Thursday, August 16, 2001
It''s my day off and I only know two things: I''m playing golf at three-ish with my boy, The Colin Montgomery of Monterey, and I''ve got 8:15 reservations at Café Rustica with Sweet Thing. Life is good.
About 12 holes into it, my man Colin, flush from finally scoring better than double bogey on a hole, hints that he''d like to join us for dinner. Always happy to have another dinner companion, I make the quick C-phone call to Rustica''s and a gracious voice agrees to accommodate us all. However, by the time we finish 18, Colin, whom I spanked like I was his evil stepfather, decided he didn''t want to be seen in public and headed home.
725 10 Delfino Place, Carmel Valley Village
Hours:11am-3pm and 5-9pm, closed Wednesdays.
Prices: Lunch, $6-13; Dinner: $10-18.
As Sweet Thing and I drove out along Carmel Valley Road toward the Village, a huge gutta-percha moonball was suspended over the right flank of this sceneried byway and the melted Creamsicle sky oozed a faded orange backdrop behind the flying orb. It was the perfect end of day, beginning of evening, shadowless light-without-light removed all solids from our reality... life had become pure ether. There was no hurrying this drive. When the forces of life conspire to present something so beautiful, you have a spiritual obligation to enjoy it. And enjoy it we did.
As we pulled into the mostly full lot, the two parking valets, Hunger and Thirst, guided our car into a spot, took the keys and propelled us toward the front door of Café Rustica. The outdoor patio was starting to wind down slightly and the pace inside was beginning to downshift as well. The staff''s facial muscles had begun to soften, subtracting a few years from their appearance. It was a good time to arrive.
Our table was smack-dab in the middle of the room, surrounded by everyone. Fortunately, this is the type of place in which sounds ricochet all around from every direction, so you can feel quite private using normal conversation. Plus, everyone is so comfortable and engrossed in the food that they couldn''t care less what others around them are doing.
After discovering that the wonderful Domaine Louis Michel Chablis was out, we switched to a Deakin Estate Chardonnay from Australia. Fresh steamed Monterey cockle clams in white wine, shallots, garlic and fresh tomatoes shared the table with Grilled Eggplant Napoleon on a toasted brioche crouton with fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, basil pesto and caramelized red onions. As the food and wine''s many flavors... and this joint mixes up the flavors... morphed together with our own flavors, that much desired sensation of disappearing (I hear you) began. When the night is going right, you lose your awareness of the physical self. Its magic begins to flow through you.
The service here is friendly and efficient as staff members pitch in to ensure the swift arrival of food while one or another of the chefs orchestrates the action from the kitchen--which is situated right inside the front door and smack-dab in the middle of the property. The kitchen and service staff appear well trained and handle the busy volume with confidence and competence.
As the effects of good wine, good apps and good surroundings took hold, our rhythm was slowing down along with the restaurant''s. We shared a bridal bouquet of butter lettuce, house vinaigrette, cherry tomatoes and chives--a salad that makes you dream of shrinking down to bug size so you can hop around on the fluffy leaves. When the entrées arrived, we were right where we needed to be.
Sweet Thing ordered Alaskan Halibut, which was a special that night. It sat atop scrumptious au gratin potatoes, bathed itself in a great, simply made, white wine-based sauce that complemented it perfectly and was escorted by delicately prepared fresh seasonal vegetables. Lightly breaded tomatoes that had been roasted were like bits of exploding flavor, while ripe and lush caramelized onions added zip.
I had a pizza. I am completely aware of this joint''s competence with food... it is a continuance of the excellence achieved by chef/owners Sylvia Medina and Paulo Kautz at the old Taste, in Pacific Grove. But I was curious about the pizza. They are wood-fired, 11 inches in diameter. I opted for the three mushroom, caramelized onions, fennel and smoked mozzarella cheese version. That particular combination of ingredients riding on the CD-thin crust was intriguing and satisfying. Fresh fennel has a magnificent flavor and is not used enough in cooking. The sweet onions, sweetened further by the caramelizing, offset the smokiness of the mozzarella and the earthiness of the mushrooms. To accompany it, I selected a 250-milliliter (one third of a bottle... a great little wrinkle on wine service) jug of Morgan Syrah. The spicy, rich, heavily extracted, lush berry flavors of the Syrah danced the tango with my pizza.
We both savored every bite of what we managed to finish. Normally I would have pressed forward in an attempt to finish everything but this night was just rolling too smoothly to force anything. Never that big on leftovers, we were excited to be taking them from here... the crust on my pizza was a little underdone so it would be perfect after reheating in the oven the next day.
With a smoldering moon above and two completely mellow, happy lovebirds below, cruising to Sade''s seductive Lovers Rock, Carmel Valley Road was like the road to Oz. There''s no place like home, baby.