ROAD TRIP: CAFÉ MAHJAIC - Eureka! There’s Gold in Food Country ~
Hidden in a corner of the world once populated by miners and cowboys, there sits the unassuming wooden building that houses the Café Mahjaic. Perched alongside a dusty, quiet road in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains, Café Mahjaic is the lifelong dream and brainchild of gifted chef and owner John Metropulos. The building itself looms a sort of rustic welcome. It is a greeting from another era, its spacious structure worn and weathered, its facade of windows rising the full length of the building's front. These are windows that look like they hold a story. During dinner, I am told by someone that the structure formerly held a general store. Fascinating.
The building that houses the Café Mahjaic is not far from the site of historic Sutter’s Mill, where James Marshall first found gold. Chef Metropulos’ little Country Café may be secreted away in the heart of gold country, but its existence is clearly not a secret. He chose a building that is somehow inviting of its own accord, like a whispered promise of pie from your grandmother. Approaching is like catching a whiff of that pie cooling on the sill. You’re hooked pretty quickly, or at least I was. Inside the restaurant are simple white tablecloths and fresh cut flowers. Unassuming and unpretentious. Homey, even.
When my sister T first suggested that the Better Half and I trek up to her neck o’ the woods to try one of her favorite mountain eateries, I knew I would like it, but I wondered how much. She has excellent taste, but I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy the things she loves as much as she does. Our tastes are just different, always have been. She’s the healthy outdoor-loving Martha Stewart type, a super home-maker who bakes and decorates. I’m a city-dweller and office worker — though competent in the kitchen I am more of an occasional cook these days. My current passion is dining-out. I love everything busy and urban — she loves to sleep under real stars at night. T is fresh-picked home-grown tomatoes and grilled steak, with a glass of crisp Chardonnay. I’m seared foie gras with truffles and a glass of Veuve Cliquot. Both are bliss, but they’re different. Neither is better really, just depends on what appeals to you in that moment; each experience is enjoyable in its own right. Since T knows my taste fairly well, I figured if she thought this place was something I’d like, it was definitely worth a look-see. We set a date. Come that weekend, the BH and I ound ourselves traveling up to the Sierra mountains.
There is something truly regenerating about being in the country. It smells different. Alive. We don’t really notice what we’re breathing here in the city, what with all the bustle and the hustle that keeps our adrenaline running on nothing but fumes. Though I love the city, there is no good substitute for the effect of sweet country air on the senses. It whets the appetite and lifts the spirits. As we approached our destination on our drive over, I watched the tall graceful sugar pines as they swept by me along the skyline, the green melting to the blue of the sky. I had my face out of the car door like a puppy, the breeze watering my eyes and the air kissing my skin with its sweetness. Everything felt so very California — this was my Golden State at her finest.
The six of us arrived at Café Mahjaic after this lovely scenic drive through California Gold Country, It was Father’s Day weekend, so T and I had our Mom and Pop with us as well. My sister’s husband the Postman had driven us all to the restaurant. I like being a large enough party to sample big. It’s nice to be able to get a good sense of what a Chef’s menu has to offer, and in a place this far away, it’s not as likely I will be able to patronize it often, so instead I like to patronize “thoroughly.” But since I’m not a glutton, I need an assist on the play.
We began with soup and salad. Several of us were intrigued by the soup of the day, which Chef John whimsically titles “Moody Soup,” declaring that it’s contents depend on his mood that day. On this occasion it was a lovely fresh, hearty— almost chunky— tomato soup with a peppery kick. Another of the appetizers we shared was a beautiful tower of produce titled the Tomatoes & Mozarella Stack. This arrived dressed beautifully with avocado balsamic.
Another of our party tried the Hillbilly Salad. It’s a nice summery concoction of cucumbers, tomatoes, white onion, Kalamata olives and feta cheese tossed with a well-blended oregano vinaigrette. The veggies were garden fresh and perfectly dressed. My Better Half found that his olives were outstanding, for myself I liked these olives a lot. We rounded out this salad menagerie with the Mahjaic Salad. This dish contained organic baby greens with seasonal vegetables tossed in a light balsamic and blue cheese vinaigrette. Like its sister the Hillbilly, this was a perfect salad. Fresh is key, and there were no letdowns there, dressing was blended perfectly, just nothing but praise here for this dish.
Pork Loin Chop
Chef John does a lovely Pork Loin Chop. It’s a naturally-raised Niman Ranch pork loin, roasted with a fresh herb and honey sauce. The chop comes served with creamy polenta, a slab of crispy bacon wrapped around it like a and toasted cashews. On tasting the polenta, I found it was delightfully creamy, and the honey taste was light and blended well into the butter. Though honey is a strong flavor, it was not overwhelmingly sweet, chef John allowed the flavor of the corn meal to shine through. I appreciate a cook with a gentle hand with his or her ingredients. Taste has a subtlety that must be respected.
I had the Chocolate Chipotle Prawns. I love prawns, chocolate and heat, so what’s not to order? They brought me lovely “Ocean Garden” Prawns which had been sautéed in a rich sauce. The blending of Scharffen Berger chocolate and the brown sugar was eminently tasty, mingling well with the smokiness of the dried jalapeno coming into the dish through the use of the chipotle. This sauce was served with avocado and a lovely little white cheddar lime risotto cake. It was flavor, texture and presentation all uniting beautifully to make a perfect plate.
Niman Ranch Beef
wrapped in Bacon & Mushrooms
The Niman Ranch Beef wrapped in Bacon Mushrooms was the evening’s special. It arrived at the table perfectly rare, cooked exactly as good beef should be cooked. The sides were these incredible earthy beets and the most amazing potatoes. The beets tasted of the garden in the best way possible and were simply delicious. The sweet corn was left on the cob and had been grilled over a smoky fire. The grill had kissed it all around with a smoky haze of flavor on the surface of that summery sweet corn.
My mother ordered the Vegetable Strudel. Described as Phyllo dough filled with summer squash, mushrooms, peppers, caramelized onion, leeks, carrots, asparagus, it arrived in the person of a lovely little pastry sliced open to reveal it’s bounty. Sort of a pastry cornucopia. The fresh herbs and ricotta cheese combined for a really smooth flavor profile and the savory jasmine rice was infused beautifully with saffron. Chef John finished it off with a red bell pepper tomato coulis. It was a beautifully executed dish. I enjoyed my small mouthful very much.
All the dishes were sized for big appetites. The Chicken Grandmere was a hearty helping of organic free-range chicken. The breast had been roasted, and was served with shallots, sprinkled with thick, crunchy bacon and crimini mushroom. The sauce was buttery and aromatic, the garlic-mashed potatoes smooth and creamy.
The desserts were simple and tasty. One was a vanilla sundae with pistachio nuts and a magnificent giant sugar cookie, the other a simple creme brulee. My favorite dessert of any.
Café Mahjaic was the perfect blending of my tastes with my sister’s. Everything we were served was made with the freshest of ingredients, prepared with a lovely and genuine country gusto, but the subtlety of flavors had serious big city panache. The food was consistently delicious. Chef John completes his menu with the Motto “Food with Love” and he comes through with a sense of his heart in every dish. Check it out for yourself if you’re ever in Gold Country, or make the trip just to eat here in Lotus, California. It’s worth it. You can stay at the Lotus Inn, Chef John’s set of quaint little cottages that line the back property just behind the restaurant proper. Stay there, and you won’t even have to drive home. But I’m warning you, it’s so nice here that my sister’s spare room will be full!