Restaurant News & Reviews

Gardens of Avila living up to its name

Seared Albacore Tuna with Heirloom Tomatoes, Scarlet Runner Beans and Pickled Red Onions
David Middlecamp
Seared Albacore Tuna with Heirloom Tomatoes, Scarlet Runner Beans and Pickled Red Onions David Middlecamp 9-8-2011 The Tribune

A new chef has taken root and some new gardens have sprouted at Sycamore Mineral Springs’ Gardens of Avila Restaurant.

Chef Pandee Pearson joined the Boutique Hotel Collection property in May, bringing with her not only an impressive résumé, but also a fervent dedication to locally grown products.

A graduate of the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, Pearson went on to work with some of the country’s finest chefs, including Wolfgang Puck, Dean Fearing and Cindy Pawlcyn.

For the past several years, she’s headed up the kitchens at Windows on the Water in Morro Bay and most recently at Adelina’s Bistro at Trilogy Monarch Dunes in Nipomo.

All of Pearson’s menus reflect a seasonal approach to food, and she is a familiar face at local farmers markets.

Ingredients are always showcased front and center, whether in nightly specials or in classics such as Eggs Benedict, N’Awlins Style BBQ Shrimp and even Peking Duck.

Some of her signature dishes also include a sublimely simple red and gold beet salad with goat cheese and agave cider vinaigrette, crostini with house-made fig jam, and seared albacore with garden fresh heirloom tomatoes, scarlet runner beans and house pickled red onions.

Speaking of tomatoes, one of the first things Pearson did after arriving at Sycamore was to snap up dozens of heirloom tomato seedlings offered to her by Chris Anderson at Tiber Canyon Ranch in San Luis Obispo.

BHC gave the go-ahead for planting, and Pearson also enlisted the help of one of her longtime produce suppliers, Ralph Johnson of Johnson Farms. In fact, he has become the soils-to-seed consultant for the Sycamore garden, which is also available to the other BHC chefs.

“Ralph’s helping us determine what makes sense to grow here in small production, and what he can grow for us at his farm,” said Pearson. “We’re also working together right now to develop dishes for winter and even spring crops, and figuring out how to do continuous plantings so we can keep our garden in production as much as possible.”

That garden-to-table approach will also allow her to “continue to dial in the commitment to keeping things local,” but it also means that Pearson can explore the possibilities of some intriguing specialty ingredients.

For example, “I’d love to be able to use this speckled romaine for all my Caesar salads,” she explained, holding up a leaf of the striking, red and green lettuce. Another upshot of Sycamore’s exuberant tomato planting is the inaugural Ode to Tomatoes: A Culinary Happening. From today through Oct. 6, all the BHC restaurants — including Marisol at The Cliffs, Apple Farm and Sea Venture Resort — will be serving prix fixe dinners in celebration of tomato season.

For the Gardens’ menu, Pearson has created dishes such as a roasted tomato soup with local olive oil and a tomato and short rib ragout. (Special al fresco, family-style dinners will also be held in Sycamore’s garden on select dates; see reservation info at right.)

The prix fixe meals will offer the option of enjoying wines from Sunset’s Western Wine Awards nominees.

Those pairings were developed by another recent addition to the Sycamore/Gardens’ culinary team: food and beverage director Patricia Borgardt. A Master Sommelier candidate, Borgardt “will be also be developing a wine list with a strong focus on wines-by-the-glass that pair seamlessly with Pandee’s style,” as well as highlighting “recommended pairings, half-bottles and wines which are local, sustainably grown, or have a great story to tell.”

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune