas Festival of Arts and the San Dimas Historical Society. In 2009, the restaurant Saffron relocated to the building. The Queen Anne-style mansion sits on San Dimas Avenue, just north of the railroad tracks, the last surviving 1880s-era railroad hotel in Southern California.

A few weeks ago my brother - who bought a condo in San Dimas last year - told me about the Thursday "Pizza & Pinot" nights at Saffron, when pizzas, appetizers and Pinots (both Noir and Grigio) are all half price. I love pizza; I love Pinot; I love half price.

I drove out with my parents in the evening to meet my brother and his friend for dinner. Upon walking into the building and informing the hostess that we had reservations, she asked "Are you eating from the regular menu or the Pizza & Pinot menu?" I answered the latter and she gave us all small menus with the selections (and also one of the main menus, which has the wines listed).

[My camera broke and the screen is now completely black. I cannot see or review any pictures I take; I just have to snap away and hope for the best. The menu pictures turned out a bizarre orange tint that hurts my eyes to look at, so I changed them all to black and white photos. I suppose it fits in with the old-time feel of Saffron.]

The server informed us that any of the red wines are half-price during happy hour. I asked which the most popular is; he said it was only his first week working there but it seemed to him like most people were ordering Pinot Noir.

"Well," I said, "it is Pizza & Pinot night, so I will have the Pinot Noir."

We ordered two bottles of it. It turned out to be a 2010 Puerto Viejo, a Chilean Pinot, and it was actually quite tasty. There wasn't a lot to it - I did not expect a 2010 bottle for $9 (the happy hour price) to be spectacular - but it went very well with the food. We did not need two bottles; neither of my parents wanted more than a glass and my brother and Nick aren't big drinkers, so I ended up drinking about a bottle all by myself. Not that I'm complaining. 

Both my mom and brother started with soup, a watercress potato puree. I have never seen a soup that was both as creamy and cheesy. They loved it.

We started with a couple appetizers for the table. The tempura-battered haricot verts were delicious. I love grean beans and I have never been a big fan of frying them - always thinking it to be gilding the lily - but these were great. The tempura batter was light and airy and the flavor of the beans held up.

The fries were even better than the green beans. Tossed with truffle oil, herbs and shredded Parmesan, when they first hit the table they smelled wonderful and were warm and slightly crisp. As they cooled, they lost a bit of their deliciousness, but they were still some of the best fries I have had in a long time. We used the saffron aioli (that accompanied the green beans) liberally with the fries.

My dad, brother and Nick all ordered the tarragon pesto pizza, with salami, caramelized onions, roasted peppers, sun dried tomatoes, Gouda and goat cheese. I took a slice and it was excellent. The pizzas are quite small, served quartered on a rectangular plate. Think of them more as appetizers than entrees. The server had told us they were roughly ten inch pizzas; they were more like six inches. For happy hour ($7) they are certainly worth it, but the regular, fourteen dollar price tag seems exorbitant.

I originally asked what the "Chef's Creation Pizza" was: the server informed me it was ribeye steak, arugula, cheese, and a lemon yogurt sauce. That seemed awfully fancy. I asked if he'd tried it; he said yes and that, honestly, the other two pizzas were better. So I decided to get the tarragon pesto pizza.

Then my dad, brother, and Nick all ordered that. I didn't want us to be that table, where everyone gets the same thing, so I ordered the chef's creation. And I have to admit, it was much better than I expected. The steak was very good and the oil-kissed arugula was a beautiful complement. The lemon yogurt sauce was overwhelming when you got a bite without steak or much arugula ("That's freaking weird," my brother said upon tasting the yogurt) but overall the three flavors worked well together. 
I wasn't going to get dessert but my brother ordered a cappucino (which he loved) and a creme brulee. The latter sounded really good to me. I took the fruit off of it and gave it to my mom. What was left was the best creme brulee I have had in years: full of vanilla flavor, crispy on top and a perfect semi-solid custard underneath. It was a generous size but I still could have eaten another one.

Overall, I really liked the experience at Saffron. It strikes the right balance between casual and fancy. I would love to return in the spring or summer and sit at one of the tables on the veranda. Even with the two bottles of wine and appetizers, dinner worked out to just over twenty dollars per person, a good deal. (But if it hadn't been happy hour, the bill would have been twice as much, and I cannot say that it would have been worth it.)

I am looking forward to returning to Saffron and trying their lunch menu, which, as is often the case, looks better to me than their regular dinner menu. I am particularly interested in trying the "Spicy Lousiana Sausage Link Sandwich." I will let you know how it goes.


SuperLarge said...

It looks line a fabulous dinner, I'm really impressed with the presentation of the pizza and the creme brulee is beautiful to behold.

Fritos and Foie Gras said...

it looks more like a flatbread than a pizza, I guess, but it really does look totally phenomenal - that steak one that you got.

JustinM said...

You're right, it does look that way. Funny. It was definitely a medium-thickness pizza dough, it just doesn't look like it.

I liked the tarragon pesto pizza best, but I didn't get very good pictures of it, unfortunately. Damn this broken camera.

HB said...

Wow those fries look decadent. So good.

Emily said...

Those deep-fired green beans look amazing! Whoever thought, 'Hmm. You know what those green beans could with? BATTER.' was a genius.