It’s not often that getting to a restaurant seems a little anticlimactic, but the drive to the Big Sur Bakery is so dramatic that it’s a hard choice to stop the car. The vistas of wild green California forests extending to the cliffs overlooking the azure Pacific Ocean, seen from a winding, narrow road, feed the senses in a way that only an exceptional meal could compete with. On a recent trip, we reveled in the scenery revealed by each twist in the road.
The food at the Big Sur Bakery, however, manages to be as spectacular as the drive. The former gas station and country store became destination dining after a husband-and-wife team of chefs fell in love with the untamed beauty of the area. In ten years, they expanded the building, the menu and their vision of a cuisine that relied heavily on the area’s resources.
With deliveries from giant restaurant suppliers out of the question due to the narrow, and sometimes impassible, roads, chef/owners Michelle and Philip Wojtowicz developed a network of local fishers, mushroom harvesters, dairy farmers and other purveyors. Their reliance on these products led to a progression of seasonal dishes that reflect the local availability of fresh ingredients.
As they explain in “The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook,” there is a wide range of local products because the area encompasses such a wide swath of the Pacific Coast. “Big Sur simply refers to the 90-mile-long piece of land south of Carmel and north of San Luis Obispo,” they write. “Flanked by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Santa Lucia Mountains to the east, Big Sur is bisected by a stretch of Highway 1 made famous by its dramatic panoramas and knuckle-whitening curves.” With rolling green pastures for dairy cows, nearly-impenetrable forests for wild game, and a history of small farms, the area is an ambitious chef’s dream.
Winter brings hard squash, sturdy root vegetables and California citrus, along with plenty of the Wojtowicz’ year-round favorite, butter. Combining acorn squash with other cool-weather produce such as apples and leeks (and more butter than is perhaps necessary, or even advisable) creates a hearty side dish or vegetarian entree.
One of the restaurant’s most popular side dishes dresses up cauliflower with pine nuts and dried cranberries. “In order to maximize flavor, it’s important to caramelize the flat side of the cauliflower florets when you sauté it and to take the time to reduce the sauce slightly after adding the butter,” the cookbook advises.
Texans can put their own spin on Big Sur Bakery’s Marmalade Tart by topping it with citrus such as Ruby Red or Rio Star grapefruit and oranges from the Rio Grande Valley (or a local backyard.) For the prettiest presentation, the fruit is skinned and cross-sectioned, but simply covering the tart with peeled fruit segments will also work.
It may not be possible to re-create the exhilarating drive along the California coast, or the balmy, near-perfect weather, but fortunately, one of the best dining experiences of our trip can be re-captured and savored at home.