It might be easy to dismiss Cambria as a “jumping off” point to some of California’s most spectacular and popular sites…until you actually visit Cambria. That’s when you discover that there is plenty to see and do in this picturesque seaside village on the Central California Coast which Forbes.com declared “one of America’s prettiest towns.” It’s a town virtually surrounded on three sides by towering pines and Monterey Cyprus which form a natural canopy over the beachside boardwalk. To its west is the shimmering Pacific Ocean with some of the most pristine, unspoiled beaches in the state.
Cambria virtually unfolds along the fabled Highway 1 at exactly the halfway point–240 miles–from both San Francisco and Los Angeles. Just barely above sea level, Cambria may not have the dramatic cliff-side vistas for which Big Sur is renowned, but its beaches are much more approachable. So are the elephant seals which frolic and lounge on the Piedras Blancas rookery a few miles away. The most popular draws in the area are Hearst Castle, the European-style home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hurst, and the numerous wineries and vineyards throughout the area.
Within Cambria, you’ll find an eclectic shopping district with something for everyone, especially if you enjoy art and antiques. Most shops and galleries are clustered in close proximity to one another on the town’s East Village so walking is not only an option, it’s a joy because you’ll get to truly appreciate the quaint and eclectic architecture. If you’d rather walk outside the concrete jungle, there are numerous walking trails in the area, including some adjacent to the beach.
You won’t find a McDonald’s or a Burger King in Cambria. Nor will you find any of the other popular chains which dot the fruited plain. What you will find are unique bistros and cafes–real restaurants with real food. While several of its restaurants emphasize California cuisine and its hallmark of fresh, locally grown ingredients, Cambria has a surprising variety of dining options–from elegant fine-dining to family eateries, from Mexican to Thai, from seafood to sandwiches. Best of all, there are a number of pet-friendly restaurants which welcome canine children. It’s no wonder my friend Sandy Driscoll makes Cambria her first overnight stop during her annual treks to Northern California.
For lovely patio dining on fresh and innovative gourmet cuisine, one of the most popular options in Cambria is the Indigo Moon Cafe which is housed in one of the town’s oldest historical buildings. The enclosed patio provides a tranquil milieu amidst lush gardens. It’s especially popular during Sunday brunch when live jazz is featured. If you don’t opt for al fresco dining, make sure to check out the wooden beams on the ceilings of the main front room as they’re stamped with official Hearst Castle markings, designating them as having been used as shipping carts from the early 1900s. I also spent quite a bit of time browsing the display of imported and domestic cheeses (California cheeses come from happy cows) in a display case leading to the patio.
Lunch at the quaintly named Indigo Moon is a casual affair, showcasing hearty and unusual sandwiches and housemade soups. Fancier fare is available for dinner when seafood, lamb, pork chops and pasta are menu standards. Did I mention the many varieties of cheese? The restaurant’s savvy staff will happily recommend a wine pairing that goes best with the cheese you select. The wine list features several specialty and affordable labels from the area as well as other domestic and imported wines. If you don’t imbibe on adult beverages, there are cheeses which pair well with whatever libation you choose (even Dr. Brown’s root beer).
The cheese plate during our visit included a triumvirate of terrific cheeses any turophile will enjoy. During our visit, we enjoyed Sage Derby, Lamb Chopper and Fiscalini Bandage Cheddar. Sage Derby is a semi-hard English cheese made from cow’s milk flavored with sage leaves which impart somewhat of a minty flavor. The whimsically named Lamb Chopper, also made in Europe from sheep’s milk (a given) is soft and buttery with a redolent sweetness tinged with a barely perceptible hint of citrus. It goes very well with fruits. The Fiscalini Bandage Cheddar, made in Modesto, California is renowned for its luxurious balance of buttery, grassy, and savory flavors. Make sure to use the accompanying fruits (mission figs and sliced pears) as palate cleansers so as to truly discern and appreciate the nuanced flavors of these cheeses.
As you peruse the lunch menu, you’ll be mesmerized by the California fresh soups, salads and starter options, any three or four of which will make an excellent tapas-style lunch. Were we not planning on walking and not waddling through the town, we would have had at least two starters and the sandwiches we ultimately settled upon from a line-up of excellent sandwich options. Now, you can have a BLTA (applewood smoked bacon, vine ripened tomatoes, avocado and lettuce on focaccia with roasted bell pepper aioli) anywhere, even in New Mexico, but it won’t be as fresh as you can have it in California where the components are incomparably fresh and flavorful. Even the accompanying sweet potato fries are unbelievably fresh, easily among the best we’ve had anywhere. The roasted bell pepper aioli is simply wonderful.
The duck confit, bacon & slaw sandwich served hot on ciabatta is even better. Piled on thickly, the duck confit (duck cooked in its own fat) is incredibly succulent without being oily and so sinfully rich, you’ll need to seek absolution after eating it. The coleslaw is also moist, but not runny with salad cream. It’s an excellent complement to the duck confit. Then there’s bacon which goes well with absolutely everything (including ice cream and cookies). The marriage of duck and bacon is one of those too good to be true couplings.
Indigo Moon’s dessert menu is largely based on fresh California fruits and as tempting as those are, the sweet special of the day when we visited was a Cookie Plate with vanilla bean ice cream. Three outstanding cookies: chocolate chip and macadamia, chocolate chip and a citrusy snickerdoodle made me wonder why more restaurants don’t offer cookies as a dessert option. It also made me yearn for a tall glass of cold milk.
The only thing which could have improved our simple, but very satisfying meal at the Indigo Moon would have been having my friends Sandy Driscoll and Bill Robens, both of whom have thoroughly enjoyed their time in Cambria, with us. Both have regaled me with stories of their happy life experiences throughout the Central California coast and would certainly have enhanced our visit even more.
Indigo Moon Cafe, Wine & Cheese Shop
LATEST VISIT: 20 July 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Cookie Plate with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, Cheese Plate, BLTA, Duck Confit, bacon & slaw sandwich