If lunch at Sierra Mar is any indication, Jonny Black checks his chef ego at the door. There’s little creative artifice or cutting-edge technique on display, just plate after plate showcasing ingredients at their finest.
The tartare from grass-fed beef has an earthen rumble and mineralic ting. Slivers of meat wilt like tufts of cashmere, so the chef provides a contrasting crunch in the form of mini potato chips, from new potatoes first bathed in a basic salt and vinegar brine… though you may not notice the extra effort, just that the chips work nicely. There’s fried chicken, but again you don’t care that he soaked chicken in buttermilk – or that the fried chicken is as fragrant as a Southern grandmother’s kitchen on a Sunday. You just want that juicy, gamy meat inside.
“It’s all food you want to eat,” Black points out.
He took the helm at Big Sur’s Post Ranch Inn restaurant three months ago. In addition to the property’s farm and previous local purveyor contacts – he worked at Michelin three-star restaurants in San Francisco – Black has been busy seeking out new producers. He wants guests to experience something they can’t find outside of the Central Coast or Central Valley of California.
“I pride myself on finding good ingredients,” he explains. “We’re talking about sustainability and a connection to the area.”
So the chef sometimes reminds his kitchen staff that he spent time in the field. He got to know the farmer, to see the produce ripen and select just what he wanted. He also drove to pick the stuff up at a farmers market. And all of that for just a few crates of tomatoes.
Some of those tomatoes end up cold smoked and spread on the bun of a simple burger. The result is profound – a fruity sweetness that is rich and deep, with acrid curls of smoke that mimic the presence of a backyard grill. This layers into a ground beef patty so musky, so earthy, so evocative of pasture land you begin to realize this is one of the few times you’ve truly savored beef. The meat is grass-fed from Corral de Tierra along Highway 68.
Black’s ethos is to treat ingredients with respect. He explains that the chefs he looks up to – the ones he learned from in Brooklyn and San Francisco – never over-season, they just rely on quality.
The pâté de Campagne is an old recipe he picked up along the way and serves as a case in point. It’s a loaf of pasture-raised pork with a nutty sweetness offset by a rich minerality that can stand up to a swath of coarse mustard – a dish deserving of a French villager’s lunch pail.
“It’s a really traditional pâté de Campagne,” Black says. “It’s super simple.”
Yet he is capable of drama, and sneaks it in where you least expect. A slaw of cucumber and fennel served alongside the buttermilk fried chicken, for instance, lulls you with the easy, grassy-sweet snap of fresh vegetables, allowing a sneaky chili heat to sneak in.
It’s only been three months, but Chef Black appears to be at home. “I’ve been looking for the right thing to put my name on,” he says.
SIERRA MAR 47900 Highway 1, Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur. Daily noon-2pm; 5:30-9pm. 667-2800, postranchinn.com