Edging Out: John Cox nudges landmark (and cliffside) Sierra Mar to new places, like lunch and eight-course dinners.
Thursday, September 27, 2012
There’s a specific sort of fish egg that’s indigenous to our coast but has a Japanese name because those few, often-Native-American foragers who collect it ship almost every bit of it immediately to Japan.
It’s called komochi kombu, deposited on kelp by herring. The Japanese love it, partly because it’s so rare – just try finding some on a menu here – and because the little egg delivers a distinctive pop that ups the sense of celebration. It’s one of four types of fish eggs in play on Sierra Mar Chef John Cox’s “roe roe roe” dish on the four-course prix fixe menu ($110), and a must-order on a menu where it’s hard to go wrong.
“There are so few people using it,” Cox says, “if you Google it, it can seem nonexistent.”
Also in his roe-boat: Smoked steelhead trout caviar (from Washington because, as he says, Carmel River roe would be a no-no), pearly California ossetra and Monterey Bay black cod roe that he cures in its sacks before smoking and blending ever-so-carefully into creamy mascarpone. But it’s the komochi kombu that’s his favorite and – after a sunset September dinner there myself – mine too. Call it the caviar of caviar.
Cox was told by an editor for a restaurant industry mag there was no way he’d get some. “He said I’d have to find some [Alaskan] Inuit sources,” Cox says.
But to Cox, who took over chef duties this summer, that kinda felt like telling all the locals he came to know over three years at Le Bicyclette and Casanova in Carmel they couldn’t enjoy the gustatory heights Sierra Mar offers. Or at least not without dropping hundreds of dollars and driving Highway 1 at night (or coughing up, oh, $600-$2,400 for a Post Ranch place for the night).
So he set to running down the herring roe – which comes in clumps that can weigh 15 pounds and cost $1,500 – and revamping the lunch menu to reflect more of the clever reconstructions, delicate tastes and arresting textures that define dinner.
Just prepping the eggs is another adventure, since instructions don’t really exist in English. Cox has still learned to soak the eggs in progressively less salty waters to cure them – a freshwater dip makes them bitter – over as many as four days before adding some dashi miso stock to round out flavor. Paired with sweet finger lime and mellow avocado, it’s an eyebrow electrifier in a lineup of dinner dreams like the diver scallop with padrón peppers, the buttermilk-marinated pheasant and local sea bass crowned with a prawn-filled squash blossom. They’re each as good as they sound (though the scallop is toughest to top).
There will still be the burgers and salads that Sierra Mar has long leaned on for lunch, but the new $40 three-course love story just launched last week. Before a burger would run $28, the salad $19, which eaters could still justify given Sierra Mar’s sparkling service and infinite Pacific views – but now locals can pounce on more for less. Though you have to add the words, “for Sierra Mar,” you can call it a steal.
“All fine dining has been abandoning lunch service,” Cox says. “But it’s such an amazing spot it deserves a lunch.”
First course conjures stuff like wild arugula with apples and hazelnuts or heirlooms with burrata and basil sourced from their increasingly jeweled on-grounds garden – or Morro Bay oysters with lemon verbena or a goat butter biscuit with Mangalitsa country ham – followed by a choice between Lone Mountain Ranch Wagyu roasted in duck fat with local oyster mushrooms and Cambozola cheese, steelhead with smoked roe or Berkshire pork tenderloin brined with Post Ranch apple juice. Pastry Chef Yulanda Santos closes the equation with a pick between Greek yogurt panna cotta, truffle cake and Avalanche Cheese Company goods; Wine Director Dominique DaCruz and Manager Wanda Straw have already assembled unconventional pairings from the Grand Award-winning selection.
“I think it’s really as gourmet as people want to experience,” Cox says. “And it’s just the beginning.”
Intrigue awaits in the evenings as well, with an eight-course Taste of Big Sur “degustation” menu coming mid-November, not long after current Manresa Sous Chef Jacob Pilarski – last seen locally unloading incredible all-veggie pop-up menus on the hungry throngs at Happy Girl Kitchen – permanently joins the team along with Happy Girl’s pickling-and-jam sensation Fiona Bond. That’s quite a team, with Sarah Kabat helping manage and Matt Millea as a sous too. (In related news, Pilarski and Millea lead a pop-up at Happy Girl Oct. 7.)
Another Manresa man cometh for Big Sur Food & Wine, when the celebrated exec chef of Forbes’ No. 1 restaurant in the U.S., David Kinch, comes for a special (and exclusive) dinner. Post Ranch will also host BSFW’s grand tasting Saturday, Nov. 3.
The new devoutly local dinner looks to star things like nearby seaweeds – at L.A. Food & Wine, Cox had something like five preps and five species for an event in Beverly Hills – plus the best mushrooms, fish and produce Cox can find. As his herring roe rundown indicates, he reads from the same foodie Bible as Thomas Keller, who once told me, “If I can get better product than you, I’m a better chef than you.”
Hard to say who’s more insane about hard-to-get ingredients. But while we’re making always-odious comparisons, Cox’s restaurant has a better view, lower prices (he’s thinking $150-$160), and now a lot more lunch than Keller’s French Laundry. And it’s in Big Sur.
SIERRA MAR AT POST RANCH INN, 47900 Highway 1, Big Sur. •12:15-3pm; 5:30-9pm. •667-2200, www.postranchinn.com