Thursday, September 2, 2010
You can find great Jewish delicatessens in New York, and there’s Canter’s in Los Angeles, but most everywhere else that “deli” appears above the door, the proprietors are clueless about what the word means – at least to this former Big Apple denizen.
That said, anyone who goes to eat at the DownUnder Deli in the Mid-Valley Center on Carmel Valley Road will not to be disappointed. OK, we’re not talking kosher like the rabbi used to bless, but we are talking good food.
We went on a Tuesday, when the daily special was lamb stew. But the last serving had been taken by a local who apparently comes in weekly for the pleasure of it. The staff snuck me a taste of it on request. Not to go overboard, but it was unequivocally the most delicious lamb stew I’ve ever had.
Lamb stew is not a complicated dish if you know what you’re doing, but just as so few delis deserve the name, that’s how many chefs know how to make good lamb anything, especially lamb stew or shepherd’s pie (which DownUnder also serves on occasion).
Vanessa Jager is one of those renowned chefs. It’s her mother’s recipe – how many times have we heard that one? – and bless ’em both… with special credit to the daughter for a touch of nutmeg.
Vanessa is the Aussie wife of Aussie Tom. You might know of them from their previous incarnation at Duffy’s Tavern up by the Presidio a number of years back. They had to leave for reasons that many leasers are familiar with, but they subsequently found themselves with a marvelous gig up in Napa County. Until, well… doesn’t matter – the restaurant business is a tough one – ’cause they’re back and treating us appreciative locals to delightful repasts.
DownUnder serves breakfast and lunch during the week, with a variety of daily specials and a barbecue dinner on Wednesdays. It might be ribs or salmon or tri-tip, served with a salad and dessert ($14.95); house wine is only $3 a glass.
The restaurant seats around 12 inside and eight outside. It appears, too, that a lot of people come in for takeout. One can imagine folks heading back down the valley after work, stopping to pick up dinner and being intoxicated by olfactory scintillation all the way home.
For those who eschew the Pop-Tart level of breaking fast, DownUnder makes a great stop on the commute back out in the morning. The menu includes Bubble and Squeak, an Australian take on scrambled eggs and veggies ($5.95); a breakfast burrito made with corned beef hash and potatoes and eggs along with a choice of bacon, sausage or ham ($5.50); and baked beans on toast with two eggs on top and sliced tomato on the side ($5.50). Plus there are the traditional breakfast sandwiches, croissants, bagels and doughnuts.
For the lunch crowd, there’s a fine selection of sandwiches along with the specials. In addition to a French dip (made with beef, of course), they have a sheep dip made with house-roasted Australian lamb ($7.50). There are also options like an albacore tuna salad sandwich, a garden vegetable with hummus and a turkey melt. The prices mostly range from $6 to $10, and for a buck you can add an excellent broccoli salad, cole slaw, fresh fruit salad or other accoutrements. Try the Asian noodle salad, which is different and better than you might expect, probably because of the cilantro.
DownUnder also makes good-sized burgers, which they serve with baked fries ($8.75-$12.95). Soups and chili are served up in cups ($2.95-$3.95), and bowls arrive with garlic bread ($5.95-$6.95). The salad bar offers a pleasingly wide assortment of the exceedingly fresh items you’d expect, plus extras like marinated artichoke hearts and baby corn ($3.95/small; $6.95/large).
Both the meat pie ($5.50) and the sausage roll ($4) were a surprise, simple and properly spiced. While they are usually served warm, they are also delicious cold; perfect if you’re on the run.
You might think that such a stop – a shopping center eatery between here and there – might just be a practical spot for commuters. Or a good place to stock up for a long hike into the hills. Yes, both of those, but it’s also a great choice if you need to get away from your desk on the Peninsula, especially to escape the (relative) briskness swirling under the marine layer that has socked in the coast. The food and sun at DownUnder will warm you up, or at least steel you, for the afternoon labors, and it’s only 15 minutes from downtown Monterey.
You might score points with a client by taking her here to lunch and buying her a glass from an impressive selection of Australian and Monterey County wines. They’re $4 to $7, and only one bottle in the sizeable cooler was over $20. “What a perspicacious gustatory choice,” she may think, as she readies her pen to sign your contract.
But whether the mission is picnic or strictly business, you can feel the sense of professionalism when you walk in. You know that these folks are as serious about their food as they are smart about the food biz. They have high hopes, and that attitude flavors their work as it feeds their appreciative customers. Vanessa and Tom are here for the long term, to our considerable pleasure.