Dining at Windows on the Water in Morro Bay, I discovered that Chef Neil Smith totally gets it: When preparing fine cuisine, it doesn’t matter how pretty the presentation is if everything on the plate isn’t delicious. On my first day at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, chef/instructor Jean-Michel Jeudy taught us that every single component on the plate should taste good and complement the other foods on the plate. That includes the addition of a sprig of parsley, Jeudy scolded us: “If it doesn’t make the food taste better, it shouldn’t be on the plate.”
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
This was my first visit to Windows since Smith became executive chef there. Three years before that, he was sous chef when chef Pandee Pearson was at the top. He’s worked for many good local venues during his 21 years in the restaurant industry. I was quite impressed by the artistry of his foods. I was also a bit embarrassed at hearing him say he’s been waiting a long time for me to come around, but I admired his honesty.
But that didn’t come nearly as close to making me regret my tardiness as did the exceptional dinner he prepared for me and my husband Dan on our 20th anniversary, Dec. 14. I realized I had been missing out on an excellent dining experience that has me eager to return for more. I ordered off the menu, which is printed daily because it’s market driven. Smith prefers locally grown produce, beef, and fish, and says he’s focused on organic foods as much as possible over the last two years.
He follows Monterey’s Seafood Watch Program by buying wild-caught fish or sustainably raised fresh daily.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to get local fish,” Smith admitted. “If it’s too windy in Morro Bay, the boats don’t go out. Then I’ll buy local halibut from Santa Barbara and other fresh sources.”
Casting aside dietary concerns, we shared an exquisite multi-course dinner, with wine pairings chosen by Window’s sommelier, Chris Battles. We started with the risotto of local chanterelles and porcini mushrooms, gilded with bacon, brussel sprouts, white truffle oil, and parmesan ($13), which Battles paired with Kenneth Volk Vineyards 2007 Pinot Noir Santa Maria Cuvée. The rich, earthy risotto was quite nicely complemented by the Pinot Noir. Battles maintains an excellent wine list with many good choices offered by the half-glass, glass, and half-bottle. Most are great Central Coast wines, but there are gems from Napa, France, and New Zealand, and more. They’re reasonably priced, atypical of most fine restaurants. For instance, the Volk Pinot is priced $5 and $9.75 for the half-glass and glass, respectively, and $36 for the bottle.
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
The presentation of the Ocean Rose abalone, farmed in Morro Bay, was beautiful. Served with radish, wakame salad, and black Tobiko caviar, atop a sauce of uni butter that’s dotted with blackberry coulis ($15), it was like eating an exquisite piece of original art. The tasty panzanella salad features Windrose Farm arugula with beets, cherry tomatoes, and asparagus, all tossed with basil vinaigrette and parmesan ($8). With this course and the main courses we ordered, an eclectic selection of beef and fish, Battles had his work cut out for him. His choice was a 2008 white Bordeaux blend of 55 percent Semillon and 45 percent Sauvignon Blanc by Bedrock in Sonoma County ($36). I enjoyed it with everything except the filet, as I prefer red wine with beef, but I am always open to a new food and wine experience.
I love the open kitchen at Windows, where I could see the chef interacting with his kitchen team. Smith later told me, as any great chef would, that he credits his kitchen team.
“We have a lot of passion here; my sous chef Darrell Janes is awesome. He went to Cordon Bleu Culinary School and did his externship with Pandee here,” he said. “When Pandee left in 2007, they asked me to come back as executive chef. I agreed to come back if Darrell would be my sous chef.”
The award-winning Smith won the first “battle of the bay cook-off” during Sunset’s Savor the Central Coast. While watching this year’s cook-off competition, I thought Smith had the flair of chefs on the FoodTV network. He plans to start offering cooking classes beginning in January. Visit the restaurant website at windowsmb.com to get on their mailing list for their upcoming schedule.
It’s no wonder Smith garners so many awards and magazine articles. His intricate entrées were beautiful and impressive, every piece able to stand alone while enhancing the taste of everything else. The Hearst Ranch filet, perfectly cooked, came topped with a rock crab and goat cheese ravioli, and celery root puree ($37). The local black cod—a buttery, delicate fillet—comes topped with avocado, warm garlic, herb, and tomato salsa, plus wilted spinach and prosciutto caponata ($28). We finished with the rustic apple tart, topped with an uber-vanilla bean ice cream, Calvados, and caramel sauce ($8). It was irresistible.
I asked Smith to describe his cuisine, and he said he had two ways of describing it: “I’m very imaginative and artistic; I’ve been into art my whole life, and I like to think of it as edible art,” he said candidly. Noting that he didn’t attend culinary school, he said he developed his passion doing the job. I responded that I had attended, but that didn’t make me the chef he is today.
“I take a lot of time designing small plates. I also call it world cuisine, a melding of all of the foods, flavors, and aromas we’re privileged to enjoy in California,” he said. “I have a broad spectrum of things I like to cook.”
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