Please join me in a personal exploration of travel, food and current trends in what, how and why we eat.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Setting off this morning from Pismo Beach, I made the last minute decision to ditch the 2 hour Hearst Castle tour and slowly make my way up to Big Sur, taking in random sites along the way and visiting Esalen for a 4 pm massage. It was the last official day away from home and I needed to not be on much of a schedule. I made my way to the famous rock at Morro Bay, which was barely visible yet amazing looking through the fog. I next stopped in the picturesque town of Cambria, ordering an incredible Turkey, Avocado and Pancetta sandwich from Soto's Market downtown.
I passed Esalen at 3 pm and decided to go check in at the Glen Oaks and make my way back down to take advantage of the cliffside natural hotsprings before my massage. I had chosen the Glen Oaks Motel because they had redone it recently, having been a state of the art "modern" hotel back in 1950 when they originally built it. It had been updated with all organic linens, soaps, bamboo flooring, a working fireplace, and looked almost as nice as the Ventana and the Post Ranch Inn down the street, at 1/4 of the price.
It had been years since I had been to an alternative culture place like Esalen. I had forgotten the vibe of the at times spacey wanna-be hippy culture: peace, love and clothing optional. The setting was fantastic, perched on the edge of the cliffs, natural hot springs in a cast cement building; a place well worth letting one's guard down for. A 75 minute massage with use of the facilities was only $165. That may sound like a lot, but considering the standard rate for a 50 minute massage in these parts was $120, it was a steal. To boot, the sound of the crashing waves and the warm sunshine on my battered body leached any remnants of stress away. This place is not for the conservative minded, as nude women and men basked in the sunshine and layed together on couples massage tables. I was surprised I even noticed these things and was even a tiny bit self-conscious (for like, one second), a sign to me that I am aging and changing. Damnit, I need to get out more.
The fog had never quite lifted from the shore that day, hanging at the coastline and sinking into each crevice and valley after sunset.
After a very relaxing few hours at Esalen, I opted for a contrasting experience and went for a drink at the posh Sierra Mar Restaurant at the Post Ranch Inn. I was dressed very casually and even had a hint of post massage sulphur spring pool wafting from my still glowing skin. If I wasn't driving a semi decent car, I probably would have been too shy, as it is tough to get a room there for under $600 a night. I summoned an few ounces of self importance as I parked my car, passed through the lobby and climbed the heavy wooden steps up to the top. The restaurant is probably the best in Big Sur and I was eager to check out the prix fixe menu and views. $105 for 4 courses, with each item available a la carte.
The room was very modern with a hint of rusticity in the rusty, hand-welded backdrop to the bar; floor to ceiling windows overlooked a sea of clouds. The scenery, clouds hugging the coastline, and soft sunlight illuminating from beyond gave the feeling that we were in a huge airplane looking out over the horizon, sitting in first class, of course. The cocktail menu was a good mix of innovative and classic, with fresh squeezed, organic juices making up the bulk of the specialty drinks. I opted for a drink (name I cannot recall) featuring Plymouth Gin, a splash of St. Germain (elderflower liqueur), grapefruit juice and a dollop of absinthe on top. It was delicious and refreshing. I was tempted to have the Foie Gras Trio as a snack, but somehow mustered a moment of self-control. Surprisingly (or not), the couple seated next to me were from Pacific Heights and had never been into Terzo; of course I gave them my card... Guests there were treated like locals and it was obvious there were many repeat visitors.
As the sun sank below the horizon, I snapped up some gorgeous photos and made my way down the hill, restaurant recommendations from the very friendly bartendress, Heidi, in hand. I had originally planned on Nepenthe, but was actually very happy with the local favorite she recommended, the Big Sur Bakery, which she said was right next door. In Big Sur terms, that means a mile down the road.
The restaurant seemed a bit harried when I walked in, perhaps a little short staffed. A friendly woman with a German accent seated me outside next to a large Redwood tree. Indian summer had hit on this part of the coast and I was lucky to be in such a relaxed state, the smell of forest floor hanging in air, a warm breeze caressing my skin, the Plymouth Gin running through my veins. I'm not sure if my server thought I was expecting someone else, but it took her about 10 minutes to finally come over to my table, saying "a single lady dining alone tonight?", which I found impossibly obnoxious but smiled anyway. I had already decided what I wanted, to eat to drink etc. She assured me water and bread would be over in a minute, and that it was fine that I ordered the pizza, but it would be "at least 45 minutes, if that's alright with you?" I had already scanned my other options and I was tired of big hunks of protein; salad and pizza sounded like a refreshing change. I assured her it was fine.
The wine arrived but no water or bread. The busser hadn't bothered to notice me. I didn't care much about the bread, but the massage, hot tubs and two drinks at Sierra Mar had left me parched. I had to ask a couple of times and finally did have a glass of water placed before me. The busser never did come over though, even as he refilled the glasses at the next table. Perhaps I do reek of sulphur, I wondered to myself as I watched the German lady (who turned out to be the owner) make small talk with every table except mine. I began to feel like Ruth Reichl as an undercover food critic, dressed frumpily and being ignored by head waiters in her book, Garlic and Sapphires. I pondered how interesting it was that most people are uncomfortable with a single woman dining alone; everyone but me, that is. Oh well, not my problem how other people feel, but it would have been inexcusable if my service was faltering because of this; something I would never know for certain.
I began to perk up when a nice effeminate male waiter brought me a lightly dressed Spring Green, Pistachio, Peach, Haricot Vert and Feta Cheese Salad, a hard choice from the several very appetizing sounding combinations listed on the menu. It was tasty and filled the vegetable void that had arisen in the preceding days. He was taken aback that I didn't have any bread and whisked some out to me, 3 or 4 kinds piled on a cutting board, unsalted butter and a nice pile of salt crystals for seasoning. The seeded bread was the best, crunchy at the crust, toothsome yet soft in the center. If I hadn't already begun to feel full, I would have considered buying a loaf to bring back home.
The pizza finally did arrive, exactly 45 minutes from the time of ordering. By that point my appetite was fading, but I was still enjoying the warm night. The Niman Ranch Ham, Pineapple and Serrano Chiles pizza had sounded refreshing; defiantly not a pizza for the traditionalist. I am so accustomed to our Neopolitan Pizzas here in the Bay area however, that I found the crust a little too thick and doughy for my liking. It was as if the pizza didn't cook long enough, or possibly sat in the expediting window too long. The toppings were only lukewarm, the cheese barely melted. Picking at a few pieces, I asked for my bill, suddenly feeling the need to leave and have some quiet time with the trees back at my hotel. The next day, my vacation would come to an end, work would start again, and I would begin plotting my next adventure.
A long time food industry professional, my life is a continual conversation about food in all its glory. The power of a heartfelt meal, memories made, senses stimulated, the aesthetic of beautiful plate. A proponent of natural medicine and eating well, I believe most disease processes can be mediated through proper nutrition and a little coaxing from the incredible plants and foods that grow right outside my door. Eating without guilt and with plenty of exercise to keep things balanced keeps us energetic and able to benefit most fully from what passes through our lips. Preparing a meal for friends and family is a forum that keeps traditions alive and also a way to tap into a passion that runs deep.