Thursday, May 6, 1999
The mission: Eat a full meal, including appetizers and dessert, at local restaurants and food stores, without paying a penny.
The tricky part: Can one manage to down enough sustenance using only sample tastings, without alienating the storeowners, and still come back for seconds?
Noon. Salsa and olives. Tucked away in the industrial heart of Sand City, at 577 Ortiz Ave., is a treasure of pickled delights called Gil''s Gourmet Gallery. Inside, two walls are stocked with olives, pickled vegetables, mustards, salsas and other savory finger foods. All non-cooked foods are prepared in Gil''s kitchen, just beyond the shop. A small alcove proffers candies, nuts and chocolate-covered fruits. The back wall contains more than 100 brightly colored bottles of hot sauce, most of them aimed at collectors rather than cooks. (Who could actually eat "Dave''s Insanity," which contains the ingredient used in MACE and is so searing that it was banned from the annual Fiery Foods contest in Albuquerque after it left one woman in a dead faint?)
Gil''s is owned and operated by Gil Tortolani, renowned locally as the founder of Tillie Gort''s in 1969, and The Granary in 1972. Tortolani no longer has trays of olives and salsa sitting out on the counter, because of the lack of foot traffic, but he''ll pull anything you want to taste either out of his fridge, or right off the shelf.
We sampled a few Double Trouble olives, soaked, like all Gil''s delights, in wine, then stuffed with Serrano peppers and whole garlic. Yummy. Made a lip-smacking accompaniment to his Simply Zinful Garlic Salsa XXXtra Hot (secret ingredient: Zinfandel wine), served up with a plateful of Saltines and tortilla chips. Halfway through the salsa, we popped a few Chardonnay Garlic-Stuffed Olives into our mouths-Gil''s best-selling olive, he says. We declined Gil''s offer to sample his Crying Tongue Olives, stuffed with a long, red curly African piri-piri pepper. It may have taken first place last year in Albuquerque, but it sure looked dangerous. The wine-soaked, chocolate-covered cherries? Simply divine.
Spent: $3.95 for a bottle of Double Trouble Olives.
12:30 pm. Pizza. The Santa Lucia Market on Washington Street in Monterey puts out a tray of generous bite-size samples of pizza, fresh every day. Today''s offering was Chicken Pesto Pizza, a tangy treat that had a sweet aftertaste (a touch of sun-dried tomato perhaps?) We downed three helpings while chatting with Manager Penelope Vice, who says they serve up pizza samples seven days a week, with free sushi samples on Friday.
Do some people just stand there and eat an entire tray of pizza samples? "Oh, sure," Vice says breezily. "We have our regulars."
1:30pm. Cheese. The Cheese Shop in the Carmel Plaza on Ocean Avenue, Carmel has more than 180 cheeses from around the world, an impressive wine selection, and sales help that could take their show on the road-and some of them have. "If someone liked Stilton, and wanted to taste something else, what would you suggest trying?" we asked cheese-guy Neil. "Stilton," he deadpanned.
Our foursome was in high gear now, and we kept both Neil and Philippe slicing at lightning speed, as we tasted our way through Manchego, a Spanish sheeps''-milk cheese; Oka, a Canadian washrind cheese made by Trappist monks near Quebec; Old Amsterdam, an aged Gouda that had a lingering sweet aftertaste; and, of course, the Stilton.
How much can you taste before they throw you out? As much as you want, says longtime employee Kent Torrey, who has just bought The Cheese Shop from his former boss. Once, Torrey took care of a couple that sampled every single cheese in the store. They bought a tiny piece of each one, "about 50- or 60-cents'' worth," each of which Torrey had to painstakingly wrap and label. The whole adventure took more than four and a half hours, he says. A few months later, he spied them coming back into the store, and he ran to hide in the back storeroom.
"We let you sample until you say, no mas," he promises.
Spent: $46.26, on five cheeses.
3pm. Wine. Our mouths redolent with cheese, we headed out to Carmel Valley Village to Talbott''s new wine-tasting room, opened just this March 27 at the corner of Carmel Valley and Pilot roads. We were dismayed, however, to find they charge $3 to taste six wines ($5 if you want to keep the embossed glass). It''s a perfectly reasonable price, at 50 cents per glass, but that meant we had to step outside the rules of our moolah-free munching marathon. To fork over, or not?
It turns out that the other wine-tasting rooms in Carmel Valley also charge for tastings, except Bernardus, which only charges to taste its reds ($3), while pouring its whites for free. Georis ups the ante by requiring customers to buy a full or half-bottle of wine, which they can then enjoy in the historic adobe or lovely garden patio outside, with complimentary wine and cheese. Again, a lovely way to spend the afternoon, but it ain''t free.
For free wine, you have to make the trek to a working winery like Galante, five miles up Cachagua Road, off Carmel Valley Road a few miles beyond the Village. Their first vintage was in ''94, and they''ve since garnered praise for their Cabernet Sauvignons, virtually all they plant in their 65 acres of vineyard. Vineyard manager Eliud Ortiz says they''re planting another 15 acres this year, 10 of which will be Pinot Noir.
Ortiz gave us a special treat: barrel tastings of the new ''97 vintage, not yet bottled at the time of our visit. Ortiz offered us glasses of three different Cabernets, ending with the premium Blackjack label, each wine suctioned out of its French oak barrel with a turkey baster-like contraption. Then we sampled Galante''s Sauvignon Blanc-they only produce about 100 cases a year, just enough for special events at the winery.
Galante is a real boutique winery, producing only 2,500 cases total per year (that number will climb to 5,000 with the ''98 vintage). The ''97s we tasted from the barrel were bottled May 5, which means you''ll be tasting only ''96s until September, when the ''97s go on the market.
Spent: $18, a Pinot Noir from Talbott.
5:30pm. Clam Chowder. Clam chowder may not be everyone''s idea of a post-entree palate cleanser, but we headed for Old Fisherman''s Wharf in Monterey for those little white paper cups of steaming New England clam chowder that some of the restaurants hand out to passersby. It was a chilly, windy late afternoon, but John Hommer was hawking chowder samples outside the Old Fisherman''s Grotto. We slurped down two hot ''n hearty cups. The Grotto has been cooking up chowder since 1950, and Hommer says that on a busy Saturday, they go through 3,000 to 4,000 of those little cups, between 150 to 200 gallons. About 75 percent of those who taste, end up buying something, he insists. It was delicious, but we weren''t in the market.
9pm. Ice Cream. By this hour, Pacific Grove has tucked itself in for the night. Nothing''s open, except Ron''s Liquors (not on our trek) and the Rocky Coast ice cream parlor on Lighthouse Avenue open most nights until 10pm. Rocky Coast serves up Dreyer''s and Lappert''s ice cream, as well as frozen yogurt, egg creams and other dairy delights. The two young sales clerks were only too happy to offer up spoonfuls of ice cream to sample: a lurid turquoise Blue Bubblegum, and a much more delicious Chocolate Macadamia Nut. "Most people don''t have to taste, they come in knowing what they want," said clerk Kimberly Robertson. "Some people taste a lot and don''t buy anything. That''s OK."
Co-worker Matthew Gober says his record was 19 tastes, which he gave to a local construction worker. "He didn''t buy anything, but his son bought a large milkshake, I believe," Gober recalls. "Kahlua Truffle Malt, extra large, extra thick."
Spent: Nothing. Still full of clam chowder.
Conclusion: After nine hours, we managed to cobble together a full, four-course meal that didn''t cost a dime. But those tastings convinced us to spend $68.21 in food and wine to take home. Guess that''s the point.