Is there a more elegant, peaceful place to spend a day than Descanso Gardens? Nestled into a residential enclave of stately homes in La Cañada Flintridge, the gardens have become a tourist destination and haven for millions of horticulture enthusiasts since opening in 1950.
The Patina Group has been in charge of catering at Descanso Gardens for years, but recently, under the supervision of Executive Chef Philip Mack, they opened a lovely dedicated restaurant in an underutilized corner of the welcome area. Named Maple, the indoor and outdoor cafe is a lesson in Green & Green architecture-meets-modern design. But be warned: the bloom season at this flower of a restaurant is short. It’s only open from 9 a.m.to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday and Friday.
The best part about Maple is the atmosphere. Upon entering, one feels relaxed. After all, “descanso” means rest. The vaulted wood beam ceilings and Craftsman lamps inside are as inviting as the potted plant-scaped patio outside. Casual elegance surrounds you. Chairs may be made of white plastic but are ergonomically splendid and beautifully designed. Square creamers, bronze salt & pepper shakers and green bubble glassware look like they came from a high-end Italian housewares store. I speak of small visual details at Maple because they all add up to create an artistically pleasing experience which can be as good, if not better, than a gastronomically pleasing one.
Most people seemed to be having a cheerful time the Saturday morning I was there. This might have had something to do with the mimosa menu. Not your standard champagne and OJ, there are decisions to be made around these drinks. Phillipe Dublanc or Veuve du Vernay champagne? Organic orange or grapefruit juice? Or perhaps you’d like one of their cold-pressed juice blends — strawberry/blackberry/blueberry or pineapple/cayenne/ginger/lemon/agave. Prices range from $13 to $21 and your mimosa can be bumped up to bottomless for an extra $6.
When the moms with young children at the next table were asked by the waiter, “How were the drinks?” one answered, “I feel as if I’d like to hug you.” That’s how nice the mimosas are. Others around the cafe are sipping excellent Intelligentsia coffee out of high-style cups. Conversations are muted, everyone seems happy. Children are on their best behavior as they enjoy the items from the $10 kids menu (waffles, French toast, eggs, cheeseburgers, etc.). Smartly dressed waiters buzz around the tables keeping everything humming (bee pun intended). Service is quick and friendly. The only thing missing is perhaps a harpist.
The food is from Patina Group, so it’s bound to be good. Each plate is beautiful to look at, artistically inspired by the garden surroundings. I have to admit, however, I wrinkled my nose at some of the flavors and textures. Nothing wrong with their very popular fried chicken and beignets though. The buttermilk fried chicken is everything you want it to be: crispy, juicy and not oily. Plus it’s a fun departure for breakfast. The powdered sugar beignets come close to New Orleans status, then they’re taken over the top with some Vermont maple syrup for dipping.
The avocado toast — yes, I ordered that breakfast cliché — was unexpected. To me, avocado toast is supposed to be like the Australian version with thick, rustic crispy toast, a gorgeous, ripe avocado half smashed on top and maybe some extra doo-dads. Maple’s has a softer base, a green goddess mascarpone spread, as well as avocado mousse under wispy slices of watermelon radish and more avocado. It looked like an impressionistic painting of flowers but, to me, tasted unusual.
The breakfast burrito had fabulous guajillo-braised barbecued brisket inside (Chef Mack just came off the competition barbecue circuit) and a sublime red sauce. The meat and chintzy amount of sauce, however, were overwhelmed by the dense tortilla. A sunny side up egg carefully placed on top did make for a stunning presentation. But I’m thinking breakfast burritos should only be gotten in divey breakfast joints made by short-order cooks.
Still after all that, I would absolutely take my out-of-town guests to Maple for a refined brunch or perhaps a girls-lunch-out. Lunch is a different menu altogether. They offer a three-course prix fixe menu for $17.50 featuring seasonal selections from the farmer’s market. It will change weekly but as an example, this past week saw items like grilled grapes and burrata, California Cobb, gazpacho, fried chicken sandwich and an American burger.
For the month of August they’re presenting “Lobster & Rose” during brunch, three fresh lobster dishes paired with Domaine de Cala rosé. The Maple Surf & Turf features shaved beef tenderloin, lobster salad and celery greens on a brioche bun. Chilled corn soup with lobster salad has avocado and tarragon olive oil. And the lobster burrata salad has a Thai basil mayo, toasted pine nuts and basil blossoms. Entrees, including rosé, range from $24 to $37.
Other fine wines (Au Bon Climat, Bench, Paul Buisse, Vega Sindoa, Dom Fouquette), sparkling wines, beer and a few craft cocktails are available at breakfast or lunch, as well as specialty bottled waters from Hawaii, England, Italy, France and Denmark.
Pop-up dinner series have been happening once a month featuring L.A.-based chefs creating menus inspired by Descanso Gardens. The last one was Aug. 18 with a six-course meal by Chef Mack for $75. Pulling from his German heritage, Chef Mack is hoping to present a 10-course extravaganza of German food come Oktoberfest time. And when “Enchanted” begins on Nov. 19 (when the gardens are spectacularly lit for the holiday season), they plan to open Maple for dinner with an a la carte menu of more garden-inspired seasonal fare.
There’s no need to pay garden admission to eat at Maple. But after a mimosa and a pretty meal in a relaxing atmosphere, strolling through the gardens will be exactly what you’ll want to do.
Maple at Descanso Gardens
1418 Descanso Drive, | La Cañada Flintridge | (818) 864-6435 | www.mapleatdescanso.com
Limited Cocktails/Wine & Beer/Major Cards