October 18, 2009

San Luis Obispo Food

This weekend, E and I went to the central coast of California to visit my gran for her 83rd birthday.

We left the fog and clouds on Saturday morning to arrive to perfect blue skies, warm weather, and, of course, given that we were in the heart of farm and wine country, the best food and wine that California has to offer, fresh from the local farms that grow it.

Saturday birthday brunch with Gran in Morro Bay at a long-term local institution (where of course, everyone knew her by name) was delicious. Mmmmm... calamari steak...

For dinner, E and I decided to try a new restaurant, The Gardens of Avila.

The chef has amazing credentials, so we had high hopes, but you never know...

Before we headed into the restaurant, we stopped to enjoy the property and walk and relax in the labrinth and gardens -- so relaxing and tranquil. Our commitment to stop and enjoy nature rewarded us with a gorgeous sunset as we entered the restaurant:



We were, I must admit, a bit under-dressed (shocking). But the hostess paid no heed to my flip-flops, jeans, and tank top or E's 15-yr-old t-shirt. Instead, she graciously seated us without a reservation and the entire establishment proceeded to treat us to wonderful service.

The menu was simple but elegant, and amazingly reasonably priced. Chorizo was an ingredient in more dishes than I ordinarily expect, but I considered that a plus.

The wine-by-the-glass selection was full of great local selections at reasonable prices. We both selected a glass and they were happy to bring it to us to sip while we perused the menu. I selected snapper, with mussels, shrimp, fennel (and of course chorizo). E selected duck breast flanked by duck confit spring rolls.

While we sat in our booth after ordering, multiple bus-boys and servers came to our table to re-fill our water, and everyone treated us very well despite what I sheepishly realized was the apparent disparity between our attire and the majority of the patrons. Sometimes, Silicon Valley makes you forget that most people actually *dress-up* to go to a fancy restaurant. We laughed at our mistake, and enjoyed the fact that they did not seem particularly concerned with our choice in attire (granted the property has mineral springs hot-tubs, and people outside were walking around the property in bath-robes, so that helped with our level of comfort as well).

About half-way through our glasses of wine, our server arrived with a complimentary amuse-bouche from the chef. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that he had some spare pork belly and had prepared a marinated pork-belly kimchee-inspired bite for us. It arrived with a fully complimentary glass of Cambria pinot noir for each of us as well. I'm not certain how we were selected for this gift, as I watched the other tables to see if it was the norm and determined that it was not, but we were not complaining.

The only pork dish on the menu that I recalled seeing was Kurobuta pork loin. And, I suppose, if you order pork loin for the kitchen, there could be some spare pork belly in the mix. And, if I were I chef, I'd hate something that decadent to go to waste. But man... the wonderous creation he made with it... it was more than just salvage. It was by far the best pork belly preparation that either E or I had ever had (and trust me, E is a man who has eaten more than his lifetime allocation of pork belly during the time I've known him). Spicy. Tender. Rich, but cut with soy and citrus and ginger and pickled tiny bits -- just delicious. And, the wine was a perfect pairing:


From there, we were prepared to be wowed. As a testament to how well it was prepared, we were actually more hungry *after* the lardy-goodness of the treat than before. And, our excitement was not the least bit overzealous.

My snapper seafood plate was gorgeous, light, with oh-so-fresh tomatoes in the broth, some roasted fennel and chorizo to add contrast, and, well, it was just a beautiful array of flavors and tastes:


E's duck platter was nothing short of perfection. We agreed that it was in contention for the best prepared duck-breast either of us had ever enjoyed (and the spring rolls were excellent too!) and I come from a family that exhausts their duck tags every season:


After our entrees, we were certain we were full.

But then we ordered the cheese plate (because how can you say no to cheese?) and we were amazed yet again:


The far left is a goat, sheep, cow's milk cheese called La Tur. Really? Can you go wrong with a blend of three animals' milks for cheese? I think not.

The hard cheese is a parmigiano reggiano. Simple. Classic. Always great.

The soft cheese on the right of the parmigiano is a triple cream brie. Triple. Cream. Brie.

The big surprise was the blue. We tolerate them. Occasionally, we even like them (particularly if we've had a bit much of the wine). But this one, even without too much wine, was in contention for my favorite cheese on the plate. And E loved it too. To find a blue that is tangy, delicious, rich, complex, clearly a blue, and yet not so stinky as to evoke the locker-room memories -- well, I call that success. To have it be one of the best cheeses on the plate? That's nothing short of a cheese miracle, I tell you.

So, the 4 cheeses were winners. But the side items to dress the cheese were even more amazing.

Look closely -- the one in the middle? Yes, that's a local honeycomb. How cool is that? And delicious!

The left? That's blood orange preserves without sugar. It was perfect with cheese but would be terrible as a simple preserve on its own. I don't know if I've ever enjoyed a preserve that was clearly made with the intention of being served with cheese but would be terrible with anything else--what a pleasure to enjoy the tang and avoid the extra sugar!

And on the right? The preserved local cherries? I could have eaten a pound, no problem.

In short, we had one of the best meals we've had all year, the dining room was *extremely* well run, the service was polite, unpretentious, and attentive, and the total price was so pleasant that we were disappointed we couldn't come back the next night. We agreed -- this is the best bang for the buck meal we'd eaten since dining in rural Italy in 2001.

So, quick, we beseech you, plan a trip to the central coast of California and hit up the Gardens of Avila.


Arvay said...

Because how can you say no to cheese?

There are many reasons we are friends. :)

Biting Tongue said...


It is true. And toe socks is just yet another one.