It’s a drizzly Thursday night. We’ve just left our first antenatal class. Mrs A and I are exhausted, emotional and pretty terrified. We needed to escape for an hour or two. Somewhere bright and sunny where babies arrive with the clean pop of a champagne cork being carefully twisted off.
Southern California seemed to fit the bill, so we headed to newly opened Big Sur.
I wanted Brian Wilson warbling about surfing and Katy Perry in a bikini top zipping around on roller skates. What I actually got was a middle-aged waiter with an Easter Island expression and MDF furniture, retro wood panelling and concrete flooring. All of which combined to create a rather anaemic atmosphere.
The menu has everything you’d expect from an America diner. Ribs, pulled pork and steaks. This is a tough dining category to break into. Bearded dudes with ironic tattoos, lumberjack shirts and a single GCSE in woodwork have cornered that particular market. However, Big Sur makes no attempt at woodchips, fire or anything as indulgent or as trivial as flavour.
The menu is also very expensive. This feels like error of judgement given the easy comparison to Pirata-owned, MEATS, which is just three doors up the road. MEATS serves-up Rotisserie chicken and confit duck for $180 and $160 respectively. While the equivalent dishes of half a chicken and breast of duck are a third more expensive at Big Sur at $280 and $250.
The last thing I wanted that evening was food retaining any resemblance of bodily fluid. Therefore, I ordered the Tennessee Plate, a medley of ribs, pulled pork and beans – all of which should have cooked for days until succulently tender. Alas, I had to wrestle the rib meat off the bone and the BBQ beans had the texture of canned kidney beans. The dish contained a ‘popover’. This was basically a Yorkshire pudding with an injection of oestrogen and processed cheese. Like the insipid red cabbage and pickles, it added absolutely nothing to proceedings.
Each item on my plate could be matched against the Dulux colour palate of grey. The only real colour – and indeed flavour – came from the metallic tang of factory made BBQ sauce.
I ordered a side of sweet potato fries, expecting thin crunchy orange fries. I received a bowl of fat roasted wedges which were stodgy and starchy, and again, without merit or taste
Having had a fairly torrid time already that evening, I was conscious that our mood entering Big Sur would have an unfair and disproportionately negative effect on our experience. However, a form of cathartic redemption – and entertainment – came in the form of a couple on the table next door boisterously complaining. ‘It tastes frozen’ the girl loudly and consistent proclaimed. By which I think she meant artificial and I couldn’t have agreed more.
If you were being generous, you could argue the lacklustre food was the result of the chef having a bad night. But really, the dishes are fairly simple and there’s a very large margin for error.
It’s obvious that Big Sur doesn’t set out to compete based on the quality of its food. One area it can compete is the strength of its beer offering. 15 draught beers are ordered into session beers, happy beers and big & bold beers.
So, the reality is, Big Sur is not competing with the fine eateries on Staunton Street, it’s competing with the sports bars. It’s somewhere else to sit outside and drink enough beer so that you can’t taste, or even see the food. And I’m fine with that, as long as long as the proposition and price point reflects the ambition. But the owners have promised ‘a dynamic dose of Californian living’. Unfortunately, Big Sur fails to construct the artifice it promises. I didn’t feel I was on the set of a Beach Boys video. I felt like I was in TGI Fridays without the fun.
How much? $583 for two starters and a main
Where? Ground floor 22 Staunton Street, Central
Who goes? Central worker bees seeking post-work beers