Old Town Pizza Parlor – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Old Town Pizza Parlor

Old Town Pizza Parlor

Although it seems Albuquerque’s population experiences an unprecedented population growth every decade, perhaps the ten-year period which most transformed the Duke City from an expansive frontier cow town to a modern metropolitan city was the 1950s.  At the start of the decade, the city’s population was 96,815, but bolstered by a post-World War II boom, the population more than doubled to 201,189 by 1960.  No successive decade has seen such growth.

With J.C. Penney’s, Sears and Montgomery Wards (as well as Woolworth’s) all located on Route 66, downtown was the the economic heart of the community.  Consumers reveled in the availability of products and clothing heretofore available only through catalogs.  To show off the high fashion available at those department stores and especially at Kistler-Collister (ironically situated near the city’s eastern outskirts) as well as the city’s hubs of haberdashery, fun-seekers headed for the Old Town Society Hall in the vicinity of Rio Grande and Central for spirited dancing.

One of the dining rooms at the Old Town Pizza Parlor

One of the dining rooms at the Old Town Pizza Parlor

Route 66 was festooned with vibrant neon signage that cut a luminous swath through the city.  Only the historic Old Town district was spared the nocturnal spectacle of glowing and flashing neon.  Savvy diners still managed to find their way to the Old Town Chile Parlor where John P. and Frances Apodaca owned and operated one of the city’s most popular restaurants in the same location (opposite the Old Town Society Hall) for over 40 years.  The restaurant was housed in a hacienda that is more than 150 years old today.

That hacienda has been in Mike Tafoya’s family for nearly three quarters of a century, but it’s been a long time since it’s been used as a family home.  After the Old Town Chile Parlor closed down, the edifice was home to Smiroll’s International Cuisine from 1974 to 2000.  After Smiroll’s came Ambrozia and its contemporary global cuisine.  Tafoya was a partner and chef in that enterprise.

Garlic Herb Bites

Garlic Herb Bites

With a heritage that includes a prominent historical restaurateur and a background as a chef at several fine-dining establishments in the Duke City, it’s only natural that Tafoya would continue the family tradition by launching a restaurant in the location that’s been in his family for nearly eight decades.  That restaurant, the Old Town Pizza Parlor, is named in tribute to Tafoya’s grandparents and the restaurant lineage he inherited.  

He also honors his grandparents with a vintage photograph of them beside an “In Loving Memory” placard under glass on the porch facing Rio Grande Avenue.  It’s just one of the aspects of the restaurant which honors the history and tradition of the Duke City in the 1950s.  Route 66 signage and memorabilia hang on the walls while under glass on every table you’ll find thematic imagery of that storied era.

OTP White Nachos: Corn chips piled high with signature white sauce, crumbled meatballs, smokey bacon bits, green chile, black olives, Roma tomatoes and fresh jalapenos

One table recognizes the music of the beat generation with images of 45RPM (that’s revolutions per minute) phonograph records and pictures of music stars of the day.  One table honors the sport teams prominent in the 1950s.  Under glass in one table are post cards showcasing the memorabilia of the nifty fifties.  There’s something to look at on each table, but it’s not overdone in the gaudy, kitschy style of many self-styled 50s restaurants.

The very first thing you see when you walk into the Old Town Pizza Parlor is the counter where you place your order.  There’s an oversized menu behind the counter listing all the restaurant’s offerings, many of which are unique and intriguing.  The menu starts with pizza which is available as a build it yourself option with sixteen different ingredient options as well as four sauce types: traditional–made with sweet tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and spices; hot & spicy–traditional sauce with extra garlic and spicy chile peppers; white–creamy parmesan and roasted garlic.; and basil pesto with fresh local basil, pine nuts and grated Parmesan cheese.  That’s having pizza your way, but you can also order one of the menu’s eight specialty pizzas.

The "Stampede"

The “Stampede”

Colossal calzones served with your choice of pizza sauce and garlic dip are next on the menu.  The starting point for each calzone is ricotta and mozzarella which you can top with any three items from the available toppings.  Extras include garlic herb bites (homemade pizza crust topped with garlic butter and sprinkled with a herb blend), pepperoni roll (baked dough wrapped around pepperoni and mozzarella and baked until golden) and meatball sliders (homemade meatballs topped with mozzarella and sandwiched between mini buns).

Pasta entrees feature over one pound of pasta and are served with parmesan garlic bread.  The menu also includes crisp salads and hot soup (including mamma’s tomato soup (made with sweet tomatoes, roasted garlic and cream served with a grilled cheese sandwich).  Eight-inch submarine sandwiches prepared deli style and served with chips and a pickle spear crown a menu that is quickly becoming an Old Town attraction in its own right.  The restaurant also offers an all-you-can-eat pizza, pasta and salad buffet for lunch seven days a week.

Design your own pizza with ham, pineapple and roasted garlic

If you like garlic strong enough to ward off Count Dracula and wreck your breath for days, the garlic herb bites might not do it.  The garlic is discernible, but not overwhelming.  In fact, it’s just one of several herbs well balanced for flavor harmony on a soft, cheesy crust served on a ten-inch tin plate.  The cheesy bread is delicious, so good you probably won’t use much of the accompanying marinara sauce. 

Nachos are not a dish most of us would associate with Italian or pizza restaurants, but the Old Town Pizza Parlor actually offers a nachos-based appetizer similar to the one offered at Mario’s Pizza & Ristorante.  The OTP White Nachos features a mountain of corn chips piled high with the restaurant’s signature white sauce, crumbled meatballs, smokey bacon bits, green chile, black olives, Roma tomatoes and fresh jalapenos.  These are not the gloppy cheese nachos sold at ball parks.  The smokey bacon bits and white sauce were a highlight, but the entire plate (large enough for a family of four) is a good starter.

Green Chile Alfredo

Green Chile Alfredo

Interestingly the menu indicates the garlic herb bites are made on the restaurant’s “homemade pizza crust,” but the crust served on the pizza is quite different than the garlic herb bite crust.  On the pizza, that crust is very thin and very firm.  There are no pretensions to New York style pizza crust here (if you expect pizza dough with a nice char on the bottom and bubbles on top, you’ll be disappointed).  In fact, the crust is so firm it may not be possible to fold it vertically the way New Yorkers prefer their pie.  Even the outer edges are thin, not much thicker than the pie itself.

Despite being waifishly thin, the crust is formidable enough to hold the generous ingredient pile-up the chef arranges on each pie.  It’s formidable enough not to droop and sag beneath the sauce’s thickness and moistness.  Not everyone will like this crust and if it sounds like it’s more serviceable than flavorful, that’s not my intent.  It’s a sweet crust some people will like while others won’t.

Meatball Baked Ziti: Homemade meatballs, marinara, ziti and ricotta. Topped with mozzarella

The “Stampede” we had during our inaugural visit is a carnivore’s dream–Italian sausage, pepperoni, mini meatballs, smoked ham and ground beef–all good enough to convert vegetarians.  Ingredients are locally procured and are unfailingly fresh and delicious.  Bite into a piece of ham or sausage and you won’t get that “frozen, out-of-the-bag” taste you get from some meat ingredients on chain pizza restaurants.  The sauce is lathered on thickly, but it’s a good sauce.  It’s a blend of sweet tomatoes, garlic and that EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) chef Tafoya does so well.

When Matt Herman recommended the Old Town Pizza Parlor, he told me, “without a doubt it is the best pizza in town, bar none, and the pasta is even better. We’ve been there five or six times and it just gets better.”  It’s been my experience that pizzerias don’t often do a good job with pasta (most of them drown the pasta with marinara sauce), but with Tafoya’s pedigree and Matt’s endorsement, pasta was a must.

The pasta dish beckoning most invitingly during our inaugural visit was the green chile Alfredo (fetuccini pasta topped with green chile parmesan cream sauce).  True Alfredo sauce is rich with butter and melted Parmigiana-Reggiano and is light, silky and refined.  You won’t find cream (especially heavy cream) on authentic Alfredo sauce, the way it was first created.  You also won’t find true Alfredo sauce in Albuquerque (at least we haven’t), but the Old Town Pizza Parlor’s rendition is quite good nonetheless.  It’s not overly rich or heavy like cream-laden Alfredo tends to be.  It is a very flavorful sauce with just enough green chile to grab your attention without detracting from the Parmesan.  The fettucini noodles are ribbon-like, perfectly prepared and have a melt-in-your-mouth quality.  Add oven-roasted chicken to this entree for a pittance and instead of the desiccated foul served with many pasta entrees elsewhere, you’ll be treated to impossibly small cubes of juicy, delicious chicken.  This is a very nice pasta dish! 

Alas, as much as we enjoyed the green chile Alfredo, we found the meatball baked ziti (homemade meatballs, marinara, ziti and ricotta topped with mozzarella) during our second dish quite disappointing.  My sauce of choice was the hot & spicy (traditional sauce with extra garlic and spicy chile peppers).  The top layer in which the mozzarella was melted nicely atop the ziti noodles was a good introduction, but at the bottom of the bowl, a watery layer of sauce greeted us.  It can be a challenge to create a pasta dish in which the sauce has a perfect viscosity top to bottom.  It’s a challenge not surmounted on this dish.

The Old Town Pizza Parlor is a nice addition to Albuquerque’s Old Town area.  Chef Tafoya honors Old Town tradition and his restaurant lineage while providing a pizza option for the 21st century.

Old Town Pizza Parlor
108 Rio Grande, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 999-1949
Web Site
Latest Visit: 29 July 2012
1st Visit: 25 April 2009
# of Visits: 2
Rating: 17
Cost: $$
Best Bet: Green Chile Alfredo, The “Stampede,” Garlic Herb Bites, OTP White Nachos

Old Town Pizza Parlor on Urbanspoon

Orchid Thai Cuisine – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Orchid Thai Cuisine

Sydney, Australia has “Thai Tanic” and “Thai to Remember.” In Manila, The Philippines, it’s “Thai Kingdom Come.” Arlington, Virginia boasts of “ThaiPhoon.” “Thai One On” is a Salt Lake City favorite. San Francisco diners frequent “Thai Me Up,” while in Mildenhall, England “En-Thai-Sing” is all the rage. Then there’s “Beau Thai” in Portland, Oregon; “Bow Thai” in Margate, Florida; and “Once Upon a Thai” in Chicago, Illinois. When it comes to Thai restaurants throughout the English-speaking world, it’s a wordplay wonderland.

Urbanspoon lists some eighteen Thai or Asian fusion restaurants in Albuquerque specializing in or which include Thai food, none of which evoked once a pun a name.  Now operating for more than ten years (it launched on May 10, 2012), Orchid Thai Cuisine is seemingly all-of-a-sudden an elder statesman among Thai restaurants, one of four in the Duke City with more than a decade of continuous operation.  It doesn’t seem that long ago Orchid Thai Cuisine was a newcomer creating quite a buzz in Nob Hill.

Colorful mural on Orchid Thai’s east wall

In its decade plus, Orchid Thai has garnered perhaps more acclaim and accolades than any other Thai restaurant in town.  As you enter the restaurant, you’ll espy an “I love me” wall postered with “best of” and “readers’ choice” awards from Albuquerque The Magazine, The Alibi and Local IQ.  Naysayers will attribute much of that love to the Nob Hill proximal demographic which “tends to stuff the ballots for area restaurants” while frequent visitors (and there are many of them) will tell you Orchid Thai earns all the recognition it receives.

If awards and accolades were dispensed for colorful murals, Orchid Thai would compete with Saggio’s for best and most in the city in that category, too.  Three of its four exterior walls are festooned in colorful murals depicting various aspects of life in Thailand.  Not every interior wall is similarly adorned, but one particularly interesting eastern wall portrays Thai kick boxing in all its glory.  There’s something to see everywhere you turn in and outside Orchid Thai and the art of presentation continues onto your meal.

Taud Manpla (Thai Fish Cakes)

Orchid Thai was founded by Seng and Bounnome (Nome for short) Limary, who previously managed the now defunct Hawaiian Restaurant on Louisiana.  A native of Laos, Nome has been cooking in New Mexico since 1981 and has extensive experience preparing Chinese and Japanese cuisine, too, but Thai cuisine is his passion.  He studied every aspect of Thai cooking–from selecting ingredients to cooking and presentation–from a highly regarded Thai master chef and applies his studies daily in preparing award-winning cuisine.

The menu is a virtual compendium of Thai favorites with more vegetarian options than most restaurants tend to offer.  Beef, chicken (extra for all white meat), pork, shrimp and tofu can be added to many entrees, including soups.  Some of the popular Thai soups can be made with or without coconut milk.  Most entrees are served with steamed rice, but you can pay extra for brown or sticky rice and even more for fried rice.  A chili icon denotes dishes which are hot and spicy, but milder versions are available upon request.  Lunch specials and lunch combinations are available Monday through Friday.

Chicken Satay (charbroiled chicken on skewers marinated in Thai spices and served with a Thai peanut curry sauce and a sweet cucumber sauce)

At the risk of sounding like one of those Russian judges of Olympics past, in three visits to Orchid Thai, my chief complaint has been the lack of balance of flavors.  The underlying foundation of Thai cuisine, going back to Chinese influences as early as the 10th century, is to achieve a satisfying and exciting taste experience through the relationship between five fundamental tastes: sweet, salty, spicy, sour and bitter.  Properly balancing these flavors is the true essence of Thai cooking.

Each Thai dish generally has three or four of these flavors harmoniously interplaying with one another in a way that is not only delicious, but balanced.  In most dishes, one flavor predominates with the other flavors being complementary.  At Orchid Thai, dishes we’ve sampled tend to be somewhat overwhelmed by near cloying sweetness.  Call it an Americanization of Thai cuisine, perhaps a realization that many Americans prefer their Thai food rather sweet (maybe so it resembles the candied Chinese foods they like, too).  It’s the reason our visits have been infrequent.

Sesame Duck (crispy duck seasoned and roasted with spices and topped with sesame seeds and the chef’s special sauce)

One example of the lack of balance sticklers look for is in the taud manpla (Thai fish cakes).  The fish cakes themselves are pungently aromatic and delicious courtesy of a red curry influence.  Texturally they’re pleasantly chewy, wholly unlike crab cakes, and are fairly moist despite the deep-frying preparation process.  These fritter-like cakes are generally served with a tangy chili sauce.  Orchid Thai’s sauce is dessert sweet.  Not even the finely chopped peanuts floating atop the sauce can lend a savory influence.  The cloying sauce also obfuscates any piquancy there may be.

Similarly the Chicken Satay (charbroiled chicken on skewers marinated in Thai spices) is served with two very sweet sauces–a Thai peanut curry sauce and a sweet cucumber sauce.  The chicken is marinated in a sauce redolent with turmeric (which also imports its characteristic yellowish hue) and is moist and tasty, deserving of sauces which don’t make them taste like chicken satay lollipops.  The Thai peanut curry sauce would have been quite good had the sweetness been cut in half.

Pineapple Curry with Chicken (chicken with pineapple, potatoes, onions and sweet basil in a red coconut curry sauce) served in a hollowed out pineapple

Because we’ve known the unbridled ecstasy of crispy duck at Lotus of Siam, the very best Thai restaurant in America, my Kim tends to order crispy duck whenever she sees it on the menu of any Thai restaurant in hopes it approximates the swoon-eliciting crispy duck we love so much.  Orchid Thai’s version, Sesame Duck (crispy duck seasoned and roasted with spices and topped with sesame seeds and the chef’s special sauce) falls woefully short, but then so does every other duck we’ve had everywhere else.  At the risk of repeating myself, the chef’s special sauce was very much on the sweet side.

One of the most beautifully plated dishes we’ve seen in Albuquerque and the pride of Orchid Thai is a pineapple curry dish served on a hollowed out pineapple half.  Swimming in a red coconut curry sauce are chunks of pineapple, potatoes, onions and sweet basil.  Our server promised the dish wouldn’t be overly sweet and the chef delivered on the promise.  Either that or the Thai hot degree of heat rendered the sweetness impotent.  This is a curry dish that’s good from more than an experiential aspect.  More than any dish we’ve had at Orchid Thai, it does strike a good balance of flavors.

Mangoes with sticky rice

The one dish we expected to be sweet didn’t disappoint.  The mangoes with sticky rice were ameliorated with sweet coconut milk which marries so well with the dense, wonderfully juicy fruit.  We mourn when mangoes are out of season because when served with sticky rice prepared well, there are few desserts quite as refreshing and delicious.

Orchid Thai Cuisine is consistently crowded and most of its patrons seem satisfied, if not delighted with their food and their dining experience.  There certainly are many aspects of a visit to this colorful restaurant even surly curmudgeons like me will enjoy.

Orchid Thai Cuisine
4300 Central Avenue, S.E. Map.66ef55d
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 265-4047
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 28 July 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Taud Manpla, Chicken Satay, Mangoes with Sticky Rice, Pineapple Curry

Orchid Thai on Urbanspoon

In-N-Out Burger – Chandler, Arizona

The In-N-Out Burger

The In-N-Out Burger

During a 2011 episode of Break the Chain, the enlightening and entertaining food-centric radio program hosted by the brilliant Ryan Scott, Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the pulchritudinous palate, made some rather unkind comments about Blake’s Lotaburger, an exclusively New Mexico institution.  I cautioned him that local listeners might show up at the radio station armed with pitchforks and torches. That’s how much New Mexicans love the burger franchise whose motto reminds them that “If you are what you eat, you are awesome.”

It’s not always easy to express your opinion about something as sacrosanct and beloved as Lotaburger, but inspired by Larry’s honesty, let me share my thoughts about In-N-Out Burger, a California institution that’s beloved beyond the Golden State, a burger restaurant National Geographic named the second best burger in the fruited plain in its “Top 10 Best of Everything” for 2012.  When it comes to In-N-Out, I’m most definitely in the minority.  I don’t get it at all…

Throngs of In-N-Out Burger fanatics line up for their favorite fix
Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

I first found out about In-N-Out Burger in 1987 while developing psychometrics for the United States Air Force in San Antonio, Texas.  Two of my test-writing colleagues were native, In-N-Out Burger obsessed Californians who never seemed to take off their tee-shirts emblazoned with slogans for the popular California-based burger religion. They regaled me with tales that made the burgers almost too good to be true.

Our first close exposure of the third kind came in the millennium year during a visit to Las Vegas, Nevada. At first glance, the window sticker on the back of a low-rider was more advertising for In-N-Out Burger, but closer inspection revealed the logo had been modified. By removing the “B” and the “R” off the ends of “Burger,” clever innuendo resulted. It also prompted our first visit.  “Nice,” we thought, but “not nearly as good as Fatburger,” which had captured our taste buds with a fresh, made-to-order burger that seemed just too good to be made by a chain.  It was certainly not the transformative burger experience we expected, not even close.

The menu is limited but versatile

The menu is limited but versatile

We thought then and believe today that In-N-Out Burger’s product was inferior to Fatburger (and Tommy‘s, another Los Angeles favorite).  We questioned “is that all there is,” wondering what the hullabaloo was all about.  In-N-Out aficionados continue in their efforts to make a convert out of me, none more effusively than my sage  comadre Suzanne Devlin who’s got deep roots in New Mexico but now lives in Oregon.  Suzanne makes a great case:  “When an In-N-Out is served to you, the lettuce is crisp; the tomato covers the patty; the bun is grilled and toasted until it’s crisp in the fat of the cooked patty so the flavor is imbedded in the bun and the burgers in the photos and what little advertising they do is exactly what you get when you are served one at their restaurants not some smashed up burger that looks like Smokey the Bear sat on it.”

For me, it’s about flavor and that’s where In-N-Out Burger falls short of chains (Rally and Checkers, to name two) I have liked in the past…and even short of Lotaburger (green chile has a lot to do with that).  I don’t dislike In-N-Out and in fact, appreciate the freshness of its ingredients, its business model and ethical practices and much more.  There is much to like about In-N-Out, a family-owned enterprise since  1948 which is credited as the progenitor of the drive-through restaurant concept.

Double-Double (Monster Style) with Fries
Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

Although carhop-based drive-ins were fairly commonplace in California, In-N-Out Burger featured a two-way speaker box where you would place your order then drive up to pick it up. You’re in, you’re out…a function, not just a name. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal commended In-N-Out Burger for using natural and fresh ingredients and for looking after the interests of employees regarding pay and benefits.  It’s the favorite chain for such hard-to-please chefs as Thomas Keller, Gordon Ramsey and Mario Batali.  Nationally syndicated sports talk show icon Jim Rome says when he’s away from California for more than two days, the first restaurant he visits upon his return is In-N-Out.  Obviously, I’m the sane one; everyone else is nuts.

In-N-Out Burger’s menu is as simple as they come with three burgers, French fries, shakes, sodas, coffee and milk. There are no salads, sandwiches, breakfasts or chicken. Over the years, aficionados have also developed a unique lexicon for unpublished burger configurations. That lexicon is based on a numbering system that defines the number of beef patties and slices of cheese you want on your burger. A 3X3 is a three-patty burger with three slices of cheese. According to urban legend, a skyscraper-sized 20X20 has been created.

A double-double “animal” style. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

Aside from cheese, all In-N-Out burgers officially on the menu come with a special sauce (similar to the sauce on the Big Mac but not quite as messy and profuse), onions, lettuce, and bun.  The burger patties are unfailingly hot and juicy which means the cheese becomes a gooey mess. Adkins dieters order their burgers “Protein-style” which means no bun and patties wrapped in a lettuce leaf.

What really stands out at In-N-Out are the French fries which are crispy on the outside and light on the inside. They’re well salted and delicious, a definite improvement to the flaccid, boring fries of other chain burger restaurants. Milk shakes are creamy and smooth, but taste-wise, nothing special.

In-N-Out Burger is special to Californians and has achieved significant popularity in Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Texas.  There’s no doubt this mega-popular chain would fare very well in chain-loving New Mexico even without green chile.

In-N-Out Burger
2790 W. Chandler
Chandler, Arizona
(800) 786-1000
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 21 July 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: French Fries, Double Double

Indigo Moon Cafe, Wine and Cheese Shop – Cambria, California

Indigo Moon in Cambria, California

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.

Cheese plate (Sage Derby, Lamb Chopper, Fiscalini Bandage Cheddar) of the day with mission figs, caramelized walnuts and sliced pears

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.

BLTA: applewood smoked bacon, vine ripe tomatoes, avocado and lettuce on focaccia with roasted red bell pepper aioli

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).

Duck Confit, bacon & slaw sandwich served hot on ciabatta

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.

Cookie Plate with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream: Chocolate Chip and Macadamia, Chocolate Chip and Snickerdoodle

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
1980 Main Map.6f78c2f
Cambria, California
(805) 927-2911
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 20 July 2012
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Cookie Plate with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, Cheese Plate, BLTA, Duck Confit, bacon & slaw sandwich

Indigo Moon Cafe Wine and Cheese Shop on Urbanspoon

Nepenthe Restaurant – Big Sur, California

Nepenthe overlooks 50 miles of coastline

With all the travails and vicissitudes of  modern life, we can all use  a respite or safe harbor to which we can escape…where we can take a break from all our worries.  Big Sur, California, which most would consider an escape in and of itself has a dining destination which has been nourishing diners both physically and spiritually  for more than six decades.  It’s called Nepenthe, a Greek word which can be translated to “isle of no care,” “a place to find surcease from sorrow.”

Lest you get the impression Nepenthe is a real-world Cheers tavern, it is oh, so much more.  First, if there’s a true paradise on Earth (other than New Mexico, of course), it may well exist on the Central California coast in Big Sur, a seaside idyll which will take your breath away and calm you with its vast expanse of tranquil waters and spectacular views of towering redwoods and precipitous cliffs in a climate that can only be described as perfect. If such a seaside idyll has a heart and soul, it is Nepenthe.

View from our table of the magnificent Big Sur coastline

The word “Nepenthe” first appears on the fourth book of Homer’s Odyssey, though its reference wasn’t as a place of respite, but as a drug that elicited a calming state of mind. Nepenthe was a potion used by the ancients to induce forgetfulness from pain or sorrow. Essentially, it was an anti-depressant or more precisely, an anti-sorrow drug. In the Odyssey, Nepanthe was first mentioned as having been given to Helen by an Egyptian queen to quell her sorrows with forgetfulness. Its use was widespread. Greek warriors wanting to dull their senses to impending danger took it before going to war.

The definition best befitting Nepenthe is “isle of no care.”  While a visit may not guarantee all your cares will fully dissipate, you can almost be assured that for the hour or so of your visit, you won’t feel as weighted down. Today many of its visitors are tourists, some of whom may not fully understand the cultural and spiritual significance of Nepenthe.  Most of them (the adults anyway) nonetheless find themselves virtually entranced by the magnificent views.  Some, like me, feel more spiritually awakened at Nepenthe in a manner many report feeling at Sedona, Santa Fe or Taos.  It’s been that way almost from the beginning.

California Artisinal Cheese Plate: Selection of California artisinal cheeses (Humboldt Fog Goat Cheese, Point Reyes Blue Cheese, Monterey Jack), with quince jam, apple chutney, fresh seasonal fruit (grapes, apricots) and crostini

The history of Nepenthe is much more than the story of a restaurant.  It is the story of a family, a culture and a very special place and time.  In 1947, Bill and Lolly Fassett relocated with their five children to Big Sur where they purchased a log home perched on a hillside overlooking the coast.  The home had been owned by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.  The Fassetts envisioned an open-air pavilion with good food, wine dancing and a sense of community for Big Sur residents.  It took two years to realize their vision.  Aided by Rowan Maiden, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, they built their complex using native materials: redwoods hewn from area canyons and hand-made adobe bricks.

Before long Nepenthe became the epicenter of life at Big Sur, the hub of creative culture and the respite the Fassetts had envisioned.  It was a home away from home for writers such as Henry Miller and actors such as Steve McQueen and Kim Novak.  The variety of unique personalities and artists inhabiting Big Sur at its halcyon period for creative expression and Bohemian culture–people living on the fringes of mainstream and uninhibited by societal conventions–is probably best expressed in Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, his love letter to his adopted home.  The people of Miller’s tome were the people of Nepenthe.

The Famous Ambrosiaburger: Nepenthe’s version of a ground steak sandwich, served on a French roll with its Famous Ambrosia Sauce.  Served with a garden salad with bleu cheese

As a restaurant, Nepenthe established a reputation not only for its delicious food and the whimsy in naming its dishes, but for its commitment to exceptional caring service in a relaxed atmosphere. For Thanksgiving, Lolly would invite everyone in Big Sur, an extended family of flamboyant characters and bombastic personalities.  Lolly’s granddaughter Romney “Nani” Steele chronicled the magical history of Nepenthe in a wonderful read called My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family, and Big Sur.  It comes very highly recommended by New Mexico’s own Deborah Madison, by the way.

You’ll want to get to Nepenthe early not only because waits can be rather long at peak times (12-1PM and 5-6PM), but because the best seating with the best views goes fast.  Sure there’s ample seating indoors, but most will opt for some of the most spectacular al fresco dining in California with more than fifty miles of coastline visible on a clear day.  The salubrious air and clear, cobalt skies are an elixir for whatever may ail you.  It makes for some of the most relaxing dining anywhere as you contemplate the unmatched beauty of your surroundings.

A half basket of French fries is large enough for two of us AND the intrepid bird who swooped down for his share

The Nepenthe menu showcases the bounty of Big Sur’s local organic ingredients in serving simple foods redolent with flavor and freshness.  Sandwiches and salads are featured fare for lunch with specials available daily.  For dinner, the menu is a bit more upscale with steaks (premium naturally raised beef, free of chemicals, growth hormones and feed additives), grilled fresh fish, poultry and more.  One commonality between lunch and dinner is the fabulous Ambrosiaburger.

Appetizers also showcase California’s year-round harvests and freshly prepared local ingredients.  There’s a strong sense of local pride evident in such featured fare as slow-roasted Gilroy garlic (with Laura Chenel goat cheese from Sonoma), Castroville artichokes and a California Artisinal Cheese Plate, a selection of California artisinal cheeses (Humboldt Fog Goat Cheese, Point Reyes Blue Cheese, Monterey Jack when we visited), with quince jam, apple chutney, fresh seasonal fruit (grapes, apricots) and crostini.  The interplay between strong, pungent cheeses with sweet fruits is a gastronomic delight.

Half rack of  ribs with a Hoisin barbecue sauce, corn-on-the-cob, Asian coleslaw (made with rice wine vinegar) and watermelon

The most famous item on the Nepenthe menu is aptly named the Ambrosiaburger.  That’s ambrosia as in the food of the gods and burger as in the favorite food of Americans everywhere.  The first thing you’ll notice about the Ambrosiaburger is that it tastes like a very good  coal-based brazier steak and indeed, the beef is actually a ground steak sandwich.  The beef is ground fresh every morning and procured from a specialty butcher.   The six-ounce beef patty is perfectly seasoned and so pink and juicy even at medium, you’ll wonder if it isn’t a bit undercooked.  The Ambrosiaburger is served on a delicious, buttered and toasted French roll with the restaurant’s famous “Ambrosia sauce,” a zesty mayonnaise-tomato sauce-salsa based concoction.  You can add Swiss or Cheddar cheese for a pittance more.  To add anything else would be to desecrate what is one of the very best burgers I’ve ever had.  Perhaps it’s because of my affection for the Ambrosiaburger that In-N-Out seemed so very pedestrian in comparison.   The burger is served with your choice of garbanzo-kidney bean salad, crunchy coleslaw or tossed green salad (the housemade bleu cheese dressing is fabulous).

The special of the day when we visited was a half-rack of ribs with a Hoisin barbecue sauce, corn-on-the-cob, Asian coleslaw and watermelon.  If that sounds like the perfect ingredients for a picnic under one of nature’s most spectacular venue, that’s exactly what it is.  The Hoisin barbecue sauce is slathered on rather thickly, but its sweetness is cut with ingredients which are more savory.  The ribs are meaty and fall-off-the-bone tender.  You’ll be happy to have your cheeks rouged with the sauce as you devour each delicious rib.  The Asian coleslaw is made with a rice wine vinegar instead of a creamy mayo based coleslaw.  It makes for a tangy-sweet coleslaw.  The corn-on-the-cob is fresh and sweet with the flavor that says summer as does the sweet, juicy watermelon.

Banana cream pie with two scoops of Breyer’s chocolate ice cream

The dessert menu lists five items including the aforementioned California Artisanal Cheese Plate and a Triple Berry Pie (raspberries, strawberries and boysenberries).  Our super attentive server recommended the day’s special, a banana cream pie.  Interestingly, she suggested we have it with two scoops of Breyer’s chocolate ice cream.  Her recommendations were spot-on in both counts.  The pie is served cold and has a pronounced banana flavor that doesn’t taste artificial.  It’s not an overly sweet pie, especially when it shares a spoon with the chocolate ice cream.  Gilligan never had a banana cream pie this good (sorry Mary Ann).

In our week-long stay at Big Sur, we experienced several excellent meals and one transformative experience.  That was at Nepenthe, a restaurant which truly is an isle of no care.  It’s the idyll I’ll think about whenever the cares of the day become tough to deal with.

Nepenthe Restaurant
48510 Hwy 1 Map.81c0ebd
Big Sur, California
(831) 667-2345
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 18 July 2012
COST: $$$
BEST BET: The Famous Ambrosiaburger, California Artisinal Cheese Plate, Hoisin Rib Plate, Banana Cream Pie a la mode, French Fries

Nepenthe on Urbanspoon

Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar – Monterey, California

Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar in the Cannery Row area of Monterey, California

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem,
a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone,
a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”
John Steinbeck
Cannery Row, 1945

During basic military training in the Air Force, several of us who could speak multiple languages were asked to take the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB), the test the military services use to measure aptitude to learn a foreign language.  Fewer than five percent of people who take (or retake) the DLAB pass it.  Somehow I managed a high score and was extended an opportunity to attend the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center at the Presidio of Monterey.   My response, one borne of ignorance and stupidity, was “I don’t want to go to Mexico.”  It had not dawned on me that the Monterey being offered was in California. 

Over the years, I’ve revisited my decision frequently.  On one hand, the Air Force might have decided to have me learn Arabic or Iranian then stationed me on a remote mountaintop to listen to and decipher chatter.  On the other, the year or so spent in Monterey would have been glorious (other than the hours of poring over language tapes and books).  Every ten years or so, I manage to visit Monterey where I once again ponder the obtuse decisions of my youth.  It usually results in me thinking that the time spent in Monterey would have been worth the hazards and remoteness of an assignment as a cryptology linguist.

Outdoor patio at Schooners

Monterey, California in 1977 when I would have attended the Defense Language Institute is not the Monterey of 1945 when Steinbeck wrote his novel and if anything, it’s changed significantly since 1977.  The Monterey of Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row was set during the Great Depression when sardine fishing created a boom economy in the village.  Cannery Row is the living backdrop for the book, a unique neighborhood of fish packing plants, bordellos, and flophouses.  The novel made Cannery Row the most famous street in America.

Today Cannery Row is among the most popular vacation destinations on California’s magnificent central coast with many of the city’s very best attractions, hotels, dining establishments, shopping and nightlife available in the area.  Sardine fishing has made a resurgence in recent years, with sardine boats swaying on anchor next to vessels that troll for tuna and whale sighting charter boats.  Monterey has become an epicenter of the sustainable fishing movement.  Then there’s the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the very best of its kind in the world.

Pacific Dungeness Crab Cake: Corn and Avocado Salad, Citrus Vinaigrette

The restaurant landscape in the Cannery Row district is a popular draw, though my friend Sandy is of the opinion that most of its eateries are touristy and commercial.  Sure enough, among the several dozen restaurants in the area are such national chains as Johnny Rockets, Dippin’ Dots, Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company (the first one in America, by the way).  Sadly, but not surprisingly, those restaurants are packed (sardine tight, you might say).   Savvy diners visit the fine dining and seafood establishments on Cannery Row for a more authentic, more delicious dining experience.

One of the best seaside restaurants both for ocean views and the bounty of the sea is Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar,  at the only Forbes four-star-awarded Monterrey Plaza Hotel & Spa.  Schooners is perched dramatically over the Monterey Bay where diners will enjoy the gentle sounds of the undulating surf; the fresh, salty fragrance of sea air; the playfulness of sea otters drifting in kelp forests and a Mediterranean ambiance  accompanied by personalized service.  The views and the experience are unparalleled.  So,  too, is an innovative menu that showcases a variety of seafood–both raw and cooked.

Schooners’ Coastal Clam Chowder: Baby Clams, Sherry, Potatoes, Cream Served in Freshly Baked Sourdough Bread

All seafood served at Schooners is compliant with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch Guide” designed to raise consumer awareness about the importance of purchasing sustainable seafood.  Not only does the restaurant celebrate conscious dining and high quality, sustainable seafood, it educates the dining public by  indicating the origin and catching method on the menu.  The menu is divided into such categories  as “In the Raw,” “Chowders & Stews,” “Fish Stories,” and “Tails to Share,” when plates are portioned to be shared for two or more.

The pride of restaurants throughout the California coast is the Dungeness crab, which are fresh and abundant thanks to sustainable harvesting practices.  Californians are as proud of the Dungeness crab as Baltimore area citizenry are of their fabled Chesapeake Bay blue crabs.  One of my dreams is to participate as a judge in a crab cake throw-down between the aforementioned crustaceans.  The Pacific Dungeness Crab Cake at Schooners would make a good representative of the left coast’s best.  This is an excellent crab cake.  It’s thick and large with a preponderance of crab and a bare minimum of binder.  Complementing the smooth, delicate flavor of crab is an accompanying corn and avocado salad with a tart-sweet citrus vinaigrette.  It’s wholly unnecessary, but quite good.

Fish Tacos: Grilled Fish, cabbage, Lime, Salsa, Avocado, Fresh Corn-Flour Tortillas

When it comes to bi-coastal seafood, it’s not only crab cakes which are prepared par excellence.  Between the clam chowder at my former home in the Boston area and the clam chowder in the San Francisco area, it’s a virtual toss-up as to which is the very best.  Both are outstanding!  In the Boston area, the preferred accompaniment are oyster crackers while in the San Francisco area, clam chowder is often served in hollowed-out sourdough bowls.  The latter option is irresistible, especially if you learn how to scrape the sides of the sourdough bowl so as to have just a bit of bread with each spoonful of soup.  Schooners’ Coastal Clam Chowder showcases baby clams, sherry, potatoes and cream served in freshly baked sourdough.  The proportion of sherry to cream is especially delicious, providing interesting flavor notes.

While fish tacos are much more closely associated with San Diego where they’re regarded as perhaps the city’s top delicacy, you can find decent fish tacos throughout the Golden State.  Schooners’ rendition starts on a canvas of fresh corn-flour tortillas into which are nestled grilled fish, cabbage and avocados with a salsa on the side.  The cabbage is tinged with pleasantly piquant jalapeños.  The grilled fish is wonderfully fresh and flavorful, the avocados unctuous and buttery.  Squeeze a little bit of lime and spoon in a little salsa and you’ve got an excellent, dare I say, San Diego worthy fish taco.  Three per order are served and they’ll go fast.

Seafood Salad: Seared Ahi Tuna, Shrimp, Crab, Endive, Mango, Avocado, Mango Sauce

Land meets sea in a bountiful seafood salad, a delicious melange of complementary and contrasting flavors which meld into a surprisingly fresh and delicious plate.  Easily large enough for two, you’ll find a veritable cornucopia of ingredients: endive leaves stuffed with shredded crab, sliced mango, buttery avocado, heirloom cherry tomatoes (yellow and orange), red cherry tomatoes, peeled shrimp and pepper crust rimmed ahi tuna.  The salad is served with a mango sauce as thick as mayonnaise and a light citrus vinaigrette.  The contrasting flavors played the most delicious notes on our taste buds: tangy-sweet mango with sea salty ahi and especially the astringency of endive with the sweet-brininess of the crab.

Desserts seem to taste just a bit sweeter at seaside, especially if you opt for the Tropical Sabayon ((a cousin of the light, egg-based Italian dessert zabaglione, the very best of which we’ve ever had being at Il Piato in Santa Fe).  Though a bit less frothy and lighter than its Italian cousin, this honey-infused custard is quite good.  The showcase, however, is the fruits and berries–mango broiled to the point of near caramelization, pineapple and berries (strawberries, blackberries, blueberries).  To frosted cookies, much denser than the sugared donuts they resemble, are the proverbial topping you can’t top.

Tropical Sabayon: Broiled Mango, Pineapple, Berries, Marshall’s Honey Sabayon

The impeccable service at Schooners also served to remind me of my perhaps ill-fated decision several decades ago when I opted out of spending much more time in one of California’s paradises than a vacation can afford.

Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar
400 Cannery Row Map.965d171
Monterey, California
(831) 372-2628
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 17 July 2012
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Pacific Dungeness Crab Cake, Schooners’ Coastal Clam Chowder, Seafood Salad, Fish Tacos, Tropical Sabayon

Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon

Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn – Big Sur, California

View from the patio at Sierra Mar on the Post Ranch Inn Resort in Big Sur, California

Famous French mime Marcel Marceau once remarked “do not the most moving moments of our lives find us all without words.”  Without words, a rare state for someone who uses so many of them, aptly describes my reaction at gazing for the first time upon Big Sur with an awe and reverence few sights outside of New Mexico have ever inspired in me.  It eventually dawned on me that my friend Señor Plata may have best described Big Sur when he declared “God spent just a little more time creating Big Sur.” 

Translating literally from the Spanish words “El Sur Grande” meaning “the Big South,” Big Sur is a fabled 90-mile expanse of coastline with breathtaking views of precipitous cliffs which plunge into the sea, rolling fog which creeps in slowly and shrouds those cliffs, towering redwood groves reaching toward Heaven, steep flower-strewn mountains, deeply turquoise waves made frothy by being beaten on jagged rocks,  and unspoiled beaches secreted in coves.  National Geographic Traveler named Big Sur one of the “50 Places of a Lifetime” and “One of the World’s Greatest Destinations.”

Magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean from virtually every table at Sierra Mar

Big Sur’s spectacular coastline twists and winds along the western flank of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range  on Highway 1 from Carmel at its north to San Simeon at its southern terminus. Designated an American National Scenic Byway, Highway 1 hugs the coastline which ranges from just about sea level to nearly a thousand-foot sheer drops into the sea.  Fortunately there are strategically situated vista points which allow motorists to stop and gaze in awestruck wonder at the landscape.

Many have attempted to capture Big Sur’s dramatic and inspiring beauty in prose, poetry, photo, painting, play and song.  Authors such as Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac chronicled the area while Ansel Adams and Edward Weston photographed its spellbinding landscapes.  Long a magnet for creative expression and Bohemian culture, Big Sur is, as Henry Miller described “the California that men dreamed of years ago, this is the Pacific that Balboa looked at from the Peak of Darien, this is the face of the earth as the Creator intended it to look.”

Lavender Lemonade and Citrus Agua Fresca

Suspended precipitously on the side of a cliff over the Pacific Ocean is one of the world’s most luxurious and exclusive resorts, a hotel comprised of a string of redwood and glass cabins with unparalleled views of the California coastline along Big Sur.  The Post Ranch Inn is a sanctuary and an escape where the rest of the world seem far away and small, where your privacy is guarded and no expense is spared to ensure your comfort.   The Inn boasts that within its confines “romance and connection thrive.” 

Nearly 1,200 feet above the Pacific, the Post Ranch Inn couples its world class hospitality with a superb venue for dining, the Sierra Mar (which means Mountain Sea) restaurant, an aerie perched over the cliff.  That the menu could possibly match the floor-to-ceiling views of the ocean is hardly possible, but it is a formidable menu executed very well.  It’s a constantly changing menu based on what is seasonal and freshest on that particular day.  There’s a chef’s garden on the hotel property and what isn’t picked or plucked from that garden and used that very day is procured from local farmers’ markets.

Hard-crusted baguette, jalapeño focaccia, Asiago bread

In 2010, the Food Network aired a program called “America’s Best: Food Destinations,” the culmination of the network’s quest to showcase locations which “offer dynamite dining punctuated by a little je ne sais quoi, something that makes them more than just a great culinary experience.” Such destinations, the program emphasized, are “an amazing adventure, forever etched in our memories,” and according to host Alton Brown “should be on everyone’s bucket list.” Sierra Mar was cited as America’s “best meal with a view,” a distinction with which anyone who has dined at the Sierra Mar will certainly agree.

Never at a loss for a clever quip–though somewhat more reverential and awestruck when talking about Sierra Mar–the erudite Brown described it as “a view to a thrill,” “one of the best views in the world” and “heaven on the Pacific.” He indicated the restaurant “would be forgiven if its menu simply took a backseat to its vantage point on the Big Sur coastline” but “the bottom line,” he declared is that Sierra Mar offers “a perfect view, both from the table and on the plate.”

California olives, housemade hummus, pickled vegetables

Pim Techamuanvivit, author of The Foodie Handbook: The (Almost) Definitive Guide to Gastronomy waxes even more effusively about both Sierra Mar’s incomparable views and the culinary experience. She stresses that “the dining room itself is very understated, but their art is outside the window” adding that “the view changes all the time outside the window and the menu changes just as often.” Sierra Mar, she explains, serves “what’s seasonal, what’s growing, what’s best at the time. You don’t just experience the food, you experience what that food is at that particular point in time, that sort of snapshot of the Big Sur coast.”

Similar to the edifice it occupies, Sierra Mar has achieved dizzying heights.  Aside from the Food Network notoriety, the restaurant has earned Zagat’s highest rating for any restaurant in California serving eclectic cuisine. Wine Spectator recognized Sierra Mar with its Grand Award, accorded only to eateries boasting formidable wine cellars with a selection of more than 1,500 bottles, in addition to superior service, ambiance, wine programs and cuisine.  Even the Sierra Mar Cookbook has earned accolades, in 2006 being named a finalist as Book of the Year in the cookbook category by ForeWord Reviews.

Sweet Gem Lettuce Salad Feta Cheese, Almond, Fennel, Tandoori grilled and spiced chicken

Lunch is served every day from noon to 3PM while dinner requires reservations for each of three seating times: 5:30PM, 6:00PM and 8:45PM based on availability.  Dinner showcases a four-course prix fixe menu which changes daily though an a la carte menu is also available.  The lunch menu at Sierra Mar is as impressive as the dinner menu at most restaurants while the dinner menu will elicit swoons of delight.  Both will offer an exceptional dining experience, one my friend Sandy Driscoll told me not to miss.

Although Sierra Mar offers a complimentary valet service, some diners will opt to take the well-traveled path to the restaurant.  It’s a thirsty climb, but the restaurant is at the ready to quench your thirst with a wine cellar oenophiles will love or with a number of non-alcoholic refreshment.  The lavender lemonade just makes sense, mingling the floral-fragrant taste of lavender with a tangy, but not lip-pursing lemonade.  So does the citrus agua fresca, an upscale take on the Mexican fresh water favorite.

Kurobuta Pork Loin Chop, Polenta, Riesling Braised Peaches and Asparagus

Shortly after you’re seated and while you’re still taking in the magnificent views, a server will ferry a basket of breads to your table.  As your choice from among three different representatives of the staff of life is being extricated by tongs, make sure to ask for all three breads.  We lucked upon a hard-crusted baguette, jalapeño focaccia and asiago bread, all three of which are so good, they were gone by the time our entrees arrived (a good excuse for requesting more).  The jalapeño focaccia is especially magnificent with a chewy, airy, delicate texture.

An amuse bouche of California olives, housemade hummus and pickled vegetables was a pleasant surprise.  The hummus spread nicely on the bread, a good alternative to the semi-hard butter served.  The olives, though pitted, are redolent with flavor and freshness, a salt brine very apparent.  The picked vegetables highlight just another of the many ways California grown vegetables can be enjoyed.  These are among the very best pickled vegetables we’ve enjoyed anywhere.

Wagyu beef flatiron steak, lardons and mushrooms with a red wine reduction

If, after enjoying the bread and amuse bouche you still have room for a starter, the  Sweet Gem Lettuce Salad (feta cheese, shaved almonds, fennel, Tandoori grilled and spiced chicken) comes highly recommended.  Sweet Gem lettuce, which can grow all year-round in temperate climates, grows small enough for only one person.  According to the Organic Authority blog, it has a texture similar to Romaine lettuce and a flavor comparable to Butter lettuce.  All the components of this salad are bursting with freshness and flavor.  The showpiece may be the Tandoori grilled and spiced chicken, as good as we’ve had at many good Indian  restaurants.  This is superior poultry, not cut up into McNugget sized cubes, but whole poultry as you might extricate it from a whole chicken.

Sierra Mar’s Kurobuta Pork Loin Chop, a formidable guitar-shaped bone-in chop is one of the very of its genre we’ve ever enjoyed.  Kurobata Pork is celebrated throughout the world, but particularly in Japan because of its marbling and flavor.  To call it the “Kobe beef” of pork wouldn’t be that significant a stretch.  It’s simply an outstanding pork!  More than an inch-thick, the chop is perfectly prepared.  It is rich and flavorful with a smooth texture devoid of sinew and throw-away fat.  The chop is topped with Riesling braised peaches, as good a pairing with pork as I’ve had.  The asparagus is fresh and delicious.

Strawberry compote sundae: pepitas brittle, balsamic ice cream and buttermilk biscuits

The beefy counterpart to the Kurobuta pork is a Wagyu beef flatiron steak served with lardons and mushrooms with a red wine reduction.  Many experts say flatiron  has the “beefiest” flavor of any cut of beef on any steak.  Sierra Mar exploits these qualities to their utmost, serving a fork-tender steak that is juicy, delicious and absolutely beefy with the marbling-enhanced qualities inherent in Wagyu beef.  The lardons are thick cubes of  smoked and delicious bacon with an aroma so wonderful, it would make a great aftershave for men who love bacon.

The “sweets” menu is the perfect ending to an outstanding meal, the proverbial topping on a perfect cake.  You probably can’t top Sierra Mar’s strawberry compote sundae  topped with pepitas brittle and accompanied with two sugary buttermilk cookies.  The interplay between the just picked strawberries and the tart-sweet Balsamic ice cream is memorable.  In 2011, more than 2.1 billion pounds of strawberries were harvested in California, making the Golden State the largest producer of strawberries in America.  They’re better close to home!

Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn offers exquisite food creations featuring ingredients at the peak of freshness highlighted by a sense of place and culture. That place offers a panorama of million dollar views you won’t find anywhere else in America.

Highway 1 Map.960952a
Big Sur, California
(831) 667-2800
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 16 July 2012
# of VISITS: 1
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Lavender Lemonade, Citrus Agua Fresca, Sweet Gem Lettuce Salad, Kurobuta Pork Loin Chop, Wagyu beef flatiron steak, Strawberry compote sundae

Sierra Mar on Urbanspoon

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