Thursday, June 12, 2008
Between the sparkling setting and the prominent chef, the distinguished wine list and the superlative service, the ingredients for greatness are certainly there at TusCA Ristorante, which just celebrated a year of seasonally inspired Italian-Californian cuisine.
But that didn’t stop Executive Chef Mark Ayers, who somehow mans the helm at sister restaurant Pacific’s Edge, too, from adding a few more.
He’s decided to feature one or two local ingredients each month, at their peak freshness and availability. Ayers sees it as a natural extension of the master plan he started mapping out for the restaurant around two years ago, with “seasonal” as a fundamental philosophy.
“We wanted to do a little bit more,” Ayers says. “The [monthly ingredients] keeps us having to evolve.”
At a media dinner in May, the two stars of the month were fresh morel mushrooms and a wild onion-looking leek called a ramp. (“The G.M. thought I was creating vegetables,” Ayers allows.)
The morels– meaty, flavorful and uniquely textured– starred in some silly-good white asparagus soup and a mushroom ravioli with three types of pasta shells, three different types of mushrooms minced inside, and three more different styles of ’shrooms on top, all in a beautiful butter sauce; the ramps appeared caramelized on pizzas, grilled on the raviolis and rambunctious in a salty lobster risotto. (The service, meanwhile, was some of the best I’ve enjoyed in any season, and the paired wines– an ’06 Alois Lageder Pinot Grigio from Vigneti delle Dolomiti, Italy; an ’04 Ventana Due Amici; and an ’03 Chianti Riserva from Tuscany’s Palladio among them– were sublime.)
Ayers finalizes his next set of ingredients mid-month after conversing with local growers and bouncing ideas around with his staff. He adds that he and his chefs enjoy the creative side of things and that the kitchen staff and servers enjoy the changes.
“It keeps us fresh in more ways than one,” he says.
For June, Team TusCA is deploying cipollini onions and Castroville artichokes in no fewer than 10 new dishes (Ayers is eyeing stone fruit for July). “Everybody has their all-time favorite vegetable,” Ayers says. “The artichoke is one of mine.”
The new items will include ’choke smoked in a risotto dish, chilled and marinated on its own, served as part of an bruschetta with roasted garlic and tomatoes, delivered on pizzas, and roasted with rendered pancetta to make a ragout to pour over veal (“Veal and bacon together is kind of almost cheating,” Ayers says, “but it’s good.”)
One other monthly addition is on the docket, as well: a new wine dinner series called “Taste of TusCA” and billed as “a new, casual and lively, monthly wine-tasting event program featuring renowned regional wineries, inspired food pairings and interactive presentations by local experts and purveyors.”
J. Lohr will be the featured winery for June, and its reps will work with Ayers to come up with delicious dance partners for the wine. Given the pattern, it’s safe to expect some rewarding culinary collaboration, this month and for months to come.
TASTE OF TUSCA takes place 5:30–7:30pm Thursday, June 26, at TusCA Ristorante, Hyatt Regency Monterey Resort & Spa on Del Monte Golf Course, 1 Old Golf Course Road, Monterey. $30. 372-1234.