Many people know that if you visit The Cliffs during happy hour you can enjoy a cocktail, a view of the sunset and a free Mexican taco bar.
But I think that million-dollar view should occasionally be enjoyed with some equally fabulous cuisine, and the managers at the Shell Beach resort had that in mind when they opened Marisol.
Marisol is a portmanteau word of the Spanish terms for sun and sea, a name created by food and beverage director Pam Treadwell. The fairly new restaurant allows patrons to enjoy some Latininspired cuisine paired with an excellent wine list filled with selections from around San Luis Obispo County and beyond. I recently visited the hotel restaurant on a Thursday evening with three friends.
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I arrived after work and ventured into the crowded bar for a glass of wine to enjoy with a view of the sunset. The bar was packed and a long line of people formed for the Mexican food buffet. While tempted, I resisted the jalapenos and ground beef to save room for the Latin dishes created by Marisol's chef, Michael Wood.
Wood joined The Cliffs six months ago and worked closely with the hotel's executive chef and Treadwell to create an eclectic and inventive menu.
The resort's well-known brunch is the only thing that was left mostly unchanged -- it's still an elaborate all-you-can-eat buffet, but now it includes Latin dishes such as chile rellenos.
Marisol was busy for a Thursday evening; there were only a couple of empty tables left in the entire upscale dining room. Two of my friends have traveled in Spain exten-
sively, so they were immediately intrigued by the Spanish grilled bread appetizer ($8) served with Manchego cheese, chorizo and tapenade. We also had the jumbo crab cake ($12) and oak-grilled artichokes ($10).
The appetizers were served together and made for a beautiful spread across our linen-covered table. While not large, they were presented artistically with multiple sauces and garnishes splashed across each plate.
The crab cake was light and flaky and surrounded by lemon aioli and gazpacho salsa for dipping. It's one of the better crab cakes I've tasted locally, but it would be improved by mixing a more pungent flavor with the sweet crab.
The Spanish grilled bread was impressive, with large shaved pieces of cheese and chorizo stacked on top of it. It stayed true to its Spanish roots, which my Spain-loving friends appreciated.
The artichokes captured the flavor of the oak used to cook them. The hearts had a tender, meaty interior with a crisp exterior.
Although intrigued, we skipped the seafood trio, a platter of lobster, albacore and scallops. We later found it was a house specialty -- there's always next time.
For entrees, we were able to choose from the Mar menu (seafood), the Sol menu (meats and pastas) or off the grill.
I opted for the grilled scallops ($21), served with market vegetables and my choice of potatoes, rice or additional vegetables. I appreciated that I could enjoy a carb-free meal without sacrificing taste or quantity of food. The scallops were grilled to be crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside. One of the vegetables on my plate was a baked tomato, and although it was smoky and flavorful, I didn't like its mushy texture.
The short ribs of beef ($20) with blue cheese and Rioja sauce was a bold dish that was rich in flavors. The piledhigh ribs were tender and succulent, with the meat practically falling off the bone. The contrast of the strong cheese with the sweet flavors of the red wine sauce made this a table favorite.
A close second was the pork chop served over roasted corn salsa ($24). A breaded Anaheim chile relleno was its spicy and creative accompaniment. The chile was filled with a creamy cheese that helped mellow its natural spiciness.
The pepita (ground Mexican pumpkin seeds)-crusted salmon ($20) was served with fingerling potatoes, fennel citrus cream and Tuscan kale. The salmon's exterior was crispy and slightly charred, while the inside was flavorful and juicy. Even so, it was slightly on the salty side and would have been nice with a light sauce.
Not this time. With our spread of appetizers and entrees, we had no room left for dessert, which was unfortunate because I would have loved to experience more of Wood's creative dishes.
It's refreshing to have a new ocean-view restaurant that serves up more than the usual steak and seafood dishes. Marisol's Latin twist could give the neighboring Lido restaurant some competition over which ocean-view hotel restaurant reigns supreme.
* * *
2757 Shell Beach Road, Shell Beach 773-5000 Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily except for Sunday brunches, which begin at 10 a.m.
The scene: Upscale hotel restaurant with Latin flair
The cuisine: Modern Latin-inspired appetizers and entrees
Expect to spend: $6 to $17 for lunch, $8 to $39 for dinner