Thursday, November 6, 2003
Photo by Jane Morba: Masterful: Chef Cal Stamenov has guided Bernardus Lodge''s Marinus to the top of the Zagat Guides''s 2004 list.
If Cal Stamenov--executive chef of a burgeoning group of Carmel Valley restaurants that includes Marinus and Wickets at Bernardus Lodge, The Covey and Edgar''s at Quail Lodge, and Will''s Fargo--is not at the top of his game, it will be interesting to see how much further he can go.
The 2004 San Francisco Bay Area Zagat Restaurant Guide has given Marinus a score of 29 out of 30 possible points for food, tied only with Gary Danko in San Francisco. That makes Marinus one of Zagat''s two top restaurants for food in 11 counties. Only three restaurants in the Bay Area received 28 food-points: French Laundry and La Toque in Napa, and Masa''s in San Francisco. Christophe Grosjean, Marinus'' chef de cuisine, shares the honor along with a staff of approximately 15 cooks (every one is a certified chef) plus three pastry chefs.
I''ve dined at Marinus several times, but now it was time to pay close attention. I forced a jacket onto my man at Monday Night Football half time and we set off for a spontaneous 8pm dinner. We braced our senses for the labor of scrutiny and recalled some of the award-winning disappointments we''ve faced in movies, music, food, and wine.
The food for both Marinus and Wickets (Bernardus'' bar/restaurant) is produced in a shared kitchen, where six breads are baked daily for both dining rooms. Marinus'' menu, and the venerable wine list of 1,800 wines (35,000 bottles), are available at Wickets as well. Under the careful stewardship of wine director Mark Jensen, this is one of California''s most extensive lists. By comparison, Pacific''s Edge has 1,700 wines, Casanova has 1,700, and Sardine Factory has 1,200.
Once inside Marinus'' dining room, there is no sense of current time or place. It''s a visit to the old country, if that term conjures a wine-producing region of Europe. It isn''t ornate, but the scale is grand--a 12-foot fireplace, the sweep of a prominent wine table, vaulted ceilings, a grid of windows overlooking seating on the garden terrace. Muted ochre walls, grape-cluster tablecloths, and fresh squash adorning the mantle evoke a contemporary California, wine-and-farm-country luxury, but the ambiance is rife with sumptuous nostalgia.
We were seated before the fire at the best table in the house on the only cool evening in October. It happened that no one had requested it, though the dining room was nearly full. The excellent service began immediately with a flurry of attendants that continued throughout the evening. One person took my coat, another offered three kinds of water (including Carmel Valley tap!); someone showed up with lemon or lime (one of each, please); our server, Jessi May, danced in and out of our private atmosphere; Laurie Petkus, one of three sommeliers, was called on several times; and another server delivered occasional dishes. We were the center of a generous universe.
The menu changes daily, yet Ms. May''s grasp of the dishes went beyond memorization of the ingredients--for example, she knew the origins of the seafood (I inquired about half of the eight seafood items because I prefer local fish). Such information may seem like a baseline for fine restaurants, but experience tells me such professionalism is remarkable.
The outstanding selection of 119 half-bottles enticed us to order one for first courses and one for second courses. After surveying the menu, we began with a favorite Champagne, Billecart-Salmon Brut Rose ($50), a non-vintage, medium-bodied blend of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier grapes. Marinus'' staff employed the European system of keeping guests'' tables uncluttered: wine bottles are kept on a separate table while a team effort ensures glasses are not empty.
An amuse bouche--a gift from the chef--of pureed heirloom tomato gazpacho with basil oil and crab appeared as we prepared to order familiar, local, seasonal items to best reveal the Marinus magic: Monterey Bay spot prawns and heirloom tomato salad. We bypassed dishes such as rare Hawaiian Bluefin tuna with Daikon radish and wasabi soy vinaigrette or yellow wax bean salad with duck leg civet ravioli and European chanterelle.
The prawns were perfectly seared and tender (not mushy, as they can be) and each bite introduced dazzling flavors from black truffle vinaigrette and lime-marinated vegetables including haricots verts (string beans), heirloom tomatoes, a bit of toasty garlic and a hint of mint. We nodded at each other appreciatively.
Slices of heirloom tomatoes decorated with thyme flowers were accompanied by a scoop of Maussane olive oil ice cream in pastry. The sweet ice cream enriched the equally sweet tomatoes, and a ribbon of basil puree with aceto balsamic vinegar brought the whole dish into a splendid four-part harmony. This is the stuff of excellence.
We asked Ms. Petkus to recommend a California Merlot in the Bordeaux style to go with cozy autumn entrees of Colorado lamb and veal Osso Buco. We rarely drink Merlot and have wanted to discover more that have firmer tannins, more wood, and complexity. Thus we came to try a half bottle of 1999 Shafer Merlot ($46) that met our desires very nicely.
The juicy lamb came both from the rack and from braised leg meat seasoned with rosemary in an heirloom tomato, with spinach and garlic crostini. The Osso Buco was braised to tenderness and served over roasted fall vegetables with natural jus and gremolata (a zesty Italian seasoning of lemon, garlic, and parsley. Again, each bite produced a variety of flavors that kept the dishes interesting.
Like Marinus'' decor, the California Contemporary cuisine isn''t overwrought, although I wouldn''t call it simple. It strikes an exceptional balance between reliance on intrinsic flavors and dynamic combinations of accenting flavors. This is the hallmark of the best "spa cuisine," which uses less cream and butter-based sauces. Regardless of health benefits and fashion, this seems to be the most rigorous form of culinary preparation, forcing chefs to find the best-farmed, plant-ripened produce and well-raised, well-fed livestock. Most of the organic produce comes from Bernardus Lodge''s own garden and Earthbound Farms.
No bread was served with the first courses. We were certain our meal was being meticulously managed so that bread would arrive when it would ideally further the progression of flavors we were experiencing, so we didn''t say anything. Probably between courses, we figured. Well, it never arrived. We know all the breads from many meals at Wickets and decided not to request it--after all, omitting bread helps maintain the spa figure. We thought our waitress might ask if we wanted more bread, or that perhaps, when she reached to scrape our crumbs, she might notice there weren''t any. But, no. I believe I solved the mystery as to why they didn''t get the full 30 points from Zagat.
But who needs bread when pastry chef Cameron Cardoza invented the Chocolate Tower for dessert? Imagine chocolate covered peanuts, chocolate crème brulee, rum-caramel bananas, and peanut butter ice cream with Scharfenberger chocolate. Surely, all of this will evaporate at the spa tomorrow.
You might guess the prices are not for the faint of wallet. Our bill totaled $150 without wine or tip. First courses cost $14 to $18, main courses cost $32 to $38, and prime beef cost $36 to $39. The "indulgence" category (foie gras, caviar, abalone, etc.) cost $18 to $38.
I was hoping at least one dish would be off in some way so I could sniff at the arbitrary nature of awards. But sometimes there is justice. Dining at Marinus was sublime, it brings prestige to Monterey County, and indeed raises the standard for Northern California dining.
415 Carmel Valley Rd., Carmel Valley
Open for dinner nightly, 6-10pm