I arrived at Marisol by the Cliffs in Pismo beach about five minutes after dinner had started. Those in our class were the only people at the restaurant, though a few sat at the bar, and the sherbet sunset was coming through the picture windows aiding in my transportation from an evening as a a bedraggled young working mom of a toddler, cramming in study-time wherever possible, to a sophisticated, almost well-dressed young woman, sitting down to a be pampered by a relaxed, 8-course gourmet dinner, complete with impeccable wine pairings.
Well, almost. I was a wine critic for the evening only with my nose and eyes, as I am four months pregnant. As the evening unfolded and I learned about each wine – many of which were extremely expensive and rare – I wished many times that I both enjoyed wine and didn't have to waste the fine specimens before me, but I consoled myself with the idea that few others review food and wine pairings based on smell, and perhaps that almost gives me an edge, especially if you're also a social pariah on the Central Coast, like me, due to your dislike for wine. Thankfully, several other classmates offered to help me drink my wines once I had finished sniffing them.
The opening appetizer was already being served as I arrived and the other students/guests were mingling. I put down my bag, overflowing with diapers, and stared longingly at a smoke-infused Johnny Walker and coke reduction cocktail, garnished with in-house beef jerky. The level to which I am uninterested by wine can be rivaled only in the level at which I am enamored with fancy cocktails. Alas, I can speak only for the sweet meat - and full disclosure, beef jerky is a weakness of mine – which was delectable. The description of the cocktail and the experience of the sweet meat has had me dreaming of a seat at the Marisol bar several times this week.
I am generally a food scarfer, but the quality and pacing of this meal impressed upon me an involuntary limited-time-only desire to savor each bite slowly. I found almost every aspect of this meal was cooked to perfection, though if I had one over-all criticism, I think the creativity of the food pairings and flavors could be pushed to the next level.
Before I get into my reviews of the actual food, I must thank four special people. First, my dear best friend, Michelle, for gifting me this entire experience – I love you so much, and I hope everyone can find a friend like you in their life. Secondly, Chef Gregg Wangard, for his generosity, warmth, and talent in providing the meal. Thirdly, the extremely knowledgeable sommelier Jeff Chaney, who continued to pour me wine, despite probably noticing that I wasn't fully appreciating his carefully curated collection. Also, he looked like Ira Glass and wore yellow pants, and I have nothing but love in my heart for both of those things. Finally, I must thank the lovely Teri Bayus for her expert coaching on food writing, and her clear enthusiasm for her job.
1. Seared Foie Gras with reconstituted black mission figs and buttered white toast, garnished with sherry and honey glaze, coarse salt, and a sprout sprig.
Controversy in a bite. For the last 18 months, foie gras has been illegal to sell in the United States, but fear not, the chef is not under arrest. It is still legal for foie gras to be “gifted” along side something paid for (hypothetically the sherry I “drank” with it). Furthermore, this was Hudson Valley duck liver, which is sustainably raised and naturally - not forcefully - grain fed. And for the record, it has been proven that ducks and geese will over-stuff themselves given the opportunity, without human intervention.
With that aside, this was the first time I'd eaten foie gras, and definitely my most delightful experience with liver thus far in my life. I have stayed far, far away from liver since taking a big bite out of a lamb liver as a child, assuming it was an especially luscious piece of dark meat. My mistake. This foie gras, however, did not taste gamy, and melted away in the mouth. It was decadent, layered with the multiple textures from the toast and chewy, candy figs. The seeds of the fig stuck in my teeth, leaving a lingering sweetness.
Wine pairing: NV Bodegas Dios Baco Amontillado Sherry, Jerez, Spain
This sherry was described as an oxidated one, made from Palamino grapes. It was the color of amber, with an ombre affect to colorless at the top of the liquid. The smell reminded me of Chinese Black Vinegar which is made from rice and described as “malty, woodsy and smoky” in flavor.
2. Three-Mushroom (shitake, button, and portabella) soup thickened with sourdough bread and mascarpone cheese, garnished with a drizzle of truffle oil.
This is the one exception I could (and a little bit did) make to my evening of slow paced dining, which may have had something to do with the fact that this was my favorite course. It was one of the simplest of the evening, but I would get down on my knees and beg if I thought that would get me this recipe. I would guzzle this soup to the point of being as engorged as a Hudson Valley duck liver myself, given the chance.
I could taste the celery in the soup, which was a homey and unexpected touch, and though not excessively strong in the mouth, the notes of garlic lingered. I am not usually a fan of truffle oil, but it was perfect with this soup.
Wine pairing: 2005 Louis Latour Nuits-Saint-Georges, Cote de Nuits, France
The color of this “old world” wine was described as “brick” red, but I thought it looked like the color that young Russian women in China prefer to dye their hair; a dead, deep, blood red mixed with purple. The flavor was described as an “earthy pinot noir, with savory clove and leaf notes”, perfect for drinking alongside food because the expected sweetness of fruit has dissipated with age. I smelled less of a bite in this specimen than other wines, and it reminded me faintly of the scent of nail polish remover.
3. Arugula Salad with medium poached pears, candied roasted pecans, blue cheese crumbles and thyme dressing.
Chef Gregg's trick to perfectly candied pecans is to cook them in powdered sugar and salt. You're welcome. The Paradise blue cheese, made with top cream, is something that I generally shy away from, but this variety was heady, spicy, quite salty, and perfect, despite hinting at the usual dirty notes of blue cheese. It was smooth as butter, compared to the harder more crumbly variety I am used to. The poached pears provided a soft, cidery crunch, and when everything was tossed with arugula – which I often find too biting for my taste – it was a scrumptious little salad.
Wine pairing: NV Roederer Estate Brut, Anderson Valley
Though cliché, the word that came to mind to describe the appearance of this champagne was “bridal”, complete with an excited veil of bubbles upon being poured that simmered down while resting in my glass. The flavor was described as bone dry, with lean, minerally, soapy, floral, citrusy, and bitter almonds notes. To me it smelled light, and of just barely souring fruits.
4. Farm raised salmon encrusted with potatoes on a bed of lemon infused jasmine rice, garnished with meyer lemon balsamic dressing and sprouts.
I may have had salmon flavored to rival this before in my life, but never have I tasted salmon, taken on its own, cooked to such perfection. It was fatty in the best possible way, as if the membranes between each flake of fish were made of butter. By the last few bites of the dish, the fish had cooled down enough to lose that heavenly quality. I thought the hair-thin potato slices that made up the salmon “crust” were decent, but perhaps not my favorite pairing. The strong, almost heartburn-inducing balsamic glaze garnishing the plate was the perfect acidic tang to tie together each bite of salmon and rice, as were the peppery green sprouts atop the salmon. The creamy bed of green rice had a rice wine jalapeno kick to it, which was a nice addition to the flavor pallet.
Wine pairing: 2009 Hirsch Vineyards San Andreas Fault Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
This selection was shinier, pinker, and clearer than the previous red (paired with course 2) with a color that I would describe as crisp magenta. A “new world” wine, it smelled of sweet vinegar that I would actually like to taste, and the smell left a tiny burn in my nose and throat.
5. Breast of duck with spaghetti squash on a parsnip puree.
Cooked in the sous-vide style (in a cryogen bag to assure it's evenly cooked), the duck was tender and not unpleasantly chewy. I don't recall it having a huge flavor presence of its own, but I very much enjoyed the addition of the crunch of the spaghetti squash flavored with red pepper, and the cool turnip puree with a hint of vanilla. Though not strong, the flavors lingered in my mouth and gave me the overall impression of comfort food.
Wine pairing: 2010 Sinor La Vallee Syrah, Les Galets Vineyard, Arroyo Grande Valley
Another deep fuchsia colored wine, reminding me of a sumptuous shade of lipstick. Described as “spice driven”, it definitely did smell spicy to me.
6. Crostini with Brillat Savarin cheese wedge, quince paste and a castelveltrano olive.
Apparently I am not a very adventurous cheese eater, because I found this dish to be the only one I struggled to enjoy. The brie, around 83% milk fat (compared to butter's 84%), was described as “soft and ripened”. Even after cutting off the rind, which packs the most flavor, I found the cheese pungent. It smelled faintly sour, and tasted very salty and rich, almost exactly like a highly concentrated Kraft Mac n' Cheese. The olive was nutty and briny, and tasted the way wine smells. I did not find the quince paste to be spectacular either, though there was nothing wrong with it by any means. Not my cup of tea, but I know many who would have gobbled up this pairing.
No wine pairing
7. Banana foster with Doc Burnstein’s vanilla ice cream and mint leave, on a corn flake bed.
The thing I enjoyed most about this dish was incorporating the fresh spearmint leaves into each bite. The “crust” around the banana tasted of cinnamon, and was slightly gritty, sticking to the mouth. I did enjoy the additional crunch of the corn flake garnish. Again, not my favorite part of the meal, but I imagine my son would jump at the chance to eat it.
Wine Pairing: 2011 Tatomer Riesling Beerenauslese, Kick-on Ranch Vineyard, Santa Barbara County
Served ice cold, I thought this wine looked almost oily when poured. Described as a “noble rot, late harvest wine”, the main thing I smelled in it was raisins.
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