Cultivating Freshness in the Gardens of Avila
by G.L. Stassi
Across the bridge in the northeast section of the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa Nature Preserve in Avila Beach, is the private chef’s garden for their restaurant, Gardens of Avila. The first time I entered this magical place, I was enchanted. A lush gardenof sunflowers, delicate lettuces, tomatoes and herbs basked in dappled sunlight looking and feeling like a fantasy. A field of pylons amassed with thriving vines blooming in shades of white, purple and pink, provides sweet peas and multicolored bean pods of exotic varieties and tastes. Corpulent, brilliant sunflowers towering over fairy tale pumpkins lounging lazily on the ground bound the garden. The morning sun warms the soil and the herbs perfume the air with Italian and African basil, English thyme, Greek oregano, Mexican tarragon, and French lavender and rosemary. A canopy of lush leaves shade delicate squash blossoms. A rainbow of confetti-like tiny edible flowers bejewel the garden paths. In a constant state of seasonal cornucopia, the garden seems to grow more abundant each time I visit. These sumptuous beauties will soon find their place on the new menu of Gardens of Avila, the restaurant at Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa.
Gardens of Avila Restaurant was already established when Boutique Hotel Collection bought Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa in 2003. Now, in late 2015, the restaurant is creating a place where both their local clientele and hotel guests feel comfortable dining, cocktailing, and hanging out. With their intimate dining room, outdoor patios, and inviting lounge, Gardens of Avila holds lovely spaces for people to enjoy.
Meals served regularly at Gardens of Avila are breakfast, lunch, and dinner. With a wide variety of breakfast and lunch items, guests can order breakfast or lunch 8am-2pm daily; no service is available 2pm-4pm. Sunday brunch features “bottomless mimosas.” The evening meals have both an extensive lounge menu, as well as a dinner menu featuring savory soups, fresh salads, lighter fare, and satisfying dinner selections. The Gardens of Avila unique breakfast menu provides many selections, such as the garden rolled omelets, banana pecan French toast, and lemon blueberry pancakes. They also offer an incredibly popular extensive fresh juice menu. Squeezed right at the bar, their vast selection includes everything from carrots, oranges, ginger, jalapenos, sweet berries, to other seasonal produce.
The Gardens of Avila mixes up their bar menu, with a wide variety of cutting-edge cocktails, often using ingredients from their Chef’s Garden for infused drinks. Additionally, their all-night happy hours from Monday-Friday has become very, very popular as the. The Happy Hour Cocktail menu includes: (Monday) Manhattan Monday – Barrel Aged; (Tuesday) Mai Tai Tuesday with Chef’s Tapas; (Wednesday) Open Mike Night with Select Wines; (Thursday) Tequila Thursday with homemade tacos; and finally, (Friday) Firestone Fridays with Select Beers and Angus Beef Sliders.
The most notable menu renaissance at the Gardens is how they are expanding on their dinner selections so guests have more choices. Their new philosophy still focuses on preparing great locally sourced dishes, however, they have something for every person and are able to satisfy any culinary mood. Their goal is to make delicious dining very “democratic” by creating more than only “fine dining, haute cuisine”. According to Charles Crellin, the General Manager of the Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa in Avila Beach, Gardens of Avila wants to meet the needs, for example, of the couple that comes in where one person can get the cast-iron grilled steak or the beautifully prepared ling cod, or grilled octopus, and the other person can order a delicious flatbread, a big gourmet burger, a Chef’s Garden salad, or any combination. Thereby, accomplishing that one patron can order a complex and innovative entrée, while the other can order a familiar, delicious and, comforting dish such as a burger, veggie burger, braised short rib sandwich, or simply a hearty soup and fresh salad.
What remains is that Gardens of Avila uses the absolutely freshest locally sourced food available. “We get so much of our produce from our own one-acre Chef’s Garden that Chef Michael Avila closely oversees. He works in the garden throughout the week, and receives assistance from the kitchen staff and our landscape crew,” states Crellin. “The produce and herbs that we do not harvest from our own garden are generally sourced from local farmers directly or from the local farmers’ markets.”
Chef Michael Avila used to be a fisherman out of Avila, so he is very familiar with the fresh fish and local fisherman. He chooses his fish right off the boat in Avila Beach and he puts on the menu what is being caught locally. Born and raised on the Central Coast, Chef Avila takes advantage of the area’s unique qualities. Raised by farmers, Michael is passionate about fresh and sustainable food. “I love having the chance to handpick produce from our own garden here at Sycamore,” Michael says. “I’m living every chef’s dream. The ocean is a mile away, there are weekly farmers’ markets county-wide, and I get to be the steward of an acre garden!” Michael adds, “It really is an amazing experience to grow your own produce, and to then incorporate it into menus for our guests.” Besides cooking and gardening, Michael is an avid surfer and hiker.
Gardens of Avila also features their Chef’s Tasting Menu of five favorite courses selected by the Chef, all homegrown and handpicked. Besides getting most of their fish from local fishermen in Avila Beach, they procure the best meat such as grass-fed beef, Mary’s organic chicken and sustainably raised duck, just to name a few. Vegetarian meal options include a fabulous veggie burger, a wonderful vegetable pave of roasted garden peppers, squash, whipped avocado, and sweet potato, and polenta. Also, if a guest requests, the kitchen can convert many recipes into a vegetarian dish.
The wine cellar of Gardens of Avila stocks “hyper-local” wines with two-thirds of wines served by the glass being from San Luis Obispo County, the others being from Santa Barbara and Monterey Counties. Additionally, they highlight sixty-two wines by the bottle, again with the majority of the wines from SLO County, Santa Barbara and Monterey County. They serve two ports from Porto (Portugal), and Gruet Champagne from New Mexico along with two local sparkling wines. Their wine philosophy maintains a local inventory, highlights new wineries and very small production wines, as well as local favorites. They charge no corkage fee on the first bottle of local wine (that perk has been very well received by both lunch and dinner guests).
Albeit, the Chef’s garden is not open to the public, Gardens of Avila arranges special packages featuring dinner in the garden and holds special and private events such as Sunset Savor the Central Coast Adventure Tours, Wine Waves & Beyond dinners, tea seminars, weddings, and private parties. Gardens of Avila is a desirable location for holiday parties. The 100-acre Sycamore Mineral Springs Resort & Spa is festively decorated at Thanksgiving and Christmas creating a delightful holiday atmosphere for parties and banquets. Holiday menus remain traditional with festive touches for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the New Year’s Eve menu adds more contemporary flare.
Gardens of Avila continues to add more culinary experiences for patrons. In the near future, a highly anticipated, limited-selection proper tea service will be under the watchful, discerning eye of Charles Crellin (aka The Tea Sensei). Paying close attention to details, tea service will feature fine teas such as extraordinary Chinese and Japanese green teas, fine Chinese and Taiwanese oolongs, and premium Indian red tea (often called black tea).
To learn more about Gardens of Avila Restaurant at Sycamore Mineral Springs & Resort in Avila Beach, visit www.sycamoresprings.com.