Thursday, January 19, 2006
In a comfortable corner of the impeccable Bistro Giovanni, Lionel Ritchie quietly sums up my appreciation for the Dijon Salmon ($19.95) nicely, singing, “Do it to me one more time…” With a homemade five-spice crust so light it seems impossible, unique dijon zing, and silky texture, each bite, well, did it to me.
But the many charms of Bistro Giovanni started singing long before the entrées, beginning with the classy ambiance. The former Carmel Bistro (taken over by owner Firok Shield in July) is appointed nicely with soft earth tones, a wine rack loaded with Tuscan wines and private Da Giovanni bottles, and an eight-seat bar. Welcoming restaurant manager Dave Brown (“You’re among friends,” he says with a casual certainty) takes Alex and I to a seat along the window on San Carlos where tassled, gold-threaded pillows add extra comfort.
The tomato tapanade and fresh-baked sourdough bread from the Palermo Bakery are early indicators that Firok still insists on cutting no corners with his sequel to the overflowingly popular Café Giovanni. (Firok just goes by Firok—when you’re the Pelé of Carmel eating, you can drop the last name.) It’s fresh, it’s sun-dried sweet, it’s alive with a tingle of garlic, it’s smooth with the richness of a secret top-quality imported virgin olive oil. And it’s almost immediately in need of a refill. (It’s also a hint why Firok had to turn away up to 40 customers every evening at the old Da Giovanni, upstairs on Lincoln between 5th and 6th, which inspired the new restaurant and its nimble variations on Da Giovanni’s dishes.)
The tapenade also nearly precludes a pick from the list of appetizers, which reflect Firok’s diverse culinary influences—Firok, who says his father was Turkic and his mother half-Greek, half-Sicilian, has worked closely with his chef Gabriel Hernandez to help master recipes of his grandmother and mother. The starters include Dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with seasoned ground lamb with a hint of mint and tzatziki yogurt cream sauce, $8.95) and Gamberetti al Pompodori (fresh prawn sautéed in roma tomatoes, garlic, basil, baby artichoke hearts, olive oil and pancetta, $11.95). We’re happily stumped on what to order.
We chose the Carpaccio ($8.95), earning a nod of approval from our server, Sufiane, who’s a portrait of old-school hospitality. The paper-thin slices of filet mignon are perfectly tender, with the full flavor really coming alive with a burst of salty capers, extra virgin olive oil and squirt of fresh lemon.
Meanwhile, Alex and I are belly-button deep in the list of roughly 50 Tuscan and Super Tuscan bottles, the 17 Da Giovanni labels, and 100 some-odd other bottles, which range from $35 to $800. Sufian keys us into a by-the-glass solution: a light and dry house Chianti ($8.50) for Alex and a Da Gionvanni Pinot Noir for me ($9). With the filet, it’s tongue-melting stuff.
Lionel serenades as Sufian shows knowing patience through the 20 minutes it takes to make the not-so-“Easy Like Sunday Morning” decision on dinner items: Bistro Ribs (which come recommended by Ray Napolitano, $26)? Homemade spinach and artichoke raviolis ($15.95)? The seared ahi with pinapple mango salsa special ($21.95)? Each dish seems to whisper: “Hello, Is It Me You’re Lookin’ For?”
Alex selects the Pasta Pescetori ($23.95), and dives into a kaleidiscope of flavors. The mussels are tender, the sizable prawns are the right texture, the halibut’s beautiful, the salmon and clams solid; meanwhile, the white wine, olive oil and garlic sauce makes the linguini dish very good—keep some fresh sourdough around for dipping. A glass of Da Giovanni Chardonnay ($9) enhances the swirl of flavor.
I’d poach more of Alex’s pasta but I can’t get enough of Firok’s Salmon Dijon, which comes atop luxuriously creamy mashed potatoes, with asparagus on the side, and an electric (tasting and looking) green garlic glaze snaking in and through the just-sassy-enough dijon sauce. I realize I’m quietly singing “Stuck On You” to the salmon.
Dave stops by to check on our happiness, as does Firok himself. They receive contented smiles and assurances that they’ve accomplished their goal of creating a complete experience.
The satisfaction brings me back for a take-out test of a Bistro Giovanni Rib ($8.95 appetizer). Much like the growing Firok dynasty, the fork-tender, boneless short ribs are up to the legend, with a sweet, dynamic sauce that should have a street named after it. In short, they simply leave my taste buds “Dancing On the Ceiling.”