Nepenthe seems to have somewhat of a mythical aura. Dating back to 1949, the restaurant and bar is perched on a bluff over the Pacific Ocean in the heart of Big Sur, with a delectable view. It has a relatively small, but meticulous menu; everything is fairly expensive and flawlessly executed. My friend, Jean, and I arrived at Nepenthe on a sparkling afternoon after about 24 hours of rain. In the aftermath of the rain, Big Sur glowed both blue and green, and we were ready to sink our teeth into the scenery and some great good. We arrived at Nepenthe at about 2 in the afternoon, and the place was crawling with people. We quickly concluded that a decent percentage of the patrons must have been only passing through because we were sure that the tiny town didn’t have the lodging to accommodate such a large crowd. We put ourselves on the wait list, and then noticed two empty seats at the bar; the plush leather bar stools beckoned us in, and our entire experience had a “meant to be” quality following this serendipitous moment.
We started with cocktails; Jean ordered Pinot Blanc and I ordered my signature, vodka on the rocks (I’m on vacation, after all). A gentleman in his mid-thirties sitting next to Jean, whipped his head around in shock, towards my direction after I placed my drink order. Apparently, we were some of the only people in Nepenthe prepared to have a good time, and we certainly lived up to this premise. Jean and I proceeded to indulge in one of my family traditions: the late afternoon, drinking lunch. While the sun is shining, there is something particularly luxurious and fun about diving into a great meal, especially when augmented by an afternoon cocktail. It is a common celebratory practice within my family, and Jean and I have also participated in many of these rituals over the years of our friendship. Our post over the Pacific Ocean made this experience that much more fun, and the food was also impeccable and delicious, with the flavors augmented by the salt in the air.
For our first course, we ordered a roasted garlic and goat cheese appetizer. This included a whole head of sweet roasted garlic, caramel in color, with the texture of slightly softened butter. A ramekin of Laurel Chenelgoat cheese accompanied it, topped with roasted pecans and small-diced red bell pepper. The goat cheese seemed like it had potentially been whipped, as it was so light and fluffy. This was served with thin, crispy crostini to layer the duo of soft spreads on. Mild, yet decidedly garlicky, we squeezed every last drop of garlic out of the papery package. Our fingers became delightfully tacky with garlicky paste, and if I hadn’t been in public, I certainly would have licked them clean.
We took our time; we lingered over the garlic; we ordered another drink; we reviewed the menu. There were quite a few promising options: a char-grilled burger served with a two bean salad; a turkey sandwich with cranberry compote and havarti; a grilled chicken sandwich with smoked cheddar. Yet we decided on items that we couldn’t get other places. One of our choices was the Dungeness Crab Louie, a classic dish, prepared with Pacific Coast crab. The salad was so profoundly cold and refreshing. Every element was chilled to the utmost, including the plate. A generous pile of crab adorned a mound of crisp mixed greens, topped with a drizzle of a Russian style dressing. Most commonly, the crab would be tossed with the dressing, but this presentation was a little lighter, and allowed the crab to be the central focus, as opposed to the dressing. The salad was finished with sliced cucumbers and hard-boiled egg. I sort of felt like an eighty year old woman eating this salad, and the bartender actually did not give me a huge vote of confidence when I asked him what he thought about my selection. Nonetheless, I stuck to my guns as Nepenthe is an old school establishment, and this is an old school dish.
As delicious as the crab was, the true masterpiece of the meal was the cheese plate: a holy trinity of California cheeses, served in epic proportions with meticulously selected garnishes. In all seriousness, they must have served at least 4 ounces of each cheese. The spread included: Humboldt Fog goat cheese (a bloomy, soft rind goat cheese from Humboldt county, with a single gray vein of edible ash artfully streaking its middle), SchochFarmstead Monterey Dry Jack (made from heirloom cheese curds, it is the Jack version of aged cheddar), and Point Reyes blue cheese (a potent blue that is soft, spreadable, and creamy). The trio of cheese was served with dried apricots, red grapes, quince paste, and house made apple chutney, laced with fresh mint, coriander, and lime. We gleefully adorned crostini with this array of delicacies.
Drunk on both cheese and booze, I became the most gregarious version of myself. I began asking the bartenders questions, jotting down notes on their answers, and photographing everything. The next thing we knew, our faithful friend behind the bar, Philippe, was serving us complimentary Pinot Noir, a specialty of the region knows as Lucia by Garys’Vineyard, which highlighted something hidden in each of the elegant cheeses. Through this process, the other bartender, Jeremiah, warmed up to us as well, as he had initially been a little crusty (which is well understood as he has been inundated by haughty tourists at work since he started there in the 70’s). Leaving three cheeses and three vodkas deep, it was a thoroughly worthwhile culinary experience. If nothing else rivals it for the rest of the trip, I can go home a happy foodie. Big Sur and Nepenthe are both recipients of a glowing psycho recommendation.