Thursday, December 1, 2005
Oh, this is going to be difficult. And yet it’s going to be so easy.
Difficult because a lot could be written about Stokes Restaurant—I am going to run out of space. Easy because I have eaten many meals at Stokes, I love it, and I will enjoy telling you why.
I could begin with a montage of memorable meals I have enjoyed there, or of parties in the magnificent upstairs banquet room. But I won’t.
I could begin with the menu itself, which is a brilliant example of California creativity built on the Mediterranean cuisine of Spain, Southern France and Northern Italy, created by Chef Brandon Miller. Or I could begin with Chef Brandon’s own story, with his roots cooking lobster in San Francisco, and his apprenticeship with the novellas cuisine master Georges Blanc…or with the equally compelling story of owner Kirk Probasco, who learned his craft at the Rio Grill, Pacific’s Edge at The Highlands Inn, and Tra Vigne, in St. Helena, where he befriended Chef Brandon. But I won’t.
I feel that it would be more appropriate to begin with the history of the place itself—because that history matters. I will keep it short.
Dr. James Stokes was a peculiarly peripatetic man. In addition to maintaining a thriving practice as a physician, he was a grocer and a bon vivant—his home, which now houses the restaurant, was the center of Monterey’s social life from the 1840s forward. He went on to become the mayor of Monterey, and—more to the point—he built, in his adobe, a fabulous oven.
There is a different oven there now, a beautiful, wood-burning edifice that the chef uses to do wonderful things with pizza, chicken, pork and fish. So the history of the place lives. And no history of Stokes would be complete without mentioning that there is a ghost, named Hattie, who allegedly haunts the place.
Fast forward 100 years, to 1950. That’s when the building was transformed, by a man named Gallitsin Powers, into one of the most popular restaurants on the West Coast. In a city with more than its share of famous restaurants, Stokes Restaurant was the first.
Yet I am not suggesting that you go to Stokes for its history. There are many other reasons.
Let’s begin, again, with the place. Even before you walk in the door, Stokes is impressive for its warmth. The historic downtown location, the massive oak out front, the wooden-framed, balconied, pink-stained stuccoed adobe façade, all promise a special evening. Inside, Stokes offers several rooms, all supremely comfortable.
But the real reason to go there is for what happens after you are seated.
I will tell two short stories about eating at Stokes. I will keep them short.
First: We have long made it a habit to go to Stokes for weekday dinners, when one thing or another has made it impossible to go home and cook. On these occasions, we will start, sometimes, with the escabeche ($4.95), a Spanish preparation of Monterey Bay sardines that, in the chef’s hands, is sublime. We will often also get a salad of radicchio and endive with grapefruit, chevre and candied walnuts ($8.75), which is like beginning a meal with desert, but healthier.
Sometimes, we will improvise entrées out of tapas like the duck confit, served with spinach in a vinaigrette ($12.50), and the seared ahi with lentil salad and mustard seed aioli ($5.25). But if we’re hungry, my sweetheart will get the onglet steak (from Bradley Ranch, $23.90), served with tarragon béarnaise and (this time of year) grilled winter vegetables, and being a man, I will eat pork—right now it’s a crispy Niman Ranch pork shoulder, with celery root gratin and sautéed chard ($23.95); other times it’s thick Niman Ranch pork chops ($21.95).
Always, we choose our wine from Stokes’ remarkable wine list, which includes an excellent array of local, French and Italian bottles, and a fine selection of Spanish wines, which we adore. (Ask your waitperson for guidance, it’s a worthwhile adventure.)
We do this enough that I could go on at length, but space is running short.
Second story: Last year, my sweetheart’s cousin and her husband came to visit. These are cultured, well-traveled people. We took them to Stokes because we knew it would be a comfortable place to talk.
The cousin got the steak, her beaux got the pork chops. I had duck in pomegranate sauce ($24.25), with oven-roasted root vegetables and an amazing kale gratin. My sweetie got the oven-roasted chicken ($19.50), which came with some kind of nearly magical balsamic-reduction barbecue sauce.
Everyone in the extended family has since heard about the meal and the fabulous restaurant. That’s how good the food was.
Damn—I don’t have room to talk about dessert…
STOKES RESTAURANT & BAR500 Hartnell St., Monterey | 373-1110