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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
SIERRA MAR AT THE POST RANCH INN
Big Sur, California
LATEST VISIT: 16 July 2012
# of VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Lavender Lemonade, Citrus Agua Fresca, Sweet Gem Lettuce Salad, Kurobuta Pork Loin Chop, Wagyu beef flatiron steak, Strawberry compote sundae