Halfway through the foie gras portion of a four course meal at Sierra Mar in Big Sur, a long-haired patron in jeans and a plaid shirt blunders into an oversized whale painting. A swarm of waiters quickly coalesces around him, attempting to prevent the listing canvas from falling over completely. Eventually they give up and lower the unhappy leviathan to the floor, leaning it against the wall until a more convenient time.
This is an interaction that might only be possible at Sierra Mar, the jewel of Big Sur's Post Ranch Inn, where casual is the norm despite rooms that run more per night than comparable apartments cost per month in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Gallery: Post Ranch Inn
Though the modern resort was founded in 1984, the land's history dates back to 1850 – when homesteader and grizzly bear hunter William Brainard Post took out a claim on 160 acres of land in Big Sur. That same land now plays host to the exclusive 39-room resort that carries the family's name.
These days, visitors are greeted with glasses of Champagne and whisked up the hill by a fleet of black Lexus hybrid SUVs. An array of rooms await, some nestled in the trees, some built into the side of the oceanside cliffs. All are outfitted with fireplaces, breathtaking views and, of course, free wireless internet. Perhaps best of all, the rooms are just a few minutes' walk from the restaurant.
Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright student Mickey Muennig, Sierra Mar is perched 1,200 feet above the crashing tides of the Pacific. The views are almost as dramatic as the taste sensations caused by the delicious menu. On a stormy night this spring, dinner begins with an amuse bouche of cured salmon, crème fraiche and Tsar Nicoulai caviar. Forget your mouth – your whole body will be amused and amazed at rich array of flavors unleashed by the single bite.
Appetizers include the Butter Poached Maine Lobster, served in a lemongrass-coconut broth with green papaya salad, and the Sesame Crusted Ahi Tuna, smothered in wasabi butter and shallot soy. In both dishes, the interplay between creamy sauce and fresh seafood makes for a refreshingly light and flavorful starter. But the highlight has to be the heavier Foie Gras Tasting and its three interpretations of goose liver: seared alongside pickled quince; torched in a tiny crème brûlée dish; and sautéed atop miniature pancakes.
The second course options are equally engaging, especially the Bourride – a single, spongy Maine diver scallop engulfed in a red pepper picada and garlic crumbs. If you're looking for a leafy respite from a fishy dinner, try the Artaulfo Mango Salad and treat your taste buds to a trio of roasted macadamia nuts, mint leaves and fresh water chestnuts.
Of the main course options – Alaskan Halibut, Roast Organic Air Chilled Chicken Breast, Risotto and Roast Prime Rib Eye Steak – the latter is certainly the heartiest. Paired with braised short rib hash and topped with a poached egg, the rib eye is a bouquet of textures and smoky flavors. Fortunately, the portion is sensibly sized to ensure you won't leave feeling anchored by your entrée.
For a true Big Sur dessert, look no further than the S'Mores. Though not quite the messy delicacy found at nearby beatnik campfires for the past half-century, this neat stack of warm chocolate cake and flamed marshmallow ice cream should please any palate.
As your meal at the Sierra Mar draws to a close, the floor-to-ceiling glass windows will be filled with the vast darkness of the Pacific below. The dim lights will seem dimmer, and after a few glasses of wine, you might find yourself imagining the ghost of Kerouac flittering through the restaurant. That's all well and good – just try not to bump into any whale paintings on your way out.