August 26 2010
On the Big Sur Coast in California, there’s a hotel called Ventana. Its much newer neighbour, the Post Ranch Inn, has managed to acquire a more illustrious reputation among the world’s jetsetters, and is indeed a lovely place, with a stunning situation (perched precipitously at the very edge of a thousand-foot drop to the rocky Pacific below), and a much-ballyhooed restaurant (Sierra Mar). But, for me, there has always been something about Ventana that elicits greater affection. Despite a handful of management changes since I was a child, when my parents first started bringing me here, its redwood cabins (with moulded plastic Jacuzzis on the terraces – very 1976) have remained resolutely, lovably old-school California.
But the best thing about Ventana is to be found in the restaurant. The aforementioned multiple management changes (and the resulting rotating roster of chefs) notwithstanding, someone here has had the incredible good judgment to keep one item a constant on the menu: the enchiladas. Sound banal? They are in fact sublime. I haven’t journeyed the 11 non-stop hours back to the Golden State once since moving to England without blocking out an afternoon or evening to drive down Highway One from my house to partake of them.
And clearly, lots of others – whether locals or the Angelenos and San Franciscans who for decades have made this their weekend retreat of choice – feel the same. Because any time the enchiladas have disappeared from the menu, they’ve quickly come back – waiters, when quizzed, usually say as a result of a great hue and cry from the regulars. Someone in the kitchen must be passing the recipe down, training up newcomers in their precise preparation: alchemic balances of mole and pico de gallo, tender white chicken delicately cooked in cream, hand-rolled and baked flour tortillas, fresh guacamole cut through with pitch-perfect doses of cilantro and raw onion.
Perhaps it helps to explain that Mexican food is its own whole cult of obsession in this state; and it doesn’t get better than this dish, a faultless meeting of traditional rustic and alta cocina Mexican cooking. The fact that you’re overlooking one of the most staggeringly beautiful stretches of coast to be found anywhere on Earth – and that you can, after dinner, retire to a cosy redwood cabin (from around $600) nestled among the oaks on the golden hill just behind you – doesn’t exactly detract from the experience.