California is often divided into two camps – Los Angeles and San Francisco – but that still leaves a lot of gastro ground to cover. Over the past decade, a restaurant that’s built one of the better reputations in the great in-between is Big Sur Bakery. One aspect that makes Big Sur so enticing is also its biggest deterrent: its isolation. Thankfully, chefs Phil and Michelle Wojtowicz and partner Michael Gilson brought Big Sur to L.A. for a memorable Silverlake Wine tasting.
The partners were in town with chef friend Matt Glazer (Esalen Institute) to promote “The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook” – and to lavish Angelenos with four courses of food, which Silverlake Wine co-owner George Cossette elegantly paired with California wines.
The Wojtowiczes both hail from northern New Jersey, Metuchen and Piscataway, to be precise. They worked with Cossette and SLW co-owner Randy Clement at Campanile in the late ’90s. Michael Gilson grew up in Manhattan Beach and got his first restaurant job at The Silo, working as a busser for John Rivera Sedlar. He first met Phil and Michelle when he was a waiter at Joe’s in Venice and Phil was a cook. At age 40, he leased a space and recruited Phil and Michelle to cook for him.
Phil described the cookbook as “a year in the life of Big Sur Bakery. Every month we feature a different farmer or fisherman,” or beekeeper, someone who helped contribute to the success of Big Sur Bakery. Gilson said Judith Regan came into the restaurant and wanted to strike a book deal. She was fired during negotiations, but Harper Collins remained interested, and the book went forward. Michael Pollan suggested writer Catherine Price.
As for the tasting, SLW’s Wilder Alvarado greeted each of us at check-in with a NV glass of Flying Goat “Goat Bubbles” Brut, a palate cleanser that paired well with the 9-grain crostini topped with guacamole and a sweet tuft of Monterey Bay Dungeness crab.
Cossette introduced the 2008 Cold Heaven Viognier Vogelzang by describing “wonderful aromas, peaches, papayas and pears.” The winemaker: Morgan Clendenen, whose husband Jim owns Au Bon Climat.
For the pairing, Phil Wojtowicz delved deeper into Monterey Bay for fresh caught squid. He sautéed the bodies and grilled the tentacles over oak for a smoky quality, then submerged each component with butter and Navy greens in the earthy liquid used to cook the beans. He and his wife prepared all the food early-morning in Big Sur, then drove down the 101 in time for the tasting.
“One of the real interesting places right now is the Central Coast,” said Cossette. Most Napa Valley wines put him to sleep, but he perks up when tasting Central Coast wines like 2007 Vineyard Samsara Pinot Noir. He pointed to Chad Melville, the son from the famed Melville winery, as one of the region’s leading winemakers. They produce more expensive single-vineyard wines, but this is a blend that “shows intense saturation of flavor without being heavy.”
Each guest received a cut of pork shoulder that had been confit, brined and grilled. My hearty cube was served with Oregon oyster mushrooms, corn and English peas and topped with a dab of whole grain mustard aioli.
Clement described the final two wine pairings, describing the 2006 Big Basin Syrah “Mandala” as “Super rich, robust but with a lot of other things going on.”
Our final savory course involved slices of grass fed beef filet that Phil marinated in rosemary and herbs and rubbed with black pepper and espresso grinds before grilling. He served the rosy, char-grilled meat with diced root vegetables – carrot, sweet potato, fennel, celery root, golden and chiogga beet – and lashings of shallot crème fraiche.
Our final wine was 2008 Bonny Doon “Vinferno,” produced by Randall Grahm using a mix of Grenache Blanc and Roussane grapes. Vinferno is 100% organic and biodynamic and incorporated intensely sweet sun-dried grapes.
Michelle Wojtowicz handles all of Big Sur’s sweets and bread baking. She produced a creamy lavender custard capped with a wedge of lavender shortbread, both produced from local lavender. For the final component, she macerated some raspberries in the sweet Vinferno, which took some edge off of the tartness.
Big Sur Bakery’s owners brought copies of October’s dinner menu, which looked great. You can pair any of the ultra-local entrees with seasonal vegetables. Phil said some pairings work better than others, but at least people have a choice.
Another fun fact: at Big Sur Bakery, Phil fires pizzas at night in a wood-burning oven at 700 degrees, using oak. After they’re done cooking pizza for the night, they remove the coals and the oven drops to 400 degrees by morning, when Michelle bakes breads and pastries, including muffins and morning buns. The oven also produces their famous brunch-only breakfast pizza.
Big Sur Bakery undoubtedly gained some new converts who will make the six-hour drive north to taste the Wojtowiczes food. I sure will.