The Rio del Mar beach has rarely looked quite this delicious, thanks to gorgeous warm weather and the solstice soft opening of Venus Spirits Beachside location. Years ago, I lived three blocks from this spot and the memories flooded in as I entered the courtyard at 131 Esplanade for a preview tasting. Greeted by a beaming Sean Venus, I felt immediately at home in this beachfront landmark—familiar, yet polished and updated. One by one, plate by plate, we sampled the new menu created by executive chef John Harry with a welcome emphasis on Southern classics.
From oysters on the half shell with two sauces ($21/half dozen), to an addictive collection of round blue corn hush puppies with the house signature honey butter, we enjoyed gazing out at the fog-free beach from a front-row table at the former Cafe Rio. Everything was hot and tasty, successfully designed to partner with Venus Spirits cocktails.
I started off with a Gin & Tonic No. 1, adorned with juniper berries and lavender. Melo wandered into unknown territory with a Frozen Paloma Libre ($14), a chilled slush of El Ladron blanco, grapefruit liqueur, aperol, lime and grapefruit. Tall, pink and very refreshing on a very warm evening.
Next came a large platter of oysters on ice: delicate kumamotos, miyagis and Shigokus from Washington State and Fanny Bays from British Columbia. Briny and sweet, the shellfish enjoyed their dips into plum mignonette and hot sauce. Shrimp Aguachile ($16)—a sherbet glass filled with plump prawns in a tangle of persian cucumbers and avocados, decorated with two small crisp freshly-made tortillas—was one of the absolute menu hits. Spiced with serrano, cilantro and lime, oh my!
A plate of local Monterey Bay sand dabs ($18) arrived crisply breaded with cornmeal and two sauces, one hot (of course!) and the other a gribiche of hard-boiled egg yolks, capers and mustard. Another dreamy shared plate was the bowl of Pimento Cheese, a rich dip bold with chunks of cheddar-inflecting softened cheese and pimentos. Accessorized with saltines (southern-style) and crisp crudités, it was catnip with cocktails ($12).
Also swoon-making was a sexy lobster roll, a tall toasted brioche loaded with lobster and tarragon aioli filling, a pretty sparkling fennel salad on the side($26). We left no trace. Those fat spherical hush puppies with whipped butter are a destination app—but there was more.
Two sweets made the perfect finish to a meal that leaned substantially toward marine ingredients: shrimp, sand dabs, oysters and lobster. A wedge of silky chocolate torte had a thin bottom crust of cacao nibs seasoned with cinnamon and chili. A little pool of cherry sauce surrounded the chocolate, neither sweet nor unsweet. Nicely balanced. Especially to my liking, and again striking the perfect flavor tone after the flavors of seafood, was a sample of key lime pie, thin cookie crust topped with key lime butter cream, accompanied by rosettes of barely sweetened whipped cream ($12 each).
Good news! The Venus Burger is still on the menu, and ditto the all-star Crispy Brussels Sprouts.
So let’s review: some old favorites, and some new ones with fresh gulf coast attitude, including a few more surprises we’ll sample on our next visit. The Venus Beachside setting is epic California, the atmosphere laid-back and the cocktails are smart enough to ease you into a provocative menu. Venus Spirits Cocktails & Kitchen Beachside, Wednesday-Sunday, 4pm-9pm. venusspirits.com/vsckbeachside.
For splendid Central Coast landscape, there’s Corallitos and the newly released 2020 Heirloom Clones Estate Pinot Noir over at Alfaro Family Vineyards. Call 831-728-5172, or alfarowine.com/tasting for table and picnic reservations.