Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Review: 'My Nepenthe'

My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family and Big Sur. Romney Steele. Andrews McMeel Publishing. $35.00 (352p) ISBN: 978-0-7407-7914-5

My first visit to Nepenthe Restaurant in Big Sur, California was in the fall of 1983. It was a hot day and we sat outside on the massive terrace with a cold drink -- in those days white wine, or possibly beer -- and looked down at the unbelievable view. A view of the Monterey coast that went on forever. I've never forgotten that first visit. Or that first view. Yes, the parking lot was full of rental cars, and yes, there were crowds of tourists snapping photos but none of that mattered. I didn't know what to expect as we climbed the winding stone steps up through a canopy of oak trees to the restaurant. But once I stepped foot onto the large terrace and saw the view, I understood the magic of Nepenthe. No matter where you are at Nepenthe, the Phoneix Shop, the Café Kevah or the restaurant itself, the view is there. Always and forever. In my memory there were hawks floating on thermals almost at eye level. That is how high up Nepenthe is. In the clouds. At the end of our drinks it was very hard to pull myself away. Over the years I have gone back to Nepenthe each time I visited the area. How can one not visit such a spectacular place?

I was thrilled when I heard that a granddaughter of the original owners had written the Nepenthe story in celebration of its' 60th anniversary. I was even more excited when the book arrived on my doorstep for review. It is everything a book like this should be: a celebration of a place and time, a memoir from someone who lived it, and a cookbook with both family and restaurant recipes. I was recently in Big Sur, (see my last post) and I took Robert to Nepenthe for his first time. It was a joy to be back, and to see the magic at work on someone else. He was just as wowed as I was on my first visit. I love the Bohemian-hippy vibe that still exists in Big Sur and thankfully author, Romney Steele, infuses her writing with a lot of that historical detail. Nepenthe was and still is a gathering point for all sorts of interesting and unique souls. From writers, to artists and artisans, to film people, to through-voyagers. As a child Romney Steele was lucky enough to watch it all happen. From stories of her grandparents Bill and Lolly Fasset who bought the property from Orsen Welles and Rita Hayworth in 1947, to frequent visits by writers Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac, to filming of the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton movie The Sandpiper, Ms. Steele was witness to it all. And a magical storyteller she is, as well as an accomplished cook.

The book is woven through with history, stories, memories, archival photos and recipes. Many of the non-archival color photos are beautifully shot by Sara Remington. The look and feel of the entire work is evocative of the free-living Bohemian lifestyle that permeates Big Sur's past and present. For me it was a fun read as I have been to Nepenthe, and to Big Sur many times over the years; it was wonderful to learn more about the history of both the restaurant and the area. Nepenthe is woven into the fabric of Big Sur and vice versa. They are a part of each other. I tried several recipes from the book and all worked very well, and were a pleasure to eat. On a recent Sunday I cooked this menu: 'Lolly's Roast Chicken with Sage Stuffing,' 'Cranberry Sauce,' 'Beet Salad with Sherry Vinaigrette' and 'Lemony Lemon Squares.' This time Robert and I were the only guests; we devoured everything, and loved it all. A few of the leftover lemon bars were passed along to family and friends -- all of whom have asked for the recipe, they were that good. What I like about the food in this book is that it fits in with the down-to-earth vibe the book embodies. Ms. Steele encourages use of local, sustainable ingredients. In fact she has a chart at the beginning of the book, 'Cooking notes,' that tells, (and suggests to), the cook the nature of each ingredient used when she developed and tested the recipes: 'Meats are prime,' 'Baking powder is aluminum-free,' 'Fruit is seasonal, organic if possible, and preferably locally grown,' and so on. This isn't fancy, five-star cuisine nor should it be. The food is earthy, hearty, filling and direct. It's food that makes sense for a restaurant and place perched high atop a hillside above the crashing surf in the wilds of Big Sur. Steele encourages the reader to find their own Nepenthe within the pages of her book. Steele is my kind of cook, this is my kind of book, I expect to pick it up often to both cook from, and to read more and again about life at Nepenthe. My Nepenthe.

Lolly's Roast Chicken with Sage Stuffing (Pg. 113)

Cranberry Sauce (Pg. 114)

Beet Salad with Sherry Vinaigrette (Pg. 279)

Lemony Lemon Squares (Pg. 250)

Upcoming Posts: Interview with Chefs John Stewart & Duskie Estes, owners of Zazu & Bovolo restaurants in Sonoma County. Cochon 555 Napa, a write up of the amazing pork festival that I went to in Napa. Reviews: The Spirit Kitchen: Everyday Cooking with Organic Spices by Sara Engram and Katie Luber and Kimberly Toqe.

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Big Sur, California

Despite having seen most of the state while growing up and living in it as an adult, California still surprises. Over and over it reveals itself to me, reminds me of its beauty, and still makes me think it is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It had been a number of years since I'd been to one of my favorite spots: Big Sur. Robert and I recently spent a long weekend there and I fell in love all over again. There is something magical in the Big Sur air. Everything about the place appeals to me. The remoteness, the residents still living like it is 1968, the overwhelming natural beauty. We approached the area by car from the north; as soon as we drove into the valley where Big Sur starts we entered a lovely time warp. There is little to none cell phone coverage (bliss!). We stayed at Deetjen's Inn where there is no television, no Internet (more bliss!), and no locks on the doors. It was just the break I'd needed and was looking for from all the noise of modern society. It's amazing how quiet it can actually be without all the technology we surround ourselves with. I'd been hearing about Deetjen's for a number of years from my friend Jill, an American living in London who goes whenever she's in California. I am so glad we chose to stay there.

Deetjen's Big Sur Inn, 48865 Highway One, Big Sur, California, 93920, (831) 667-2377,

Built in the early 1930s by Norwegian Helmut Deetjen, Deetjen's is world famous for its rustic charm and quiet isolation. The story goes that Helmut left his native Norway to get away from the 'authorities'; when he discovered the remote Big Sur coast he decided to stay. He and his wife Helen Haight bought several acres in Castro Canyon which offered the privacy and seclusion he sought. Starting with a redwood barn made from materials from the canneries along Monterey's Cannery Row, 'Grandpa Deetjen' went on to build more structures all constructed using local, scavenged redwood. The inn now comprises twenty rooms and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Over the years it has been visited by numerous famous names from old Hollywood, (Rita Hayworth, Orsen Welles, Kim Novak) to such writers and artists as Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston.

We stayed in 'Edy's Room'; only big enough for a bed, and a couple of chairs and small tables but so full of charm that the lack of space was quickly forgotten. The room was cozy against the chill temperatures outside, and once inside I found it hard to leave. The doors only locked from the inside which at first gave us pause but as long as we were careful to take valuables with us was not an issue. This lack of locks fits right into the laissez-faire Big Sur attitude. For an additional bit of intrigue the room is supposedly haunted by Edy's
ghost. Reading through the journals left behind by prior guests
we learned of possible ghostly sightings. If she was around during our stay she didn't let us know. While we were at Deetjen's we ate a dinner and a breakfast in the quaint dining room; the food was hearty and filling in keeping with the Deetjen's spirit. Now that I have been I look forward to going again soon.

Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant, Highway One, Big Sur, California, (831) 667-0520,

I used to go to Big Sur on a very regular basis when I worked in the restaurant business in San Francisco in the '80s. Jeremiah Tower, chef and owner of Stars restaurant, was once chef at Ventana Inn & Spa in Big Sur. Because of that connection, I always stayed at Ventana -- an upscale resort nestled against the Big Sur mountains just above the fog line. I usually ate in the Ventana restaurant. I also generally stayed put and enjoyed the beauty of Big Sur from on high. This time was different. Robert and I jumped in and really experienced it. We drove, we looked, we hiked and we explored almost every inch. One of the places I knew I'd be visiting was the newish Big Sur Bakery which I'd read about in the Los Angeles Times. I was quite intrigued by the story of three Los Angeles chef friends who chucked their urban-city lives to open a bakery and restaurant in the rustic wilds of Big Sur. It sounded so wonderful to me. Michelle Rizzolo, Philip Wojtowicz and Mike Gilson met while working in such Los Angeles restaurants as Campanile, La Brea Bakery, Joe's Restaurant, and Mélisse. At Big Sur Bakery Michelle handles all the baking and pastry making; Philip is responsible for the kitchen while Mike handles the front of the house. Using a wood-fired oven they bake bread every morning to be sold in the bakery and used in the restaurant. Many dishes on the restaurant menus are also cooked in the wood-fired oven; they honor the local, sustainable, organic credo as well. The trio has published a cookbook, 'The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook: A Year In The Life of a Restaurant,' about their first year in business in Big Sur. We had two meals both deeply satisfying. The wood-fire pizza ('Traditional wood fired tomato & cheese pizza') and salad ('Salad of seasonal organic mixed greens with shallots, herbs, roasted carrots, toasted sunflower seeds, and lemon poppy seed dressing') we shared after hiking to a waterfall was just what we needed to fuel up for our next adventure. The dinner we ate one night was the perfect antidote to the cold rainy weather outside. There is a dearth of good, reasonably priced eats in Big Sur so the cozy, rustic charm and hearty food of Big Sur Bakery is a most welcome addition. If I lived in Big Sur I'd be a regular patron.

Part of what I like about Big Sur is its hippy-bohemian vibe. We saw more hitchhikers in three days then I have seen in thirty years. The people we saw out and about, wandering down Highway One on foot, bicycle and car, in shops and restaurants, and at the beach often seemed to be aged hippies of yore, throwbacks to the '60s and the earlier Beat Generation, or for the younger generation -- modern day 'hippies.' The whole Big Sur vibe reminded me so much of growing up in the '60s and '70s along the Central Coast of California where these types were the norm. Hitchhikers thumbed rides freely; men had long hair and beards; everyone wore tie dye T-shirts, peace signs around their necks, and bell bottoms. It was an awesome time to be a kid; so much was happening. I felt a bit of this energy in Big Sur. A place where Beat author Jack Kerouac spent time; and where 'Tropic of Cancer' -- it's 1961 U.S. publication date led to an obscenity trial -- writer Henry Miller lived from 1944 to 1962. Naturally, one of my favorite places we visited was The Henry Miller Library.

The Henry Miller Library, Highway One, Big Sur California, (831) 667-2574,

The library reminded me of City Lights Books in San Francisco's North Beach; a once fertile gathering place for Beatniks, subversives and hippies. Not just a library or a place to sell books but a meeting place; a place to find like-minded souls; a place to hear poetry or a lecture, to see a performance, or attend a workshop; a place to get back that counter-culture, hippy vibe lost long ago. The library does all of that while keeping the spirit of Miller alive. It's seemingly the nexus of all that Big Sur energy. Magnus the current 'librarian' holds court at the cashier's desk answering questions; passing on Miller tidbits, facts and history; and explaining upcoming activities at the library. Again, it felt as though I was stepping back in time. I loved the poster for 'Celebration At Big Sur' -- a counter-culture concert featuring some of my counter-culture heroes: Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Crosy, Stills Nash & Young -- hanging in the library. The poster (see below) says 'Celebrate with...' and I'm sorry I didn't get to.

After we left the Henry Miller Library we ventured down the road to another famed Big Sur location, the can't-miss 'Nepenthe.' A restaurant and bar perched above the Pacific that offers breathtaking views down the Monterey coast. I'd been years ago on a hot summer day, and sat outside on the deck with a cold drink looking south down the coast. My memory of the view and the place has remained strong over the years. The weather was wet and cold the day Robert and I went but it was beautiful nonetheless.

Nepenthe Restuarant, 48510 Highway One, Big Sur, California, 93920, (831) 667-2345,

'Nepenthe' means 'isle of no care' in Greek. Original Nepenthe owners Lolly and Bill Fassett and their five children settled into a cabin on the property called the Log House in 1947. The Log House's most recent owners had been Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles neither of whom lived in the house due to their filing for divorce soon after they bought it. Once settled in the Fasset's proceeded to slowly build what is now Nepenthe. The original vision was for 'an open-air pavilion with good food and wine and dancing under the stars.' A place where people from up and down the coast would come and forget their cares.' [from the Nepenthe website]. Lolly opened the Phoenix Shop, now a gift shop, so local and traveling merchants could show and sell their wares. The family lived an idyllic Bohemian life surrounded by artists, crafts people, writers, performers and travelers. Like the Henry Miller Library, Nepenthe is still a gathering place for thinkers and creative types both those living locally and those traveling through; as well as for the endless stream of tourists traveling down Highway One who stop in for a drink, some food and the bewitching view. Nepenthe is like the cream on top of the Big Sur bohemian pie. One does have to wonder if Big Sur would be 'Big Sur' without Nepenthe. I have to say that it would not -- Nepenthe is such a part of the history and fabric of Big Sur that without it, it would be something else entirely. [While relatives of Lolly and Bill run the day-today of the restaurant], granddaughter, Romney Steele, has taken over the running of Nepenthe and has [recently] published a book about the history and food of the famed restaurant: 'My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family and Big Sur.'

Easlen Institute, 55000 Highway One, Big Sur, California, 93920, (831) 667-3000,

There is one other remarkable and fun thing that we did in Big Sur that I want to mention: visiting the hot springs at the Esalen Institute. Esalen, an organization and retreat center, "...was founded in 1962 as an alterntaive educational center devoted to the exploration of what Aldous Huxley called the 'the human potential,' the world of unrealized human capacities that lies beyond the imagination." [from the Esalen website] Now comprised of twenty-seven acres perched on the cliffs above the crashing Pacific ocean, the institute holds a wide range of classes, workshops, and retreats offering introductions to Gestalt, massage, sensory awareness and meditation. And then there's the natural hot springs that pour forth from a seaside cliff. Because the institute allows registered guests top priority in using the hot springs, they are only open to the public from 1:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. I'd heard about the springs before, and I knew admittance was in the middle of the night, but Robert and I still wanted to go. We took a nap and went. We are so glad we did. The springs are set atop a cliff right over the ocean. While soaking in the hot springs we watched the waves crashing on the rocks below us, we looked out into the dark sea, and at the stars twinkling above us. It was a magical two hours. Two hours that I hope to experience again. In fact the whole weekend was a magical experience I hope to experience again. One I also highly recommend.

Upcoming Posts: Interview with Chefs John Stewart & Duskie Estes, owners of Zazu & Bovolo restaurants in Sonoma County. Cochon 555 Napa, a write up of the amazing pork festival that I went to in Napa. Reviews: My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family and Big Sur by Romney Steele, The Spirit Kitchen: Everyday Cooking with Organic Spices by Sara Engram and Katie Luber and Kimberly Toqe.

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

*The Local Report - McCall's Meat & Fish Co.

1.9 miles, about 5 minutes, from my home in Atwater Village.

There's a new butcher in town and boy am I happy. It seems that the neighborhood butcher has gone by the wayside and that more and more people are relying on supermarket butchers. While the guys at my local Whole Foods are very helpful and knowledgeable, there's nothing quite like the personal rapport one develops with a local, neighborhood butcher. Like the one I am establishing with chef-butchers, and husband and wife team, Nathan McCall and Karen Yoo. I have been in several times and appreciate the hands on service they have given me. Whether it be advice on what cut to buy, or how to cook it the duo is more than accommodating. McCall and Yoo both have backgrounds as professional chefs; McCall cooked at Los Angeles restaurants Café Pinot and Sona; he also spent time in the kitchen of Spain's Michelin three star restaurant Arzak followed up with time at Daniel Boulud's Restaurant Daniel in New York City. Yoo, trained as a pastry chef, worked in the kitchens of Campanile, Sona and Restaurant Daniel. Given their experiences in professional kitchens they should be the go-to-butchers for both the professional chef and the home cook. Who better to buy meat and fish from than those who have the experience cooking it? It's a great combination.

To add to the package they only source their meat, as they state on their website, 'from traditional farms where animals are naturally and humanely raised on the best feed without the use of hormones or chemical enhancements.' Their 'fish is wild-caught and/or responsibly raised in the most natural environment.' They stock CAB (Certified Angus Beef) Beef, Kurobuta (Berkshire to us) pork, lamb, locally raised poultry (from KenDor Farms in Van Nuys), eggs, house made sausages (pork-fennel and garlic-paprika), and sushi grade salmon and tuna among other seafood. Check the chalkboard specials for such items as duck, rabbit, squab and leg of lamb. They also sell a hand picked selection of gourmet oils, vinegars, salt and pepper, and other specialty cooking products. Given their propensity to be local and sustainable they could almost be a butcher my great-grandmother went to albeit without the sawdust on the floor and the banging screen door. And that is a comforting thought. I'll be going to McCall's often. It is so close to home. Welcome to the neighborhood Nathan and Karen!

Chef-butchers Karen Yoo and Nathan McCall

McCall's Meat & Fish Co.
2117 Hillhurst Ave.
Los Angeles, California 90027
323-667-0674 (ph.)
323-667-0802 (fax)

*The Local Report(s): are occasional blog posts on restaurants, and/or businesses that either support the idea of one-hundred miles, and 'living life locally'; or are small, localized businesses in my neighborhood, and/or within one-hundered miles of my residence, that I prefer to support over the larger, national, corporate chains. For other The Local Report(s) please go the Archives section of this blog. Also, I'd love to hear from my readers about businesses that they support in their neighborhoods: write to me at charlesgthompson AT 100miles DOT com, or leave a comment here.

Upcoming Posts: Interview with Chefs John Stewart & Duskie Estes, owners of Zazu & Bovolo restaurants in Sonoma County. Cochon 555 Napa, a write up of the amazing pork festival that I went to in Napa. Reviews: My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family and Big Sur by Romney Steele, The Spirit Kitchen: Everyday Cooking with Organic Spices by Sara Engram and Katie Luber and Kimberly Toqe.

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