Jewel Among The Redwoods
The Restaurant at Big Sur Lodge offers upscale dining in a rustic setting.
Thursday, November 14, 2002
I''m not an expert on State Park cuisine, but I''m betting that thorough research would illuminate The Restaurant at Big Sur Lodge in just the light I suspect-a rare campground restaurant that''s taken as seriously as the nearby nature interpretative center.
It makes sense that a chef would be so elated by the redwood forest outside the kitchen windows that he might work himself into a froth of cooking experiments to forge a menu for a clientele that appreciates good hiking, stargazing, and eating.
Tomato-Chipotle soup. Fijian Ono Filet. Loco Chicken. Pizza Basilico. Do you think they offer any of this at Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota?
What might be the most high-profile dining spot in Big Sur-inside Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park-is as popular with locals as with visitors. Its location amid campers and hikers gives it an earthy, real-people feel that''s even more evident than at most Big Sur attractions. And there''s no parking fee for Lodge customers.
Vintage photographs of the restaurant in the 30''s testify that this could very well be the oldest restaurant in Monterey County-certainly under the same name. It''s also independently operated-far preferable to giving control to one of the soulless corporate concessionaires that operate in many parks.
It''s surprising how quickly you can leave Highway One and find yourself in one of Big Sur''s nicest forests. And you won''t have to give up that foamy cup of cappuccino. The restaurant shares a building with a grocery store, lodge office, Espresso House, and gift shop (with a good selection of books on naturalist and Big Sur topics). Trailheads to several hikes emanate from this hub, and the 60-plus rooms are up the road in a more private area.
The dining room, perhaps inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright''s architecture, features a high, flat redwood ceiling and windows on three sides that bring the outdoors in. You can also sit outdoors on the patio along the Big Sur River.
Chef Steven Alton King''s menu discourages anyone with a cavalier attitude toward dining. There''s nary a burger nor a pizza to be found among the dinner offerings. If you''re craving spaghetti, you''ll have to settle for Penne Pasta Pomodoro (the bottom-priced entree at $12.50). Most lunch entrees cost $7 to $10; dinner entrees range from $12.50 to $27.
It''s not that there''s anything pretentious about the Lodge. Lunch is the time for sandwiches, burgers, quesadillas and other dishes to please the hungry woodsman who could care less about crusting filet mignon with blue cheese or saucing it with Merlot (a dinner entree). A ham and Swiss sandwich or grilled salmon with Idaho wedge fries are typical midday dishes.
Dinner is where the Lodge aims high. And why not? There''s a campground full of barbecue pits if you want casual. Go ahead, pop a weenie on a stick and hunker down.
The day the Man and I went for lunch, there were 10 wines served by the glass ($5 to $7.50) backed up by a primarily Central Californian wine list. Steven said they shoot for the best quality possible in the $20-to-$40 range. If a few days on the trail sipping Wild Turkey from a flask has you thirsting for refinement, you might go straight to the top of the list with a cold bottle of Veuve Clicquot Champagne ($76).
We ordered the two most straight-ahead salads, Mixed Greens and Caesar ($4.75/$5.75) because that''s the kind of salad people we are. You might prefer the Apple-Gorgonzola, Asian Chicken, or Greek, but ours were very good.
Jack, our amiable waiter, recommended the "authentic" tacos (among other favorites) and I found out what he meant-no cheese, no beans, just chicken or pork carnitas with freshly chopped onion, lettuce, and cilantro in a soft corn tortilla, with sides of guacamole and tomatillo salsa verde. Nothing more was needed.
Since Steven arrived a year ago, he has upgraded the quality of the ingredients, from bread to meat, and replaced or enhanced many dishes with his own recipes. The lunch dishes were carefully prepared. For example, my guacamole had bits of chopped tomato and pepper-at a campground, I wouldn''t expect more than mashed avocado and salt, but they took the time.
The Man was torn between baby back pork ribs and an Angus beef burger. He wanted ribs, but at most upscale restaurants, the meat is rarely fall-off-the-bone tender. Why can''t these highly trained chefs figure this one out? Not enough time spent down in the bayou, I reckon. Poor Jack was pummeled with questions about just how tender his ribs are.
Whew. They were fall-off-the-bone tender. A joyous time was had by all.
Due to a hefty breakfast that morning, we had no room for the housemade desserts, but on the way out, I didn''t resist a scoop of Lappert''s blueberry cheesecake ice cream at the Espresso House, a dessert cafe.
Next time I want to get away from it all-but not too far-I''ve found a jewel of a place to go for natural splendor and country comfort.