Of all the restaurants in all the world, Sierra Mar at the Post Ranch Inn on Highway 1 at Big Sur in California starts with the greatest natural advantage of them all. It has unquestionably the best view.
There are other restaurants with great views: across rivers; across the skylines of our cities; and even, most peacefully but sadly increasingly rarely, across just a few beach shacks and the sea. But none in my experience can compare with the view from a corner table on the terrace of Sierra Mar which looks down to and across the Pacific with nothing other than a rail between the tables and this vast expanse of Nature.
Nor is there a restaurant that makes itself more difficult to find. We had been travelling down this extraordinary stretch of Highway 1 down the west coast from Silicon Valley and we knew that we were pretty close by when suddenly Jancis exclaimed, ‘We’ve just missed it, the entrance was back there.’
Now for those of you who may know this particular road, you will recall that it is single lane, extremely windy and therefore provides little room for manoeuvre on either side. However, I was hungry and fortunately a brief vista point suddenly appeared on the right-hand side. I pulled in, executed a swift U turn and soon we were turning left into the Post Ranch Inn.
We were stopped by a woman at the barrier who, after telling us off for arriving early for our 1 pm booking, let us through and we began the steep climb up to the resort enjoying the view below, past deer eating calmly by the side of the road. These, I was to overhear from a waitress subsequently at a nearby table, provide the raw material for the venison tartare with yucca and wild blossoms that appears as the first of Chef John Cox’s five-course lunch tasting menu.
The steeply angled car park provides excellent views of the valley below but once inside the hotel lobby, adorned with black and white photos of how the Post family recognised the potential of this area many years ago and then built the resort, the climb starts again. The path through the trees is quite steep and narrow at this stage but the reward at the end is well worth all the effort.
Once on the highest level, the bedrooms are off to the right, and the restaurant straight ahead. The first section of the restaurant is under cover and it is here that we were originally sat looking out, somewhat enviously, at a number of unoccupied tables basking in the California sunshine. After a couple of minutes, our waitress, Amanda Feldman, asked us if we would like to move and she escorted us to what she described as ‘her favourite table’.
It is impossible to disagree. It is a table for two right by the rail looking down and across on Nature and nothing else other than two large commercial boats in the far distance. The sun beat down on the Pacific. There was not a cloud in the sky. Our only companions were the small number of large birds who cruise along also on the look out for food. The cliffs that make up the coast spanned out to our left providing a convenient bed for the ocean to crash into. I would like to add much more detail but that would only make any reader even more jealous and it would be fabrication. There is nothing more to add because there is simply nothing else in the way other than the music, principally Frank Sinatra, which seemed very fitting, too.
The management also made it extremely convenient to keep one’s eyes fixed on Nature by writing one of the most concise, informative and well laid out menus I have come across.
It is a single sheet of A3 paper with the chef’s name clearly in the top right-hand corner. Down the page is the à la carte menu, clearly delineated with five choices under COURSE ONE; four under COURSE TWO; and three under COURSE THREE. Prices are listed clearly at the bottom: $55 for the three courses, plus $29 for the wine pairings; and on the reverse are the dishes that make up the five-course tasting menu at $95 with wine pairings another $49.
There was a strong Asian influence in our two first courses: crisp bruschetta topped with local squid, shiso and uni butter came alongside a typically heavy bowl full of avocado and spicy greens surrounded by small mounds of wasabi topped with what was described as Big Sur Furikake. This is Cox’s interpretation using local ingredients of the Japanese topping of dried and ground fish, sesame seeds, chopped seaweed, sugar and salt.
The home state of California was definitely the inspiration for the main courses. Mine was a particularly colourful combination with the pink of the grilled albacore tuna contrasting with the light grey of half a dozen clams underneath, alongside two shades of lemon provided by thin slices of meyer lemon and a mound of spaghetti squash.
Substantial as this dish may sound, it paled into insignificance as Jancis broke a habit of at least two decades and ordered a hamburger (although she was to enjoy another one a week later, albeit in less salubrious surroundings, at a branch of In-N-Out in Irvine, Orange County). She rationalised this decision by saying that she was unlikely to be in a location to enjoy such a high quality version of this dish or one being prepared so close to Monterey, an hour’s drive north, for the Monterey Jack cheese topping. (Note that this cheese originated with the Franciscan friars in Monterey in the late 18th century.) The kobe beef was certainly as good as any, the dish served on a board with purposely carved holes to contain the well-salted fries and tomato jam. A considerably lighter dessert of creamsicle ice cream, thin meringue and yogurt sponge cake was politely shared.
Cox is ably supported by a front of house team ably led by Wanda Straw, its restaurant manager, and an excellent wine list curated by Dominique DaCruz.
Jancis drank a glass of Tatomer Riesling 2012 Santa Barbara County and what she tantalisingly reported was a delicious Lieu Dit Cabernet Franc 2012 Santa Ynes Valley . As I was driving, I drank only water followed by a macchiato with which I toasted the good health of Purple Pager Thomas De Waen, who recommended this place to us.
Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn, Highway 1, PO Box 219, Big Sur, CA 93920; tel +1 831 667 2800