I have to admit – I live here by the sea and have a riduculously difficult time finding good seafood. I’ve recently become enamored with oysters, and our local oysters are some of the best I’ve tried, but I’ll talk about them another time. Today, I want to talk about a dish I’ve had twice now – the first time by accident, and the second time intentionally – and both times I was absolutely stunned at how such a seemingly odd combination of flavors and textures could come together to create possibly the best appetizer I’ve ever had.
First things first. Remember that post I did on “The Elements of Eating?” This is the perfect opportunity to illustrate how that works. How balancing different flavors from across the spectrum makes 1+1=3, so to speak. I’ll spare you the gory details, for now, of the first time I encountered this dish at Lido Restaurant in Shell Beach, but last night my lovely wife called me while we were both on our way home and asked “hey, wanna meet somewhere for dinner?” I love those calls.
We got the perfect window seat to watch the sun set over the ocean, requested Bella, one of our favorite servers, but who are we kidding? Sarah, Brian, Collin, and even the big guy Todd have all been exceptional every time we’ve been there. We commented on how together their service and servers always are, in fact. We scanned the new seasonal menu and spotted a few appetizers we chose to have for dinner this time instead of actual entrees. The first thing I ordered was this magical dish, described on the menu as “Cayucos Abalone & Crispy Pork Belly.”
San Luis Obispo area is host to a bunch of great little fishing towns along its coast. Cayucos is one of them. It’s on the way to Hearst Castle up off the world renowned Highway 1 drive. I’m not sure of its history as an abalone town, but will look into that for you. Do any of you know?
Anyway, the dish is gorgeous and complicated. It’s also expensive, so be prepared for that. I’m certain it’s because abalone is rare and difficult to obtain, but Lido, like many of the great restaurants around here, makes dishes from what they source locally. It comes to your table warm. A piece of slightly crispy pork belly, and what tastes like maybe grilled abalone on top of that. There is smoke and salt in that first bite. There is also a wedge of avocado, a dollop of meyer lemon dressing, and a topping that will confuse most people – a sliver of pickled ginger like the kind you get in a sushi bar.
Do yourself a favor. Don’t dissect. Don’t turn your nose up. Try to take a bite with some of every element at the same time. There’s an explosion of flavors that all come together and enhance each other. Seafood and pork is a big wave in cuisine these days, and this is the perfect example as to why. You get both earth and sea, sweet and salt, crunch and cream all in the same bite. Avocado and ginger add complexity, more crunch and cream, and a freshness that elevates the rich meats.
I don’t recommend this for people who aren’t willing to pay a good penny for perfect pairings. It’s $22. But I’ve spent $85 on an appetizer before and was never so thrilled. Hillary agrees, and she is far pickier than I am.
The best appetizer ever? I encourage you to decide for yourself. Tell them Doug and Hillary sent you, and report back to us here on what you think.
You won’t be sorry.