Saturday, October 13, 2007

When in Big Sur...

You know the rest....

And boy, did we ever.

Big Sur was the end of the road, so to speak, for us - we drove up from San Luis Obispo on Wednesday, stopping at Hearst Castle along the way. We did the Number 2 tour there, which takes you through the upstairs rooms and kitchen. It's mindboggling how much effort and wealth has been poured into this place. The fact that it exists at all is sort of amazing. The grounds and gardens are beautiful - if I go again that is the next tour I would take.
Deetjen's Library
In Big Sur we stayed at Deetjen's, a little inn tucked into a small canyon by the side of the road. The place is adorable, but so close to Hwy 1 you can hear the traffic in your room. The one cool thing about it is that it makes the highway look like a Disneyland ride - the way it crosses the canyon on a little trestle bridge. Our room, "Faraway," was ironically the closest to the road. It was very private though compared to some of the other rooms, where people walk by and are above and next to you. We shared only one wall with another unit in the same cabin. Their walls are famously thin but we had no problems. On the next trip we will probably spring for the Creek House, near the back of the property, just to be away from the road with more space, and to be closer to the lovely little creek that runs nearby. It boasts a full brick fireplace and small antique kitchen and sleeps at least four, assuming you rent the whole thing (upstairs and down are also available separately.) The whole house goes for about $385 - our single room was $200, and had a woodstove and bath. Be warned - Deetjen's is booking six months in advance, due to this piece in the New York Times last January. We noticed lots of New Yorkers in the guestbooks in the rooms - known for their - shall we say - "revealing" portraits of the room's previous occupants....

Deetjen's Dining Room

We ate breakfast and dinner in Deetjen's dining room. The food is solid and hearty and the dining room is cozy with atmosphere galore. It's something that just has to be seen to be appreciated - worth a stop even if you aren't staying there. The pancakes at breakfast, served with real maple syrup, and the pork chops at dinner were especially good. I was a little disappointed in the duck confit special (too small and a bit overcooked) but I think I ordered poorly. The heirloom tomato salad was wonderful though, with some perfect fresh mozzarella - and the crabcake appetizer was fine as well. The chocolate cake we received would have been good had it not been just the slightest bit overbaked.
Andrew Molera State Park
On our first full day in the area, we went to Andrew Molera State Park and did the short hike to the beach. It was only a mile each way, but walking on the sand made it seem farther. On the way back we stopped at the Big Sur Bakery and devoured some sandwiches, chips and cookies. I had a different impression in mind based on what I had read, and was expecting something more casual and store-front like. It's actually a very nice little restaurant in a house perched over the road, next to a tiny one pump gas-station. They have a huge open fireplace and serve dinner in the evenings - I was sorry we didn't have time for one - reservations are a must. Their cookies and brownies are to die for - especially the espresso double chocolate chip and macadamia chocolate chip. The next day I went back for pastries and coffee for breakfast, which was eaten next to the little creek at Deetjen's - it was so pretty it was almost unreal. (We experienced that a lot actually, in these parts.)
Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn at Sunset
Dinner on the second night was at Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn. We had considered staying here, but I just couldn't wrap my brain (or budget) around the $800.00 per night rates. I think I see it now, after visiting - but at the same time it's easy enough to go there and eat and enjoy the atmosphere, etc. without the tab. The main thing they have going for them is that it is far enough away from the highway that you can't hear the cars whizzing by. The constant highway noise elsewhere can be really distracting elsewhere - even on a hike or at the beach. The architecture at the Inn is really spectacular - organic and sort of a timeless modern style.
Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn
Sierra Mar just recently moved back into their space overlooking the ocean after a kitchen remodel, and the view is nothing short of amazing. I was a little surprised to see that the menu is fairly conservative - but it serves the upscale resort clientele well. They offer a four course prix fixe for $95.00, which includes six choices for the first course, and four for the remaining three courses. Our "amuse" was a tiny quail egg with caviar nestled in a spoon with a dollop of creme fraiche - perfect with a glass of champagne.

I loved the "lemongrass crusted lobster" with coconut juice and green papaya salad. It had all the freshness of the green papaya salad and only a hint of heat - perfect with the sweet, fresh lobster. James had the foie gras trio - a seared bit, a terrine with apple and a creme brulee. It was a little over the top in terms of sweetness, but well prepared. For the second course, I chose the heirloom tomato "panzanella" salad - with croutons, heirloom tomatoes and shaved parmesan, which was perfectly pleasant. James ordered the butternut squash and pear soup with vanilla oil, which surprised me because he doesn't normally order sweet dishes. It was fine, and the vanilla-bean flecked oil was a good accompaniment, but I can never escape the comparison to baby food with these type of soups. A little curry or spice would have helped.

James had wine pairings with three courses of his meal, and together we polished off a bottle of Dampierre Champagne, which we discovered earlier on this trip at the Hungry Cat. (There a bottle was $55. at the Sierra Mar, $75.) I also had a glass of Cabernet paired with my main course - and at least one sip of each of James' pairings. A Sauterne for the foie gras, an unoaked Chardonnay with the soup, and a Pinot - I believe - with the lamb. We aren't exactly wine experts, but they seemed to work very well.

My main course was the Deconstructed Beef Wellington, which was delicious. The first bite might well be the best single mouthful of food I've ever eaten. The plate consisted of two slices of perfectly seared rib eye draped over a small mound of chard - topped with a quarter-inch thick, barely-seared slice of foie gras. Next to that on the plate was a small square of puff pastry topped with a mound of duxelle. The plate was sauced with a "truffle madeira jus." The meat was well marbled and tender, had good flavor and was seared perfectly. The foie gras was rich but not overpowering and the duxelle and sauce were balanced just right. The chard was a nice tart counter to the richness. As much as I loved this dish, I turned it over to James after a few bites, because he wasn't crazy about his.

He had ordered the rack of lamb with Indian inspired accents - a curry carrot nage and mint oil drizzle, and a eggplant millefeuille. The eggplant component was mushy and tasted overwhelmingly of garlic, and they had burned the bottom crust on the "gnocchi" cake that the lamb was served on, but we were able to peel it off. The chop itself was thick and juicy and the mint and curry carrot sauces were delicious, but that eggplant dish and the burnt gnocchi really should not have been served.

The dessert offerings were a little disappointing, with four choices including Sticky Toffee Pudding, Warm Chocolate Cake and cheeses. I should have tried the Strawberry Sorbet with Biscuit and Rose Creme Fraiche, which was the only truly interesting option among them - but I let our server talk me into the Sticky Toffee Pudding. It was just as expected, topped with a nice vanilla housemade ice cream. We also received four little petit fours - a chocolate chip cookie, mini brownie and financier, and a diamond of apricot gelee. It sounds like they are flying without a pastry chef - which surprises me given the caliber of the restaurant. They serve three meals a day, and between the breakfast, breads and desserts I really think they could use one.
The view from our room at Esalen
After two nights at Deetjen's, we moved on down the road to the Esalen Institute, which offers "personal retreats" on a limited basis for non-workshop takers. The Institute is a new agey sort of camp for grownups, with classes in art, kinesiology, psychology, relationships and other endeavors. Most visitors attend courses there for a weekend or a week - but some live and work there (paying for the privilege.) They serve meals buffet style three times per day, and residents can take "movement" classes - yoga, tai chi, etc., enjoy the cliffside baths, and wander through the gardens. The personal retreat rooms cannot be reserved more than a week in advance (call Sunday for rooms during the following week) and cost $150.00 per night per person, with a $50.00 membership fee per person.
Cliffside at Esalen
The grounds at Esalen are breathtaking - several acres on the edge of the cliffs at Big Sur have been transformed into a campus, with patio/dining hall, pool and gardens scattered across the landscape. The cliffside baths are carved into a hillside about 500 yards downhill, just over the surf. If you've been looking for an experience akin to the Roman baths, this is where you'll find it. The board-formed concrete, sandstone and rock structure is open to the ocean, and the facility is divided into two sections - silent and quiet. A pool upstairs is also open to handicapped access. Massages are performed throughout the area by therapists trained in the unique "Esalen" method. (Ask for Chloe!) When not in use the tables are open for lounging or cooling off.

The sulfurous spring water can be let into a line of cast iron tubs for private baths and mixed with hose water for the perfect temperature. There are four communal baths, two of which perch over the ocean - and you can also climb into a small space nearby where the water is at about 117 degrees. The baths are drained and disinfected several times a day by staff members. The showers have what may be the most spectacular feature - large sliding glass doors open to the surf. If you can't get a retreat, book a massage which gives you access to the baths for an hour before and after - or the baths are open to the public by reservation between 1 and 3 AM. The night-time experience is completely different from the day, with dim lighting and fantastic stargazing.
The Esalen Gardens
The food at Esalen is good - it's quantity food, but much of it comes from their gardens and it is made with care. A "Bread Bar" is available all day with housemade breads, peanut butter and spreads. Dinner on the night we visited was Braised Short Ribs. Seitan was also offered along with a decent vegan corn and potato chowder. Steamed corn on the cob, artichokes and a full salad bar were also offered along with more bread. Nobody goes hungry, that's for sure. Another little tip - if you visit for a massage around mealtime - you can eat there. You line up and get served, and nobody checks your ticket, so to speak.

We got lucky with our last minute room request, and received a room with a little deck looking out to the ocean. The room was nothing extra, just dorm-like with a Motel 6 level bathroom, but the surroundings made up for it. It sounds like they may also be doing some capital improvements over the next few years, so hopefully they will update them eventually.
Waterfall Beach - Julia Pfeiffer Burns
One of the highlights of our trip to Big Sur was a tiny little "hike" - a short walk, really - that you can easily do even if you're just driving through. At Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (pictured above), pull off the road and take the easy quarter mile trail down to the overlook. On one side, a waterfall falls on a beach where the water looks like a swimming pool, and on the other side are gorgeous turquoise coves. The short trail is so easy to navigate that it's actually wheelchair accessible. There are benches for picnicking or just contemplating, and the view is much better than any of the vista points along the road. With a picnic from the Big Sur Bakery, you'd be a happy camper indeed.

Deetjens Big Sur Inn
48865 Highway 1
Big Sur, California 93920
We stayed in "Faraway" - the only room with tub, deck and woodburning stove. Most accommodations have showers and many have shared baths. Make reservations for dinner - breakfast is conveniently served from 8 to noon.

Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn
(831) 667-2800
Recommended Dishes: Deconstructed Beef Wellington, Lemongrass Crusted Lobster

Esalen Institute
55000 Highway 1
Big Sur, CA 93920-9616
831-667-3005 for reservations. Check the website though, they have different numbers depending on what type of reservation you are trying to make.

Big Sur Bakery
Bakery Open Daily at 8 AM - check website for meals
Reservations 831.667.0520
Recommended Dishes - It was all good - but the espresso chocolate cookie was a trip highlight. Make a dinner reservation if you're spending the night in the area.

Also recommended - Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Andrew Molera State Park, Nepenthe for cocktails, the Phoenix store for gifts.

1 comment:

  1. Oh sigh, I am so glad you enjoyed Sierra Mar. I agree with you that the menu is slightly conservative, but I think that is due to the fact that it is located in a hotel.

    Hotel chefs face a special challenge in that they need to create food that is approaching innovative, yet still appropriate for your grandmother, hence, deconstructed beef wellington with foie gras.

    Anyway, glad you had a good trip, if you pass through Cambria, try to eat at Black Cat.