Highway 1 Heaven
Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn does it rustic and oh-so-right.
Thursday, January 4, 2007
For something to be truly luxurious, it has to be more than just pleasurable. It must also be rare. Which explains why Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn—which brilliantly combines the pleasures of great food and feather beds with the rare absence of TVs, phones and fairways—feels so luxurious to those of us who live in this vacation destination. If Pebble Beach is the well-oiled country club cousin, Deetjen’s is the eccentric old-money aunt in the mountains, the hands-down choice of those not dazzled by slick facades. It’s the getaway’s getaway.
The high quality of the food is a key part of this success. Without it Deetjen’s, which is on the National Registry of Historic Places, would feel like just another cynical tourist trap. Our December visit happened to fall on the fourth day of the reign of new chef Domingo Santamaria, who left the number two job at Ventana when the Inn’s Jessica Cichowski set out for New York. I can’t speak to how Santamaria’s performance compares with Cichowski’s, but our dinner had us swooning.
We started out with aperitifs from the small but carefully selected wine menu. My fruity, refreshing Lillet ($6) and Michael’s Bodegas Dios Baco Fino dry sherry ($6) both recalled an earlier era that felt appropriate to the low-ceilinged redwood dining room, which was built in 1937. Fireplaces, old photographs of Big Sur, antique plate collections and handmade lamps on every table made each of the four rooms feel snug and inviting. Our waiter, a Deetjen’s veteran, was friendly and attentive, not at all sycophantic, and casual enough to seem like the genuine Big Sur article.
Another nod to Big Sur’s hippie roots arrived with a small loaf of soft brown bread and garlicky hummus. Normally I’m all about butter, but this felt fine, given where we were, and it was good hummus by any standard. The vibe also resonates in the choice of locally grown organic ingredients.
For an appetizer we ordered poached oysters wrapped in red leaf lettuce ($16). They arrived in a spectacular broth of oyster water and fish stock with saffron and beurre blanc, reduced to the point that a caramelly sweetness emerged. The oysters were ocean-fresh and tender, the lettuce an unobtrusive vehicle. My only objection was to the diced, sautéed onion, zucchini and celery in the wraps; I kept thinking they were cartilage. On our server’s recommendation, we shared an excellent glass of De Lorimier Sauvignon Blanc ($8).
A decent amount of time later–it was nice not to be rushed–our entrées came. At this point I just lost my head. My seared bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin ($28) was beyond good. Two perfectly tender medallions of pork loin, possibly smoked but not overpoweringly so, were rimmed with thick slices of bacon (very possibly the source of that delectable smokiness) and served atop a moist cake of polenta. Ladled over it all was a byzantine, sumptuous port jus in which sautéed mushrooms, cooked apples and blue cheese floated like little flavor-jewels. It all would have been absurdly rich if not for the polenta, which cut the intensity without dulling it.
Michael’s rack of New Zealand lamb ($28) came tender and rare, just as he had ordered it, on an unusual vegetable ragout of root vegetables, green beans and raisins. The honey mustard crust of the lamb added background notes, not a center-stage aria, and pleasant crispness. The ragout and harissa veal sauce made for a dark, earthy base from which to showcase the lamb. Michael enjoyed this dish but probably would order something else next time.
He had a glass of Kali Hart Pinot Noir ($9.50) and, appropriately for the lamb, a glass of Rafferty’s Rules Shiraz ($9) from Australia. While I appreciated the simplicity and dependable quality of the wine list, not to mention the prices (starting at $24 for bottles), Michael wanted a little more pizzazz. And he’s probably right. With some love this list could evolve into something extraordinary. My wish would be to keep it small, but replace some of the chestnuts with a few little-known mind-blowers.
For dessert we had an almost black, velvety pot de crème made with Belgian chocolate ($6) and topped with a fluff of mascarpone blended with strawberry slices—the perfect angelic foil to the chocolate. We closed down the place at something like 9:30pm, stepping out into the starry night with something like disbelief at our good fortune, and headed off to Fernwood for more fun.
We returned to the dining room the next morning, a little worse for wear. Deetjen’s storied breakfast put us right–eggs benedict ($9.75-$11.75/full order; $6.75-$8.75/half-order), huevos rancheros ($9.75) and blueberry pancakes ($4/one; $6/two; $7.75/three) lived up to what we’d expected based on dinner. Over coffee we began plotting our return, which won’t come a moment too soon.
DEETJEN’S BIG SUR INN
48865 Highway 1, Big Sur • 8am-noon (12:30pm weekends); 6-8:30pm daily (reservations for dinner recommended). • 667-2377.