A transporting hike and brunch at Big Sur’s Restaurant at Ventana
The third installment of Edible Monterey Bay’s pop-up series brought me, with a good friend and fellow foodie in tow, to the Ventana Inn and Spa for a hike and a brunch. What a thrill to head down the coast from Monterey on a soggy morning and find Ventana enveloped in a bubble of sunshine!
Gathering in front of The Restaurant at Ventana, our group of culinary adventurers chatted amicably before heading off on a trail led by Stephen Copeland. A long-time Big Sur resident and owner of Big Sur Guides, Copeland—part naturalist and part local historian—egaled us with stories of Hatfield and McCoy-style feuds between Big Sur landowners and reminisced about Lolly Fassett who started the Nepenthe Restaurant after nurturing the local community nightly with her roasted chicken and stuffing.
Copeland recounted that Orson Welles, from whom the Fassetts acquired the property in 1947, had purchased the original cabin, for his wife, Rita Hayworth, as a haven from Hollywood. Despite the seemingly endless views of the dramatic coastline in both directions, Hayworth purportedly declared: “Orson, this is so cute, but I will never spend the night here.” Whether she did or not, Copeland wasn’t sure, but he did know that a few years later the Fassetts bought the property from Welles and began the transformation into what Nepenthe is now, a Bohemian cliffside restaurant where both locals and tourists flock. Nepenthe, in Greek, means “that which chases away sorrow.” And it is aptly named. Just setting foot in that vibrant place makes you smile.
As we wound along the trails, Copeland conducted what he jokingly called “Redwood 101.” He discussed the trees’ lateral and vertical growth. He talked about the faces in the bark. He told us how redwood trees reproduce, with the younger trees creating tight rings around their parents. Copeland explained how the Esalens and Salinans, the Native American tribes who called the area home, viewed the redwood family rings as sacred places. Circles of life. The tribes performed marriage rituals in the middle of these towering trees; they brought elders to the circles of life to die. At one point during the hike, our group stood in the center of one of these circles. Surrounded by sixteen giants, we inhaled the citrusy scent from the forest duff beneath our shoes and heard the energetic chirps of the wood sparrow. “Listen. If you come into the Ventana wilderness and you don’t hear that,” Copeland gestured towards the source of the noise, “leave. Leave quickly. It means there’s a predator nearby.” And with that caveat, we headed out of the redwood circle and toward the restaurant, comforted by the constant chirp, chirp, chirp of the birds.
With stomachs rumbling and relaxed from the fresh air and sunshine, we were greeted by Kara Stout, Ventana’s Food and Beverage manager, who guided us to the patio. We settled beneath an arbor embraced by gnarled honeysuckle vines whose heady scent is stronger than you would expect from such wiry blossoms.
Our first task: answer the question, “what would you like to drink?” I have to admit that I have never seen such a unique selection of brunch libations; I had a tough time deciding. There was, of course, the de rigueur bellini and ubiquitous mimosa. But it was the more innovative offerings that intrigued me. I vacillated between the St. Germain Royal—Roederer Brut with St. Germain elderflower liqueur, and a lime wheel—and the Hair of the Dog Punsch—lemon-infused Zaya rum with spiced black tea.
In the end I opted for the Hair of the Dog Punsch; punsch—with its seemingly errant “s”—is not actually a typo. Punsch, Stout answered when I asked, derives from a northern European spelling of this cocktail that is served hot. Though I was initially reluctant to order it because rum cocktails are notoriously syrupy sweet, I couldn’t resist the name. The concoction turned out to be surprisingly spicy and slightly bitter. It was quite enjoyable but a vivid contrast to the chilled, effervescent St. Germain that I sampled by sneaking a sip from my friend’s champagne flute.
After clinking our glasses amid celebratory toasts and well-wishes, we considered ten entrée offerings. Chef Truman Jones had fashioned a generous brunch menu with everything from chicken enchiladas to a classic Caesar salad and from homemade granola to a Big Sur burger. I ducked into the kitchen to snap some photos and inquired, casually, about the chef’s favorite. Eggs Benedict. That made my decision simple. It’s my favorite, too.
Toasted English muffins were topped with steamed spinach and pillows of perfectly poached eggs. The applewood smoked pork loin was just crispy enough to lend texture to the mouthfeel yet soft enough to complement the silky eggs. And I was grateful that the hollandaise sauce added just the right amount of lemony flavor without drowning the dish.
The Californian Salad was a green and orange confetti of golden beets, roasted asparagus, and orange segments tossed with crisp romaine leaves in a buttermilk ranch dressing and topped with toasted almonds and buttery avocado slices.
Then there was comfort food at its best. The Shelton Farms Turkey Gravy Smothered Biscuits, first on the menu, looked positively decadent. I wasn’t familiar with Shelton Farms before this meal. A quick search showed me a company, run by three generations of the Flanagan family, whose website reads: “Our turkeys and chickens don’t do drugs.” I can certainly get behind a company whose philosophy is that their poultry – chickens, turkeys, and ducks – grow healthier when they are allowed to walk around in the open air and sunshine, free to scratch at the ground and peck away at whatever catches their fancy.
While I didn’t taste any of the other entrées, our table was lined with empty plates, indicating that all were delectable.
To say the view from The Restaurant at Ventana was breathtaking sounds needlessly hyperbolic. But I did—literally—catch my breath in awe when I looked up and down the coast from my seat on the terrace. Cloudless cerulean skies stretched in either direction as far as I could see. Stunning.
Table chatter ran the gamut from local food events, including the recent Cooking for Solutions, to recipes or culinary processes. And we imagined how we could use the sprigs of California sage that Copeland had plucked from the bushes for us. I’m considering a roasted chicken with stuffing in Lolly Fassett’s honor. Leeks, celery, rye bread, California sage, and lots of butter. I have no idea if her stuffing used California sage, or not, but I know it will be a tasty reminder of this third installment of the pop-up series from Edible Monterey Bay.
I’ll echo the sentiments printed at the bottom of our special menu: Thank you to Edible Monterey Bay. Yes, indeed, thank you! This was a truly enjoyable way to spend the morning…learning, imbibing, and feasting in one of the most scenic spots around.