Chefs can be compared to famous authors, while the house they cook in becomes the novel. Some chefs create masterpiece after masterpiece, and instantly become best sellers. We are lucky enough to have some pretty spectacular creators here, but a chef-d'oeuvre has been born in Brian Collins and his new culinary chateau called Ember. This restaurant is a best selling blockbuster from the first day.

Ember opened their doors the first time to the public on February 5, 2014 and I was a willing participant in their opening night. The space has been transformed into a warm, wood filled ambience with an open kitchen (we can see and hear the chefs creating) and an inviting bar. The entire crew worked at an efficient and joyful pace, it was as if they all had been doing this together for years.

To toast the return to Five Cities of Chef Collins, who I have always been a huge fan, we ordered a bottle of 2010 Justin Isosceles. Gary started by ordering two desserts, as he was excited about their new pastry chef (Matt). His first was a Kiwi-Coconut Napoleon with vanilla bean custard served in a parfait glass. He loved the diced fruit swirled with a coconut cream and the chewy crumbles of top. His next was a Lemon-Raspberry Tart, with meringue bites scattered on the dish and lemon cream stuffed fresh raspberries. This is slated to be my favorite, as I snuck a bite. Gary was in pastry ecstasy.

I started with a Prosciutto Wrapped Artichoke that was lying on a bed of wild arugula with burrata mozzarella and Calabrian pepper salsa verde. After just one bite, I ordered another as the prosciutto clung to the artichoke heart like a glove and enhanced both of these savory favorites of mine. To say this was the best thing I have ever put in my mouth is an understatement. My next gastronomic enchantment was the Cayucos Abalone made with crispy pork belly, house pickled ginger resting on a fanned out bed of avocado and a Meyer lemon hollandaise sauce. This dish was a religious experience. Perfection on every flavor front and unique in its pairing.

Our waitress Lauren was a delight and marveled at the amount of food and wine we enjoyed, while she attentive and anticipatory. Next we tried the Ricotta Gnocchi, a recipe when done right can bring the angels out to sing, and this one was. Resting on a bed of wilted Bloomsdale spinach, the top was crispy with an artichoke fritti and the brown butter sauce enhanced this comfort food pleasure. As the woodstove is the centerpiece of this stunning restaurant, we tried a Six Cheese pizza. More like a flat bread, this amazing amalgamation of flavors included La Quercia pancetta, butternut squash, apples, oregonzola and caramelized onions all diced so it dispersed evenly around the pie, making each bite remarkable. 

We returned the next night with friends (as I plan to do often) and Gary began with the Almond Orange Cake with candied Amarena cherries, toasted pistachios and a honey gelato. The cake was cut into bite-sized pieces with a sweet, moist constitution. We started with the Ahi Crudo that had thin slices of raw tuna with a sprinkling of charred jalapeno, fried garlic and a citronette sauce that was both hot and cold. The sliced avocado and cucumbers brought the heat down, and made this an impeccable way to start a meal. We also had the Crispy Pork Belly that included a huge semi circle of delicate meat with a smattering of Rogue Creamery blue cheese, garlic chips and Rutiz Farms sprouting broccoli all in a buttermilk aioli. Our friends were now sure that all my waxing poetically about this amazing chef had not been hyperbole.

The special was Braised Short Ribs that were smoked and slowly cooked in the wood stove until the flavorful meat fell off the bone. It was served with house hand cut pasta, roasted cauliflower and brocclini and was beyond perfection. I had the fish of the day, a Steelhead trout that was cooked on the grill with capers and a lemon sauce, and was a taste sensation. We shared a Wild Mushroom pizza with three kinds of chef foraged mushrooms, wild nettles, smoked leeks and a farm egg in the middle. I am running out of yummy adjectives here, so I will say we fought over every bite. This flatbread was perfectly portioned, created and cooked.

We finished the meal with the Chocolate-Hazelnut Terrine with salted caramel ice cream. This fantastic dessert had texture, flavor and panache.  Bottom line- I would like to take back every time in the last 10 years I have reported “the best meal ever”- as I was wrong. Ember has a soul, with so much care and love going into each diner’s experience it is palatable. The prices are beyond reasonable for such perfectly created cuisine. Do yourself a favor; come try this novel approach to a restaurant, good honest food cooked correctly.

Ember is located at 1200 East Grand Avenue in Arroyo Grande.  They have an original bar with a wide selection of beer and wines. Open Wednesday through Thursday and Sunday from 4:00 pm to 9:00 pm and Friday and Saturday from 4:00 pm to 10:00 pm.

Valentine's Day Romantic Ideas for Every Budget

I am asked daily for restaurant or movie recommendations. Especially around holidays, because no one wants to take a chance on romance and have it spoiled by bad food or service.  With Valentines Day approaching, my requests have doubled so I thought I would put a list together of my favorite dining and visual options (because sometimes the best movie is to gaze at beauty). With every budget and family type in mind, I give you this catalog.

Family Twist- If you have small children and want to share the sweetheart day as a family, I recommend dinner and a movie at Sinsheimer Stadium. The Blues Baseball organization offers a wonderful alternative for the whole family to enjoy. On Valentines eve they will be showing the movie A League Of Their Own. They will be offering full concessions including Central Coast Brewing, Hope Family Wines and food from the Rib Line. Rib Line will be offering: Nachos, hotdogs, pulled pork sandwiches, chili, popcorn, peanuts, candy, sodas and water. The gates open at 5:00pm, movie starts at 6:00pm. You can sit in the stands or spread out on the lawn. Sinsheimer Stadium is located at 900 Southwood drive in San Luis Opispo, (805) 704-4388.

Romantic but on a Budget- Prepare the perfect picnic basket. Ingredients should include a bottle of Tobin James Dream Weaver, oyster knife, fresh limes, loaf of French bread, a hunk of cheese and champagne glasses. Drive out to Avila Beach and park by the boat yard. Walk half way down Hanford pier and secure a dozen fresh oysters from BJ’s Fresh Seafood, then walk to the end enjoying the sound of the seals and buy a piece of candied salmon from Old Port Fish Market. Sit on the side of the pier watching the sailboats rock in the wind. After, duck into Old Port Inn and sit at the bar to share a chocolate mousse. Count the stars as you stroll back down the pier. If you need a warm up, grab a coffee at Portside Coffee. Your lover will not forget this date soon.

Special Deal- She is so special, loves good food but you can’t blow the rent on your memorable evening, try The Quarterdeck Seafood Restaurant. They are serving giant Maine Lobster tail and Filet Mignon for two. Served with full dinner choices, champagne and a delicious KK's Bundt Cake beautifully wrapped, all for $78.99 (you can also beat the crowds as they will start serving this amazing special the day before Valentine's Day and continue through Saturday February 15th). After run into Kmart and buy the movie The Notebook to watch at home. If she hasn’t seen this, she will thank you and no one minds watching it again, even the men. The Quarterdeck is located at 1500 West Branch in Arroyo Grande, (805) 481-3474

Adventurous- Romance reaches new heights in Morro Bay, especially if your gal is expecting a “Big Rock" sign up for the Whale Watching Tour. Dos Osos is an open boat with an unobstructed view; the opportunity to see whales is truly breathtaking. It is the season for Gray Whales as these magnificent mammals are running from the cold toward their winter escape in Baja California, Mexico. Call SubSea Tours at (805) 772-9463.  After go up to Shawn’s On Main, the most romantic and consistent restaurant in Morro Bay. I would suggest the Gnocchi and Carrot Vanilla soup. Shawn’s on Main is located at 912 Main Street in Morro Bay, (805) 772-1059.

Something New- if you want to surprise her with an original adventure take her to the Avila Lighthouse for a tour. Travel back in time and take a ride in this classic trolley to the historic Point San Luis Lighthouse. After the ride, take a docent led tour of the lighthouse. You will see all the fully restored buildings and learn what life was like for a Lighthouse Keeper and his family, (805) 540-5771. After, sail over to the new Ocean Grill with the most amazing views of the port and feast on the catch of the day. Ocean Grill is located at 268 Front Street in Avila Beach, (805) 595-4050.

Chef Gregg Wangard
Ultimate Romantic-In my mind a chef is an artist. If you let artists create on their own terms, the end result is magical. Chef Gregg Wangard of Marisol at The Cliff’s Resort is a Five Star artist and you will be happy to be his canvas. With the sweeping backdrops of the waves rolling in, the sun setting in a Technicolor display, the ambiance resonates. Ask for Jeff, the sommelier to suggest the wine and then be swept away as Chef does what he does best: Create perfection. With the sun setting over the sea, toast to your love and enjoy the soulful sweet sound of acoustic guitar. Walk among the bluffs after or take an after dinner drink to the fire pit.  Marisol is located at the Cliff’s Hotel at 2757 Shell Beach Road, Pismo Beach, (805) 773-2511.

Pop the Question- After a mineral hot tub water soak, a relaxing massage, wine and appetizer, escort her over to the Zen garden and ask for her to be the witness of your life. Garden’s of Avila offers a package deal of a hot tub soak, 2 full massages, appetizers and wine in the restaurant. Chef Robert Trester’s passion to create intoxicating deliciousness and seductive beauty on the plate using homegrown offerings is where I encourage all lovers to dine. When there, always order the Garden Party. This is where the chef picks your five courses and the best way to try many dishes. Garden's of Avila Restaurant is located inside the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa, (805) 540-3326.

Destination: I have spent two valentines day at Full of Life Flatbread in Los Almos. Last trip I had the black Truffle flatbread with a farm egg that was priced at $45.00. I hesitated, but Mr. Bayus insisted I try it. The pizza was made with a garlic brown butter sauce with spring onions, grana, Serena, and a semi poached farm egg. As they served it, they shaved big, fresh slices of truffles onto the flatbread. I have never had truffles so large and it was full of flavor and a rare treat for the senses. Full of Life Flat Bread is in Los Alamos or call at (805) 344-4400. After we ventured to the Union Hotel, a historic 1880’s stagecoach stop. This is a step back to a simple yet elegant era and everything here is authentic with period décor and amazing sites. More information at (805) 344-2744.

Chef Doug MacMillian
The Sure Thing: Consistency, romance, culinary delights, and perfect service. It is always so good to go home to Rosa’s Ristorante Italiano. This restaurant is a élite keepsake on the Central Coast. The staff is phenomenal, so well trained they compliment your choice to dine here. Order the spaghetti and re-enact Lady and The Tramp. After, stroll down to the Pismo promenade and walk down the pier. The sound of the waves rolling thru the pier will inspire amorousness. Rosa’s RistoranteItaliano is located at 491 Price Street in Pismo Beach, call (805) 773-0551.

Chef Jensen Lorensen
Blow The Rent- The Cass House is still my go-to place if you want a memorable meal that will never disappoint. I would try anything that Chef Jensen creates, and trust him with the most important meal of the year. I have eaten there many times, blog about them and worshipped them, and with each visit, they out did even my expectations. It is hard to describe the food (except for this is what heaven must taste like), as it is complicated, yet simple. In season and yet influenced from all over the world. Cass House Restaurant is in Cayucos at 222 North Ocean Blvd, reservations by calling (805) 995-3669.

Cindy Giovacchini
Single And ProudVino Versato Wine Bar is having the anti-valentines day Stupid Cupid party on valentines day with appropriately themed appetizers like Heart Stabbed Cupcakes, Weenies, It's Not Me It's You-Chocolate Fondue and Love Stinks Fruit Skewers. It will run 6:30pm to 9:30pm and black clothing is optional with a prize going to best themed outfit. This singles ONLY party is located at 781 Price Street in Pismo Beach, (805) 773-6563 and sure to be a blast, as owner Cindy turns every occasion into a celebration.

Teri Bayus can be reached at livewell@teribayus.com or follow my writing and ramblings at www.teribayus.com.