Thursday, July 12, 2007
For too long, the Hyatt Regency Monterey languished like an aging hipster with a ‘70s wardrobe. Recent renovations, though, are redeeming and have resulted in the April opening of TusCA, a Tuscan-Californian fusion restaurant.
When it comes to restaurants, independent creative efforts are a beautiful thing, and on the Peninsula, so is the polar opposite, where corporate hotels offer some of the best dining and entertainment around. Monterey’s Hyatt also houses the sports bar Knuckles, and the Fireplace Lounge. I decided that a great evening would be billiards at Knuckles, followed by a cocktail and jazz in the Lounge, then dinner at TusCA. That’s what some friends and I did last Friday.
Phase One: I’ll spare you the details of the night I cleared a pool table in one series of shots; this night was more typical of my spotty skills. Knuckles is a lot of fun and among the many plasma screens, a new panel converts from one large screen to four smaller screens depending on the games at hand.
Phase Two: The Fireplace Lounge has been smart about booking great jazz for years, and the current featured duo of drummer Dr. David Thomas Morwood and pianist Marshall Otwell is sizzling. At no charge, it’s a gift to the community as far as I’m concerned. Add to that the TusCA pizza, antipasto and “cheese flight” offerings, and the Lounge is good for hours of unrelenting pleasure.
The bar has an open wall with a view into TusCA, and there are all sorts of options for enjoying this flowing expanse, all open and visible, yet private due to the spaciousness—indoor, outdoor, and varied. The Lounge and TusCA are naturally lit from windows overlooking the Del Monte Golf Course.
An earthy color palate, soft-finished wood surfaces, and harmonious lines wrap around guests like a spa. A lovely wine cellar of glass encloses a “wine room” with one table situated between the bar and restaurant. A “chef’s table” occupies one end of TusCA; a private room occupies the other end. Small groups can reserve these areas.
Phase Three: The indoor-outdoor design and gleaming exhibition kitchen in TusCA give every seat something to look at. No one has to sit staring at a wall. TusCA’s sociable manager Tom Willard says that Executive Chef Mark Ayers of the Hyatt’s Highlands Inn (Pacific’s Edge and California Market) holds the same position at TusCA.
The striking thing about the menu is how reasonable the prices are for the luxurious setting. The most expensive entrée is sirloin steak at $21, with most entrees in the teens. Pizza costs $10 or $11, pasta $14 to $16.
So much is right about TusCA. Great design. Excellent service. Martinis and wines by the glass are poured at the table. Nice touches, like roasted garlic with warm bread and an entire bottle of olive oil so I can soak my bread like a bacchanalian fool, are also appreciated.
With a little help from the exceptional staff, my friends, and two visits, I tried two salads, two soups, two pizzas, four entrees, and two desserts. The food was not hit-and-miss, but hit-and-not-so-hit.
The hits were the English pea soup with roasted porcini mushrooms ($7)—fresh peas with a hint of ginger, and the mushrooms impart a distinctive flavor. Tuscan white bean soup ($16) was chunky and jazzed up with fennel sausage. The oxtail pappardelle ($16) was a favorite, with a rich brown sauce.
Put two people and a pizza together anywhere and you’ve got a controversy, so I wasn’t surprised that one developed here. We agreed on the fine quality of the cheese, the desirable thin crust, and even the chewy nature of the crust. The sauce was quite sweet, unnaturally so to me, but I was out-voted.
Expensive ingredients like porcini and morel mushrooms and labor-intensive processes like fumet and handmade sausage make the food a good value, but I’d prefer to see simpler preparations done well. An uncomplicated item like roasted chicken ($16) was acceptable, but not remarkably moist, tender or flavorful—not why I pay to go to a restaurant. “Cacciucco,” ($17) a fish stew with a marinara sauce with lemon, lacked the texture and flavor of kitchen mastery.
Apricot bread pudding with marscapone cheese ($7) was an expertly crafted dessert. A trio of vanilla, chocolate and caramel-pecan gelato ($5)—TusCA gets their gelato from Gelatomania in Santa Cruz—also disappeared quickly.
All in all, the evening was a great success of one-stop entertainment shopping—TusCA and the Fireside Lounge have all of the elements necessary to be highly popular with locals as well as visitors. While the kitchen deserves some time to find its groove, Ayers can certainly make it happen, as he has proven at two worthy restaurants.
TusCA Hyatt Regency Monterey, 1 Old Golf Course Rd., Monterey. • 6:30am-2pm, 5:30pm-10pm daily. • 372-1234.