I've come to see a garden. Oh, a lot of restaurants have "gardens" -- most of which consist of a rug-sized patch of ground with some herbs, maybe some onions or lettuces. But how many chefs have a three-acre farm just up the road from his dining rooms? Eugenio Martignago does.
The executive chef of West Steak and Seafood and Bistro West grew up in a farming community outside of Venice, Italy. As he tours me across the farm, he shares stories about his youth and how he applies what he's learned to his literal farm-to-table approach to cooking.
"My family went to the market each day," Martignano says.
Martignano has been running the two restaurants, both on site at West Inn & Suites in Carlsbad, for the last nine years. I'm staying at the boutique hotel for a couple nights to check out this town, eat at Martignano's restaurants and see this farm, which is located in inland Carlsbad, near a some hiking trails in the Calavera Hills where yours truly spent much of his youth hiking (among other activities).
The chef explains the rotation of the crops, grown on two fields. There is a greenhouse for vulnerable seedlings and micro-greens. Neighboring horse farms create manure and a well on the property provides water. Every plant is grown in accordance with its proper season, organically and as sustainably as possible.
West's farmer, Luke Girling, earned his degree at UC Santa Cruz and knows every inch of this farm. Rabbits are a problem, he tells me. A few missing heads of lettuce attest to that. Vigilance is constant, evidenced by a black plastic fence that surrounds the garden. Girling dislikes relying on plastic and desires to find a more sustainable material when it becomes feasible.
Chef Martignano eventually wants to bring diners to the farm to eat al fresco. Imagine picking your own vegetables and having them prepared before your eyes as you enjoy a glass of vino in the shade? Some picnic tables and a few cases of wine, and this will be one of the best places to eat in Southern California.
In the meantime, West's restaurants are the only places to go to enjoy the bounty of this farm. At the steak and seafood joint, which opened in late 2005, is known for its USDA Prime Kansas and Nebraska corn-finished beef, Wagyu center-cut dry-aged New York strip, grass-fed and free range meat and ridiculously good lobster bisque. Oh, and the wine list is a page-turner.
At Bistro West, you'll find lighter and very modern fare in a chic, casual-elegant setting. Some 70 percent of the farm's harvest is used in this kitchen. The simple, rustic dishes showcase the purity of the ingredients and the skill of Martignano's execution.
I've watched Carlsbad transform itself from a sleepy, undistinguished beach community into a must-visit resort town with a thriving downtown village featuring wine tasting rooms, a popular brewery, live music venues, a wide variety of restaurants, and that's not to mention the golf, The Flower Fields and, of course, Legoland.
If you're the type who likes to get away for a weekend, you need to add Carlsbad to your repertoire.