Thursday, October 24, 2002
Photo by: Randy Tunnell; Photo: No Tourist Trap: The Grill on Ocean Avenue is reason enough to return to the Great Tourist Way.
Alot of people who''ve lived here a long time will do just about anything to avoid Ocean Avenue. The tourists, the parking, the chain stores. It''s a point of pride-a block off Ocean, yes, but Ocean itself? We just don''t go there.
So it was with skeptical mien that I booked a table for four at The Grill on Ocean Avenue. Go ahead, I said-impress me.
The Grill looks like a lot of other Carmel joints: dark wood, cozy tables, fireplace, inviting bar. Wafting over the sound system, the same inoffensive ''70s muzak. But unlike some of the other bistro-style eateries, this place wasn''t empty. By 6pm on a Wednesday night, ten tables-almost half the restaurant-were filled. In today''s market, that''s more than pretty good, and it was my first tip that something tasty was going on behind those kitchen doors.
The Grill''s menu is a blend of early ''90s fusion and California bistro. Nothing you haven''t seen before in Napa, L.A. or even Pebble Beach. The dishes I sampled weren''t blow-your-socks-off unique. But they weren''t ordinary, either, and with rare exception, they tasted great. Really great. And I''ll take good taste over kooky innovation any day.
We ordered a la carte, as well as from the Sunset Dinner prix-fixe menu. I feel strongly that restaurants shouldn''t try to fob off yesterday''s lunch or second-string entrees on an unsuspecting Early Bird diner. At The Grill, the Sunset Dinner-appetizer, entree and dessert for $21.50-held up to the twice-as-expensive a la carte option. It''s definitely the way to go. Just remember, you have to get your order in by 6pm.
One caveat: Some of the appetizers that do not appear on the Sunset Dinner menu are worth shelling out for. The Wood Grilled Portabella Mushroom and Polenta ($8.75) came ladled over a mixed green salad, with a dollop of warm, oozy goat cheese and a bouquet of roasted red peppers. The mushroom slices were hearty and redolent with olive oil and garlic; the polenta was nicely crisped; the whole was scrumptious.
Another winning appetizer is Asian Crab Cakes ($10.75), two very crabby, plump baubles sitting pretty on a bed of mango chutney, surrounded by generous portions of two sauces: a gentle mango, and a spicy Anise-flavored hoisin barbecue. Lots of flavor. Lots of fun.
A Warm Spinach and Duck Salad ($11.50) continued the accent on bold flavors and hearty, meaty centerpieces. The duck had been smoked and then sauteed, and was covered with sauteed wild mushrooms, pinenuts, and wilted spinach leaves slathered in ginger soy vinaigrette. The only complaint is that the dish was so hearty-fairly bursting with succulent duck meat-that it did more than tease our appetite; it came close to satiating it.
The Sunset Dinner comes with a choice of soup or salad. We chose the salad, and it was lovely-crisp Carmel Valley mixed greens in a citrus-soy Asian-style vinaigrette (one of three dressing choices). Not for the faint-hearted.
That brings up another point. This chef loves citrus. And soy. And mango. They show up, in various combinations, throughout the menu. I happen to love the taste, but if you''re a heavy-cream-and-green-peppercorns kind of person, you may find yourself grumbling.
On to the main courses. The Sunset Dinner eaters in my party chose the Black Angus Bistro Steak and the Pacific Salmon. Both were delicious. The steak came smothered in an au jus and wild-mushroom sauce (nice and light), accompanied by garlic mashed potatoes and sauteed summer vegetables. The salmon was served with roasted red potatoes, red peppers, and a delicious tower of sauteed spinach. Garlic was everywhere, in unstinting proportion-yum.
The Filet Mignon with Cracked Black Pepper Crust, plucked from the a la carte menu, was indeed delicious. Yes, it''s a better cut of meat than the Bistro Steak, and yes, the Roquefort cheese melting into its crust was mouthwateringly good, but it came with the same roasted potatoes and sauteed spinach as the Sunset Dinner, yet cost $25.50 all by itself. I''m not faulting the restaurant for this in any way-it''s just a tip to wallet-watchers who are able to dine early. Heck, if someone else is paying, I''ll go for the Filet Mignon.
The only dish I didn''t care for was the Pan-Roasted California Sea Bass (not endangered). I thought the Cajun spice rub overpowered the gentle mango puree sauce.
A word about service here: Our waitress on my first visit was so gracious, so accommodating, that I had to come back a second time to see whether it was just her. It wasn''t. The Grill''s waitstaff is pleasant, well-informed, patient and not overly familiar. On my first visit, the waitress crossed out my order twice without batting an eye, and went outside to tell a smoking diner that her appetizer was ready, should she care to step inside. (I contrast that with another restaurant where the waiter served the entree while customers were in the ladies'' room.) On my second visit, the waiter re-seated us out of a draft, brought an extra sauce for the steak, and rustled around in the kitchen to find a substitute dessert for the Sunset Dinner, just because I asked for it. The Grill''s staff acts as if they''re honored by the customer''s presence, rather than the other way around.
And that dessert he rustled up, the mango mousse cake, brought smiles to everyone. It''s light, tangy, buttery, and the colors look great on the plate: yellow sauce, white cake, orange mango layer, red strawberries and a brace of bright green mint leaves. A shot of espresso-dark, rich, and sugary-completed a very satisfying meal. On Ocean Avenue, of all places.