Marisol at the Cliff's

Sometimes a restaurant and I have to break up. It is for the best, as it forces me to seek out new exceptional places to dine on a regular basis. I am ecstatic to re-find Marisol at the Cliff’s. I spend many weekends sitting in the sun on the deck absorbing tequila and taking in the breath taking sights. Located in posh Shell Beach, this stunning restaurant not only features incredible ocean views, fun happy hours, but also an extraordinary restaurant. Chef de Cuisine, Gregg Wangard, has created a tremendous menu with original offerings using the area’s freshest and preeminent produce and proteins.

I was told that I would be getting a special treat prepared by Chef Wangard, by manager David Klien, and I was excited to try everything. Our waitress, Spring was a joy, pairing each course with a fantastic wine (and I am not ashamed to say that is was pretty cool that the Chef delivered our remarkable selections and explain each ingredient). The strolling songbird (Carole McNeil) was a fantastic addition and her playlist was prodigious. We started with a bit of Leticia XD bubbly, an exclusive sparkling wine only offered at the Cliff’s.

The triumph of any feast is the quality of food served, this meal exceeded in every approach. I started with the Sweet Potato Soup, a triumph in a bowl with a tad of surprises. Sweet and hardy with a bit of pecans and maple bacon bits floating made this bisque sublime. Gary started with Willie’s Chocolate Dream Stout Cake a daring combination of Napa Smith Oatmeal Stout beer and cocoa. It was served with a tangy mango sorbet that rested on a bed of graham crackers so it wouldn’t melt as fast (brilliant). Gary declared this the best chocolate cake ever and proved that declaration by coming back two times the next week for another slice.

Chef told us the menu is new each Friday, focusing on seasonal items. We each had the Big Eye Tuna Sashimi that was thinly sliced and resting on even thinner carved cucumber curls. Small sections of pink grapefruit adorned the corners with a jalapeno juice drizzling throughout with fiery surprises. Simply delicious paired with the Still Water Pinto Grigio. Our next delight was the best darn spinach salad this girl has ever had. The spinach was so fresh; you could tell they were straight from the fields of Windrose Farms. Chef explained this as a combination of Old and New world with the croutons fried in bacon grease. These were so good, I made the waitress try them and then run to the kitchen and tell Greg, my mouth just had a religious experience. The salad had shredded boiled eggs, Italian chesses, and onions throughout. If this is diet food, I am officially going on one.

Our main course was a petite filet from 43 Ranch and was cooked to perfection, sitting on a bed of purple potatoes. Topped with sautéed onions, mushrooms, and a blue cheese sauce that reminded me why I love this chef so much and feel that he has not gotten his due respect of coverage. Brilliant, inspired and delicious with a 2008 Chehalem Pinot to wash each delectable bite down.

Greg is originally from Wisconsin and shared with us his pick for the “Best Cheese in America” a triple cream raw milk delight called Rush Creek Reserve made by Upland Cheese Company. Rush Creek Reserve is inspired by the French Vacherin Mont d'Or, and is bound in spruce bark, which gives shape to the soft round and imparts a sweet, woodsy flavor to the cheese. This is the Cristal of cheeses and Greg served it with drunken cherries and an inimitable biscotti. An outstanding performance by both food and staff by the Marisol, I am their new regular.

This meal was so noble; we brought friends back on Wednesday to try the bistro menu (the full dinner menu like we tried is available Friday thru Sunday). We all ordered different entrees and shared each dish. We tried the Caramelized Onion Soup with Grand Cru Gruyere cheese and thyme croutons, the Coconut Fried Shrimp with a pineapple guacamole and sweet chile sauce, and the Beef Sliders with a pesto aioli, farmhouse cheddar all topped with a giant onion ring and accompanied with outstanding truffle-parmesan fries. All were excellently cooked, a unique blending of flavors and masterly presented. Gary had more of Willies Chocolate cake and the See Canyon Apple Fritters.

The service was impeccable, the food outstanding and we all vowed this would be our regular hang out each weekend. Marisol has it all, a lively bar, beautiful views of the ocean and a five star dining experience that rivals big city restaurants. Marisol is located at the Cliff’s Hotel at 2757 Shell Beach Road, call for reservations at 773-2511.

The Best Pier and Oyster debauchery

Harford pier (Pier Number 3) in Avila is one of the eight wonders of the world. There is so much to do and appreciate here, with an

emphasis on the sea, it is always breath taking. We had made a play date with our new friends (Becky and Isaac) who just moved to Pismo area and we sought to demonstrate to them the coolness of Avila (not the remodeled downtown, while like a quaint little beach town, does not have theWOW factor of the pier area.) I swear I was a Japanese sailor in a previous life, because a port as authentic as this one is the only place I find true peace.

We met at Fat Cats, a restaurant that serves the fishing types early morning breakfast and the tourist with no desire to eat a live wiggling treat. We strolled along the mountainside seeing the raccoons playing in the dumpsters on the way to the boat yard. This heavenly habitation is where the yacht owners work on their vessels and is known as Dry Dock. Gary and I spent a blissful 2 years in this yard rebuilding our 33 ft. Yorktown sailboat. We met some outrageous, wonderful people, while arguing over who was going to scrape the bottom and who was going to treat the teak.

“Bob” the guy who lives in the 4 x 4 shack, has trained crows to eat out of his hand and paints the bottom of boats for their owners (the paint is copper and lead based to keep the marine life off the bottom and highly toxic). His beard touches his belly bottom and he is either 35 or 85 with no teeth and always calls everyone “Kid”.

Nick is our other favorite stop; he has built, from scratch a magnificent vessel to take to the Caribbean and sail. His catamaran is 75 ft.long and 50 ft. wide, sleeps six, and is a wonder to behold. It has been in the boat yard for 5 years now as he runs out of money- makes more – then starts again.

Marty the grumpy guy (with a heart of gold) who runs the boat yard and a whole cast of salt-in-their-veins regulars that I adore.

Down the pier we ambled and revealed where the party boats left from, how we slung our dingy into the ocean and we stopped at BJ’s seafood. BJ’s has been a staple on the pier for over 17 years. Being a true family run business, his children (now teenagers) learned to walk on the rickety pier. They offer LIVE seafood for sale. Not just filets, but the whole fish. It is rather like a mini aquarium here. The kids sold cupcakes on the weekends to buy their toys, then video games, computers, and now college trips. BJ’s has over 20 different varieties of fish to choose. You can pick out a live fish, have them filet it and have sashimi the likes of which you can never compare. Huge busloads of smart Japanese tourist do this daily and I learned to have soy and ginger in my pockets to share in this epic event.

We splashed into the oyster pool, choosing 3 dozen small live Washington’s as our treat. While selecting, three huge pelicans landed on a closed tank and BJ commenced to hand feeding them fish carcasses, while calling to them grumpily by name.

We hiked the rest of the way down the pier admiring the skiffs, fishing fleet and sailboat swaying on their moorings. There was a brisk wind, but the sun warmed your face as it always does in Avila. Past the working dock, we visited Pete’s Peirside one of my favorite places to eat. A grumpy girl named Courtney used to own it, but once motherhood took over her life, I think she sold this eatery/fish market. Halibut Burritos as big as your head, sashimi plates swimming in tatki sauce and live crabs plucked from the tanks and boiled for your pleasure make this a must stop restaurant.

We lugged up just about the end of the pier and grabbed some crab traps to sit on while we shuck our oysters. I dangled over the side of the pier for rinsing and our shucker (Isaac) donned a glove to wrestle the mollusks from their shells.

While we prepared our feast we witnesses a pelican and a harbor seal playing below together in the sea. The seal was pulling on the pelican’s feet dunking him under the waves, while the pelican nipped at the seal with its deadly claw at the end of his beak. Back and forth they went with neither wanting the play to end. It was an amazing inter-species show that amused and bewildered.

Our oysters were pried open, rinsed in champagne, then topped with lemon/lime juice, horseradish, cocktail sauce, tobacco and pickled ginger. We tasted many different combinations, and some with only the sea to flavor the oysters. Becky had brought chocolate dipped strawberries, sharp Italian cheddar cheese, and Brie that filled out this feast along with the three bottles of Dreamweaver champagne. The oysters were so fresh and supple we ohhed with pleasure during every bite. We toasted with champagne, oysters, and even chocolate. Gary and I shared tales of living on and owning a sailboat, explained why we loathe seals, and distributed comical antidotes about our teenagers and why we are glad they are all grown now.

People came by to revel in our pleasure and to learn about the oysters while the boys took the empty pile of shells to pelt the sea lions that commandeered the boat landing on the west side of the pier. This 9-year-old boy hoax made Gary very happy, as his last contact with seals is when they were trying to sink and had destroyed our newly restored sailboat.

We sauntered, sated and a bit loopy back down the pier as children needed to be picked up and ice cream needed to be consumed. While walking, we witness a seagull hanging gently off the back of a girl walking down the pier. Still soaring it used the thermals off her body to maintain a 2-inch distance from her hoody. Magical.

Walk down pier number 3 and discover this paradise. Watch the sailboats sway, grab a dozen oysters, eat at Pete’s or Old Port Inn, hear the seals bark, watch the pelicans beg and feel the ocean breeze in your face. I swear this atmosphere makes any food taste better.

We followed the sun (it sets early here and gets COLD fast) to the downtown area of Avila so Gary could get his much desired Hawaiian shaved ice from Reimer’s Ice Cream shop. They make the ice cream and it is delectable. He chose a scoop of vanilla and topped with with shaved ice drenched in tiger’s blood. To sweet and cold for this girl, I just kept drinking.

The Girls Diner

There is a joy to visiting a family run restaurant. Everyone who walks in becomes kinfolk and we get to see the dynasty pictures adorning the walls. If you need some comfort food and hospitable spirits, then the place to eat is The Girls Restaurant in Arroyo Grande (located on Grand Avenue in front of the Cookie Crook). Who, in my humble opinion, has unsurpassed home cooked diner food with the best values in the area. Now they have lowered the prices to support the community, and to help introduce this food to a whole new generation. They even lowered the price of a cup of Joe to under $2.00!

This family run enterprise has the finest in comfort food, breakfasts, and pies in the area. Owned by Scott and Cynthia Harrigan, who started out as a dishwasher and bus girl and moved their way up to owners, this is restaurant with real family style. The Girls has the classic counter look of a townie diner with the menu of a restaurant that offers everything from basic and traditional to upscale and healthy. The entire restaurant has a wonderful feel to it, as the waitress, cooks, busboys all seem to enjoy what they are doing (and have worked here happily for decades) and the cuisine is down-home perfection. They have rolled out a new menu with healthy choices, lower prices and amazing offers for the over 55 set, while not changing the quality of the food or service.

As Scott told me, “We found as the economy has taken a turn and people are eating out less often, it has become mandatory that we have a wide variety of affordable offerings on the menu, without cutting quality” His dear wife Cindy added, “It allows guests to experience The Girls in a new and affordable way.” They are also offering a free 7-night Mexican cruise to anyone who wants to enter. “This is just our way of thanking both old and new customers”, Cindy explained.

The menu is vast and varied with breakfast served all day. My daughter discovered homemade biscuits and country gravy here and swears it is the best, anywhere. I like that they have added eggs benedict to the everyday menu along with homemade chili verde omelets. They added a healthy choice menu with salads, vegetarian and delights including chicken ceasar salad, with chopped lettuce (this is the most important element of a good salad), diced chicken breast that is sliced first then grilled to maintain moisture, hard boiled eggs, croutons and parmesan cheese all with a delectable ceasar dressing. I also liked the oriental chicken salad with mandarin oranges, sliced almonds, oriental hard noodles all accessorized with a tangy sesame dressing.

New appetizers will appeal to the adventurous and include Chili Cheese Fries, Sweet Potato Fries, and a trio of Buffalo Hot Wings, Mozzarella Sticks, and Quesadilla. These were the perfect accouterment to the meal and such a value!

Gary loves the home-style dinners that come with soup or salad, real whipped potatoes or a baked potato, vegetables and a biscuit, cornbread or a dinner roll. Entrees included are Salisbury Steak, Golden Fried Chicken (prepared fresh and cooked to order), Flame Broiled Rib Eye Steak (hand cut) and more; and the pies- he lives for these pies.

The menu is huge, with everything from fish and chips to steak combos to spaghetti platters. All is house made with the feeling and attention only a family can give to food. Seniors get a fantastic, full meal for two, Monday through Thursday for only $15.75, including dessert. I like being part of The Girls family, just keep the pies coming! Open from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm, Monday thru Friday; Saturday and Sunday from 7:00 am to 2:00 pm. The Girls is located at 1237 Grand Avenue in Arroyo Grande, call them at (805) 473-1069.

Pier 46

I must tell you of my culinary romance with Pier 46 Seafood in Templeton. Owned and operated by Eric Gonzales and Tony DeGarimore, who have created a fish market and seafood food utopia that makes me fall in love every time I visit. At Pier 46, their desire is to share all their expertise with their customers, and to stay on the forefront of environmentally sustainable products. They buy directly from the boats and hand cut most of the product in house.

I special ordered Oysters to do a side-by-side comparison of four different kinds (this was a bet with my best friend Kathy, who stodgily said that Blue Point were the finest mollusk to ingest, I was out to prove her wrong). They presented us with twelve oysters on the half shell, freshly plucked out of the tanks of seawater keeping them vibrant and alive.

First my process: Each oyster is rinsed in champagne (A Spanish Cava provided by 15 Degrees Wine Wine Bar right across the parking lot), a dab of mignonette sauce (which is coarsely ground black peppercorns, red wine vinegar, chopped shallots) and then slurped them down. Gary goes a bit more flavor forward and adds a dab of horseradish, a dash of tobacco and a squeeze of lime.

My favorites are The Tomales Bay Oyster Company that is California’s oldest continuously run shellfish farm located on scenic highway one in Marshall, California. The Tomales Bay is considered the “last undamaged bay in California” and we discovered it while our friends were living in Dillon Beach. It was nothing for us to polish off five dozen oysters in one afternoon.

Still rarities on East Coast menus, Kusshis are all the rage out West, due to their small size and ultra-clean flavor. Grown by Keith Reid, a highly innovative grower in Deep Bay, outside Vancouver, Kusshis are grown in floating trays and tumbled very aggressively. This breaks off the thin growing edge and forces them to deepen and thicken their shells. The resulting oyster, called a Kusshi, Japanese for “precious”.

The last was from local waters, the Morro Bay oysters. Uniform in size and sweet in taste, I think these will be a new hit around here. Bottom line, all were better and more flavorful than Blue Points, we agreed. At Pier 46, they have fresh and local Sushi-grade fish everyday, with live tanks filled with crabs, lobsters, clams, mussels, shrimp, and more.

After the tasting, we were ready for real food, so Gary had the lobster roll, with fresh cooked lobster in a fluffy bun with salad and truffle fries (garnished with a black truffle salt). It was phenomenal. My friend had the pecan encrusted local red snapper dinner, with wild rice and herb vegetables; she said it tasted like the sea. We shared some awesome crab cakes, served on a bed of mixed greens with cherry tomatoes and two sauces. They were flawlessly done. The fish tacos were served with warm tortilla strips, shredded cabbage, pepper jack cheese, cilantro, and a spicy sauce with limes on the side. I went for my favorite dish, the Ahi Taco’s. These delectable treats call me over the Grade more times, than I can count. Chopped and super fresh raw Ahi steaks are laid atop a delicious cabbage slaw with flax and sesame seeds. The shell is a fried wanton and the sauce drizzled on top is a wasabi aioli. Pure unadulterated Neptune’s heaven.

With a bottle of Dr. Loosen Riesling, I let my mermaid side emerge. These victuals will force my car over the Grade to consume them weekly. You can come here for a full meal or just to pick up a fresh fish. Pier 46 Seafood is located at 1131 Rossi Road in Templeton. They are open Monday thru Saturday from 10:00am to 7:00pm and Sundays from 11:00am to 5:00 pm, or call them at (805) 434-1950.