It's fall, time for the apples to be harvested in Tehachapi, meaning a restaurant recommendation from a reader directing me to the City of Four Seasons could not have come at a better time.
Margie Bell (yes, the legendary retired newspaper adviser at Bakersfield High) wrote to recommend Jake's Steak House in Tehachapi, and she had so many good things to say.
"We've tried the salads and the cod w/chips, and I'll bet the beef is the best. But it's the atmosphere: a little of Manhattan in our own little Tehachapi. We sat in the little room at the back on Friday for a six-person birthday party. ... Good bar, too.
"Hope it takes hold. It's well worth a 45-minute drive."
Sometimes you get such notes and the resulting experience ends up being so-so. But our dining experience made Margie's enthusiasm pretty logical.
First of all, Jake's (open 10 years under the current owners) is a small place, so I'd make reservations. We strolled in early on a Saturday without them, and though we were seated immediately, by 7 p.m. pretty much all the tables were taken.
The bar and the dining rooms have a dark wood/dim lighting East Coast feel to them, with very comfortable high-back cushions in the booths, which is where we were seated.
The menu does have a long list of big salads, a separate section of pastas, sandwiches and chef's specialties, including a Kobe beef burger ($12.50), but I finally settled on the flat-iron steak ($22). My companion, tempted by the fish and chips (called "Tavern Cod & Fries," $16) and macadamia- encrusted mahi mahi ($18), chose the Norwegian salmon ($24) with a $3 add-on of the roasted red pepper soup with gouda cheese.
That soup started things off right. From the description I had wondered if we were going to get a soup with the typical French onion treatment --the gouda draped over the top and torched. Instead it was blended into the stock for a slight creamy impact, with the vegetable pureed with an occasion chunk of the peppers inside. This was soup I'd order every day for lunch if I lived in Tehachapi. It was marvelous.
The good impressions continued with the entrees. I noted on the menu that the Harris Ranch beef for my steak was provided by The Butcher Shop in Tehachapi. If I lived in Tehachapi, that's where I'd be buying my meat.
The steak was tender, topped with sauteed onions (the most delicate strands I've seen in a long time) and fresh mushrooms. Coming from the chuck cut, it's probably one of the most underrated steaks you can get, without the status of the New York or filet Mignon but all the flavor.
Though some might say that, at 9 ounces, it's a small steak, I was just shocked to get such a great dinner at an Outback price. It is served with roasted zucchini and red peppers as well as baked potato, rice or au gratin potatoes. I chose the latter, and though they were very simply prepared with a lot of cheddar and not much else, I savored them from start to finish.
My companion was given the option of having her salmon poached or grilled (she chose the latter option, asking for the buttery dill sauce on the side). She was so enthusiastic with the entree, saying this was the best salmon she'd been served in months. The portion was much larger than the standard "deck of cards" designation, and it wasn't even dry on the edges, which can happen when you grill salmon. It was simply seasoned with coarsely ground black pepper. The rice pilaf was the most ordinary thing we sampled -- not offensive, just so conventional. Our other disappointment was the soft and warm -- but character-free -- white bread served at the beginning of the meal. It practically put us to sleep compared to the rest of the fare.
There was a dessert tray, but we passed on even looking at it, so satiated were we by our dining experience. I should note that the wine list has a few choices from Napa, Sonoma and the Central Coast, with almost all available by bottle or glass at reasonable prices. There's also a martini list, and I saw a lot of those being consumed at the bar.
The biggest negative was the sporadic service. Our waitress got busy and couldn't visit for a long time after we were seated, but the bar waitress finally took our drink order and helped her out.
Near the end of the dining experience was another long gap of inattention. Still, there's a small-town, laid-back vibe to the staff. A lot of the customers seemed to be greeted as regulars.
Regardless of that, this is, as Margie says, a special place. Jake's Steakhouse in Tehachapi is a fine dining experience worth a special journey.