It's All Good
Mellow's the mood and perfection's the word at The Big Sur Bakery.
Thursday, October 18, 2001
The Big Sur Bakery is very Big Sur. That is to say, it is very California but more so. And so is the Big Sur Bakery''s food. California cuisine means fresh, organic ingredients and simple-yet-innovative preparations; that is the Big Sur Bakery''s forte-which it flexes with its own unique flair.
We headed down the coast after a long Wednesday, in time to catch the sunset around Garrapata, and the mid-autumn, early-evening drive felt like a rare experience.
Not long after the highway entered the redwoods and meandered through the "town" of Big Sur, the Bakery appeared on the right, behind a huge cactus. Several diners were sitting at small tables on a pretty garden deck. We walked into the bakery section of the Bakery, eyed a hundred loaves, smelled the pizza, and were ushered into one of three small dining rooms.
I immediately felt like I was on vacation. At a table nearby, but not too nearby, a group of eight guests in Patagonia and Tevas sipped white wine or beers and laughed a lot. A couple with a 3-year-old at another nearby table allowed the child to roam around, which was cool with everyone in the place. A cute cat wandered between tables before settling into an empty seat for a nap.
Our waiter, a young man with a shaved head, long goatee, full-sleeve tattoos and preternaturally calm bearing, delivered our evening''s menu (it changes daily). My tranquil mood became somewhat troubled: I had some difficult decisions to make.
At the top of the short but tempting list of entrées was roast chicken. I am almost always in the mood for roast chicken. But then I saw the "Caught Today Monterey Bay Sea Bass." And the Niman Ranch free-range, hormone-free top sirloin. The side-dish choices tugged at me from different directions, while the first courses were all too tantalizing.
Even Penelope''s meal posed a problem, despite the fact that it was a foregone conclusion that she''d get the beef. (Penelope loves beef with a tightly focused ardor.) "I''m going to get the corn-chanterelle risotto," she said matter-of-factly. I was bummed. I was intending to get the risotto-but couldn''t if she did (it''s a rule). "Risotto with beef?" I asked incredulously, as though that was the issue. She didn''t budge an inch.
But then there were roast-potatoes-and-root-veggies to consider. It was as though the chef had interviewed my friends to find out my favorite dishes.
Our mellow waiter appeared, and proceeded to dispense relaxed geniality. I asked about the chicken, and he confided that the chef "does something to it." When I asked what the chef did, the waiter pretended he didn''t understand the question. But it didn''t seem to matter anymore. I think I was getting a contact-calm.
I ordered the chicken and wondered aloud: mashed potatoes or roasted vegetables? The waiter shrugged gently. "Well," he said, "chicken and mashed potatoes, right?" Right. The sea-bass craving was resolved with a starter of fish-kabob, even though that meant foregoing my own Caesar salad.
We ordered a bottle of Bonny Doon Vineyards'' Barbera ($32), which arrived with a plate of bread. Things started getting good. The bread (two varieties-one chewy and perfect, one soft and perfect) came with sweet butter and a tiny bowl of sea-salt-a nice touch. The wine was not too jammy and not too sweet.
The appetizers were a little late in arriving, but that was okay. The kabob was delicious: sweet sea bass and nice fatty local salmon (my favorite kind) in a teriyaki glaze, with two tender, crisp, corn fritters. The Caesar was also done the way I like it-with whole leaves of romaine-but needed more anchovy, or something salty, for my taste.
The main dishes also felt a bit slow in arriving but were worth the wait.
Roasted chicken demonstrates nature''s need for balance-the breast cannot be underdone in the slightest, the leg cannot be at all overcooked, or the thing is ruined. This chicken was cooked perfectly.
At first, however, I had the sense that something was missing. I took another bite, and that feeling was reinforced. I remembered the little bowl of salt that came with the bread. I sprinkled my plate liberally and the dish came to life.
Penelope''s beef was served sliced, perfectly rare and tender, in a buttery, mushroomy sauce and the risotto complimented the dish perfectly. Penelope was very impressed with the way the crunchy corn popped in the creamy rice. I was jealous but she was happy.
We did not really want dessert, but felt duty bound, so we ordered the Key Lime Pie. It was really cool-a huge, square piece, clearly baked on a cookie sheet instead of a pie tin, so there will be plenty for everyone. It was awesome. I scarfed it with a cappuccino Roma (twist of lemon peel) and walked, buzzed, into a starry night for the sweet ride home.