Tracking a quick-and-easy Big Sur-Paso Robles taste vacation.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
First there were seven sea salts, then came waffles, whales, waterfalls and wine. In between there were militant elephant seals and peaceful gardens, short ribs and long meals, five-spiced duck and single-plot Pinot.
It was a lot in a little touch of time – a a 30-hour, 200-mile round-trip bite-sized for today’s tight timelines and tighter budgets, a Big Sur-Paso Robles loop best described chronologically:
A truly pacific Pacific escorted us down Highway 1 to Fernwood Grill (667-2422) to grab a menu from new chef Tommy Noel. He’s already earned the affection of Big Sur tastemakers there when I poked in, FolkYEAH! mastermind Britt Govea and Big Sur Food and Wine player Matt Peterson, who digs the housemade pork chorizo quesadilla ($8.95) and the chile verde ($12.95).
Next up: a look around the eye-catching installations at Big Sur Spirit Garden (667-1300) and a rustic snack at Big Sur Bakery (667-0520), where marinated olives ($5.75) and a bread plate ($4.50) speak to the power of ideal ingredients and execution, particularly Michelle Rizzolo’s signature sourdough and nine-grain breads, crowned with pure butter and the seven-sea salt blend.
Forty-five minutes of coastal curves later, we were at Treebones! Resort (805-927-2390), which has only evolved of late, with an expanded organic garden – which was a colorful menagerie of leafy life, even in winter – and new chef Michael Wood. (The yurts remain magnetic; our big #13 wasn’t cheap at $300+, but it did provide a fireplace, a soaring ceiling and comfortable sleeping arrangements for four – and helped harvest soul-tingling sunset views.)
Our server at in-house Wild Coast Restaurant that night, sweet ‘n’ bubbly Cinda Lee Bidwell, is also the garden chief, which made her insights greater from the get-go, when we dipped focaccia into a mysterious blend of olive oil, balsamic and garden herbs – which turned out to be a concerto of chives, fennel, thyme, sweet marjoram, tarragon, parsley and dill. The mix serves as a metaphor for the place, where fresh, raw ingredients – the remote coast, the founding Handy family, the yurts – alchemize to equal something far greater than their simple sum.
Heller Estate Reserve 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) danced nicely with a Harris Ranch filet mignon ($30) flash seared to seal in the juices, then roasted and caressed with melting rosemary butter. Wood’s comfort with crucial details – from the sauce on the Burgundy short ribs ($26), to the lively but light five-spice duck glaze, to the coconut curry treatment on the scallops – was commendable. The insanely moist sticky date pudding ($8) remains a must-do. Two of us even added a bonus treat at adjacent Sunset Sushi, where Carlos-san tasted us on a spectacular all-veggie roll with beets and asparagus.
After a morning of self-poured waffles and whale watching, Salmon Creek Waterfall beckoned a few miles south. It’s just a tiny jaunt up a roadside path before its veils start to wrap you in their mist, but not before hulking boulders and lush greenery deploy their own otherworldly charms. At the foot of the falls, ferns sprout from rock and the perpetual roar celebrates life on the South Coast.
The next pause was San Simeon for some intense marine mammaling. We arrived just as the first plump female elephant seals were carving their spots in the sand to have their pups, and bulls were starting to bellow and spar over who gets to protect them (and promptly knock ’em up once the babies are birthed). The bizarre, burping uglies are enough for their own article: Suffice it to say when you can dive a mile deep, traverse months-long migrations and tolerate/seduce 20 mothers-to-be at once, yours is a fascinating species.
Soon – after a left on the 46 East – a tasting two-step gave us a nice Paso Robles cross-section: Cinda Lee’s hubby, T-bones! facility hero Dave, recommended Castoro Cellars (1-888-DAM-FINE); Passionfish wine geek-cork dork Sarah Kabat sent us to small-plot Pinot gurus Winward Vineyard (805-239-2565).
Castoro (Italian for Beaver, the nickname for its founder) won us over with its easygoing tasting team, the surprising Tango reserve blend (a Viognier, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay and Rousanne combo, $21.95), and seven tastes for $5. Their Whale Rock Zinfandel 2006 is an explosive treat – though it was the 2008 Primitivo, a primo of Zin ($22.95) that I took home.
The bustling tasting bar contrasted with the Windward Vineyards (805-239-2565) around the corner, where the mood is more muted and tastings are $10, bottle buys be damned – but the grape fidelity backs up the strict approach big time. The four-part vertical tasting was a dream sequence spotlighting the luscious-intense-complex profile and “peacock-tail” finishes. It took all my self-control to leave with just a 2007 Pinot Noir Monopole ($38).
The only suitable next step on this flavor parade: lunch at downtown’s Artisan (805-237-8084) for sandwiches like lamb French dip with goat cheese and pickled chilies ($14), poached shrimp club with avocado ($16) and the best veggie sandwich I’ve had in a decade, easy, thanks to hyper-fresh burrata cheese, local tomatoes, arugula and accompanying crispy squash ($13).
The car ride back up the 101, just over a day since our mini epic unfolded, contained some satisfied passengers.