It’s been nearly two decades since I started writing this column, but I’ve rarely done many second reviews about restaurants as there’s always some new eatery opening that I want to investigate. Any revisits have usually been motivated by a changing of the guard, a 40th anniversary, or a complete redux of the restaurant and/or menu. But after recently dining at two of our finest restaurants I first reviewed quite a few years back—Il Cortile in Paso Robles and Marisol at the Cliffs Resort in Shell Beach—I enjoyed excellent meals by these exceptional chefs. Not only that, I found both dining experiences provided very good value for the quality of their delicious cuisine, atmosphere, and impeccable service. That warranted an update to share this good news.
- PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
- STILL STRONG : Chef Gregg Wangard of Marisol at the Cliffs continues to serve up amazing, soulful food.
I first reviewed chef de cuisine Gregg Wangard at Marisol at the Cliffs Resort early in 2008, and I gave this passionate chef an excellent recommendation. Recently, however, while visiting Brian and Johnine Talley at Talley Vineyards tasting room in rural Arroyo Grande, I was motivated to return to Marisol. The Talleys share my love of great dining experiences, and after hearing of their noteworthy meal, I eagerly returned to check out Marisol’s latest menus.
Since I’ve been around this long, the only chance I have of being incognito is at a new eatery. But just because I walk into a restaurant, that doesn’t mean the chef is going to make my food different than what’s served to anyone else. Wangard can’t make the béarnaise sauce better for me or change his cooking style. While dining here with my husband Dan, we thoroughly enjoyed the multi-course dinner, save one part we didn’t like. But knowing maître d’ David Kline and Wangard, I know that had I complained, they would have accommodated me as they would any guest.
We started with an impressive mushroom-chestnut soup with truffle mousse ($9). This elegant, creamy soup was so outstanding I had to sip up every drop. At the suggestion of our excellent waiter, we also ordered the big-eye tuna Niçoise salad ($14), and it, too, was irresistible. This pretty, composed salad had perfectly seared rare tuna with tender fingerling potatoes, shaved fennel, and red onion with a mustard green vinaigrette. Then we shared the fried abalone that was artfully plated with multi-colored cauliflower, capers, and drizzled with a brown butter sauce ($16). Wangard came out to explain he used New Zealand abalone because he didn’t get his order in on time at the Cayucos Abalone Farm. The substitute just didn’t make up for the impeccable sea mollusks grown right here in SLO County.
- PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
- DIG IN : Chef Wangard’s fried Brussels sprout dish features a 63-degree (Celsius) egg prepared sous vide—cooked in a water bath.
That weekend the menu was themed “A night in Paris,” and our entrées were excellent. I ordered the beef filet, perfectly grilled, with potato Lyonnaise, aerated béarnaise, and charred asparagus ($35). Dan had the coq au vin, chicken poached in Burgundy, with a mushroom ragout, potato puree, and lardoons ($30). We selected the Talley 2010 Estate Pinot Noir ($36 retail at the tasting room), which seemed appropriate, and paired beautifully with the array of foods we ordered.
We shared a sweet finish in celebration of the Valentine’s Day weekend of candy cap mushroom panna cotta with maple brittle ($9). These amazing wild mushrooms taste like maple syrup, a phenomenon I was first introduced to in Big Sur a month ago during the annual Forager’s Festival. After this delightful gourmet meal, I know we’ll be returning for more of Wangard’s soulful cooking.
I first visited Il Cortile just after it opened in late 2009. Owner and executive chef Santos MacDonal is no prima donna chef who spends more time with his guests in the dining room than he does in the kitchen—not that there’s anything wrong with seeing a chef leave the heart of the restaurant to say hello. But when it’s busy, I prefer seeing a chef taking care of business in the kitchen. MacDonal pretty much stays in his kitchen, although the open window between the dining room and busy kitchen provides proof that this passionate chef is making sure your meal is impeccable. And you will recognize his dedication in every dish featured on his outstanding menu.
Two weeks ago, I drove over “the grade” to experience the chef’s annual “reverse wine dinner” ($35/three courses). It’s a clever take on the winemaker’s dinner, but here you choose one of the wine selections featured that night, and chef Santos pairs the food according to the bottle you ordered. When I made reservations for dinner on Feb. 13, the featured winery was Tablas Creek. The Tablas Creek 2010 Mourvedre, my benchmark wine for this variety because of this amazing vintage, was a perfect pairing with the Mangalitsa pork specials that night.
The Mangalitsa is a wooly pig of Hungarian origin that nearly became extinct because it’s so high in fat. Wisely, one Hungarian family ensured that the breed remained in existence, according to the New York Times. The executive sous chef of the French Laundry at the time described the Mangalitsa as akin to Wagyu beef for its superior taste and texture. Thanks to breeders in northern California, this pork is available to Central Coast chefs.
MacDonal prepared a delicious, multi-course meal with the Mourvedre: Crostini with Mangalitsa liver dressed in herbs and spice; housemade red beet “tagilini” with quail ragù; and grilled Mangalitsa loin with sweet wine sauce. His food is always made fresh, and that tender pasta was so good, I’m craving more. But who needs a special event to drive over? You can indulge in MacDonal’s amazing Italian cuisine any time of year.
Contact Cuisine columnist Kathy Marcks Hardesty at email@example.com.