Thursday, December 8, 2011
It might be the best way to pass time in line at the grocery store. It also provides insights into a stranger’s stomach, if not her soul. It is one of my favorite personality evaluations that I can conduct without the tedious demands of a doctorate in psychology.
It’s the shopping cart test. The fact that the rocker in front of you got dairy-free, soy-free, mocha coconut ice cream is informative. The mound of garlic with the hairy armpitted girl shepherds an insight. Same for the Schlitz. And so on.
Over the last week, I took the test to new amplitude, attempting to apply it to wider Monterey County. Here’s what landed in my basket, from the world-class to the weird, the unique to the uniquely surprising, all of it local and all of it drawn from the last eight days:
1. Époisses De Bourgogne Cheese
It was like the epicurean edition of The Knights of the Round Table, the X Men of Entrees, The Rat Pack of Restaurants: Cal Stamenov (Marinus), Tony Baker (Montrio), Brandon Miller (Mundaka), Dory Ford (AquaTerra), Terry Teplitzky (Wild Thyme), Jonathan Roberts (PigWizard), Jerome Viel (Will’s Fargo), Jerry Regester (C Restaurant), Matt Bolton (Pacific’s Edge), Mark Ayers (Coastal Luxury), Tim Wood (Carmel Valley Ranch), Kirk Larsen (Carmel Valley Manor) and Cy Yontz (Rio Grill).
Last Monday they rallied to the new Santa Fe room at Yontz’s Rio (625-5436) to continue a tradition started by Kent Torrey of The Cheese Shop (625-2272). The tradition: Wine. Cheese. Chefs. Torrey had to bail, but he still dropped off a one-kilo wheel of gooey Époisses de Bourgogne and a magnum of 1999 La Mondotte. The Wizard brought cured meats. Baker brought bacon. Each chef brought a prized cellar wine – Heitz, Dominus and Dunn among them. Yontz did mini chanterelle pies and pulled pork quesadillas and a foie gras ollaberry bites. And everyone simply hung.
“We never see each other at the festivals,” Torrey says. “We work for 18 hours, grab a beer and say goodnight.”
A report from the gathering reads like an Us Weekly “scoop”: “Chefs! They’re just like us! They eat! They drink! They f*** with each other!” Oh, and they start shaving white truffles and talking porcini mushroom hunting and unspooling tales of telling the cop the horse trailer being towed is filled with English pork.
2. Canned Cheesy Burger Macaroni
At Pacific Meadows Retirement Community off of Carmel Valley Road, you don’t expect to see sparkling new solar arrays laid on every roof. Another surprise awaits, and the news isn’t as sunny: Food Bank for Monterey County delivers to around 50 individuals here every week.
The fact that Carmel retirees need food aid provides a valuable reminder of who gets hit by goofy government priorities and tough economic times. Fortunately last Friday they also got a bag stocked with pinto beans, white rice, spaghetti and eight canned foods ranging from peaches to cheesy burger macaroni. Sacks of oranges came for each as well, as did a bag of frozen chicken leg quarters.
The Food Bank famously provides big bang for the buck: Thanks to clever partnerships and supreme hustle, every dollar donated translates to $8 of food stuffs. Their good work is all the more meaningful during the holidays. Now is Monterey County Gives! season too, meaning it’s time to visit www.montereycountygives.com to scroll through 95 nonprofits sharing their “Big Ideas” with you through Dec. 31.
3. Sidewalk Musicians
Last time I went to Jacks Restaurant (649-2698) in Monterey’s Portola Hotel, the food was excellent, even as the service bordered on strange, especially given the ghost-town crowd. It wasn’t just slow, it was resistant to our requests.
The pattern persisted Friday night. The pretty place was near deserted. The small gnocchi app ($8), steamed littleneck clams with pancetta and garlic bread ($8), basil-crusted Pacific sole ($19) and braised short ribs ($24) all worked well, especially the sole. But the service bordered on, and crossed into, the bizarre – not because our server and busser seemed barely more than 30 combined, but because the GM sent three scruffy dudes who looked like they had spent the last week awake and outside to our booth. While one of them wandered around the dining room, another plucked a version of “What a Wonderful World” on guitar and a third spacily thumped his ukulele like a drum.
4. Crispy Potato Pancake
Come Sunday some people like nothing more than to read the N.Y. Times. Not me. I like literature like the Red House Cafe brunch menu (643-1060).
There’s cinnamon raisin brioche French toast with homemade orange marmalade butter ($10.50), grilled cheese with fontina, artichoke hearts, roasted red bell peppers and Kalamata olive aioli on sourdough ($10.95) and a goat-cheese-and-basil-stuffed portabello mushroom sandwich ($10.50). The setting, whether on the hometown P.G. sidewalk, the cute Victorian porch or the corner seats in a sunbeam, is tasty itself.
In short, I would fear eating here with someone who doesn’t like to share. One taste just isn’t enough, as orders of the crab cake benedict on an open-faced croissant ($13.95) and the smoked salmon a thin potato pancake indicated.
Both plates popped. This spot belongs on the shortest of Sunday brunch lists.
5. Monterey Bay Sardines
It’s getting more common to see things like Cachagua General Store’s “rabbit five ways” on menus, but you won’t see this “sardines two ways” anywhere. The first treatment: raw and dropped from the rafters. The second: crusted and fried on Caesar panna cotta.
That was only fitting for an unprecedented Tag-A-Giant fundraising dinner at Passionfish (655-3311) Saturday, where winning bidders got a kick out of watching bluefin tuna shove one another’s muscular shapes aside over the dropped sardines at the most advanced tuna-tank facility on our oceanic Earth (Hopkins) before going ga-ga over Ted Walter’s 12-course line up of feisty pomegranate-ginger oysters, absurd squash custard-Dungeness crab bites and revelatory rock-shrimp pepper stew. Also revelatory: the fresh wines from spots like Ryme and Lail, and what tuna master/Stanford prof Barbara Block had to say about our oceans. Looking back at the bid I made to earn one of 12 pairs of chairs at the dinner, I can’t help but feel lucky – there are wine tastings that clear $250 at Pebble Beach Food & Wine, and a Stanford semester runs about $20K in tuition. We got a bit of both for $301 (winning bids ranged from $300 to $600). Bet you a seat next year’s dinner’s gonna run a little spendier. Visit the blog, www.mcweekly.com/edible, for photos and much more.
6. Maine Scallops
Sierra Mar’s superstar chef one-two of Craig Von Foerster and Matt Millea indulge diners with no fewer than three trios, and that’s just from the course-one choices. (The menu there changes daily, with four killer courses for $110.)
The foie gras three ways includes seared, créme brulée and terrine treatments. Then there are the wonderlands Weekly contributor Gabriel Skvor and I tabbed, the Maine diver scallop and ahi tuna tartare triple preparations.
The scallop stairway to heaven, in order of increasing incredibleness: grilled just so with a vibrant caper salsa verde; perched on glorious potato puree and drizzled with truffle vinaigrette; and lavished with a grain mustard and smoked bacon cream sauce. I almost could’ve walked away happy there – and the three little towers look as good as they taste.
Melt-in-your-mouth doesn’t seem to do the ahi justice, as it arrives with its three surreally subtle touches of yuzu and wasabi; sesame and orange zest; and knock-your-socks-off sea salt-quail egg.
From there, butter beans and spicy wild arugula frolick with rich foraged porcinis and chunks of pancetta in a mushroom salad. Pernod-poached oysters nestle into the top of a picture-perfect line-caught red snapper surrounded by Champagne-caviar butter. The Liberty duck comes two ways, a crispy but light confit with braised radicchio and a seductive roast breast cut with lentils and porcini. A milk chocolate banana tart with banana brulee and caramel ice cream – which deserves its own theme song – closed the climactic sequence.
Still, a meal out can’t approach impeccable without seamless service. Fourteen year-vet Matt Henault had all the right answers and some Highway 1 stories only locals can truly appreciate. GM/sommelier Wanda Straw guided us through wine pairings that at turns somehow tingled tastebuds higher and at others balanced flavors uncannily well. It was Millea, though, who prepped a stunning touch with a lobster consommé poured tableside just because Skvor mentioned he loved it when he tried it way back when.
That kind of thoughtfulness is something that we can all think on as we seed our shopping baskets with the unmatched tastes, treats and varying realities our swath of coastal California has to offer. And there’s no two ways about that.
•Fifi’s expansive Holiday Wine Tasting sips away 2:30-4:30pm Saturday, Dec. 10 ($25, 372-5325). For the uninitiated: Fifi’s does almost criminal deals on wowser wines. So the limited space here will go fast. Go go go.
• Sweet souiee. This Friday, Dec. 9, Chef Jason Balestrieri of Cantinetta Luca (625-6500) presents the fourth La Maialata: Celebration of the Pig with a special one-night-only menu. The guy is silly good on a daily basis with salume, prosciutto-pumpkin ravioli and all sorts of pork. Look for the special occasion to ramp up flavor even fatter.
• Serendipity Farms’ Jamie Collins quietly put together an underground farmers market a while back, and now she’s revisiting the concept with an inaugural art and food fair at the Barnyard with all her farmer, artist and specialty food pals – think charcuterie, chard, ceramics, jewelry, honey and wine tasting, sold by the people that made or grew them – 4-10pm Thursday, Dec. 15.
•Here’s a new goal: “raising cocktail awareness.” That’s the stated aim at LALLApalooza (645-9036) 6-8pm Tuesday, Dec. 13, when they’re doing a cocktail contest co-starring local bartenders, ingredients procured from the Old Monterey Farmers Market plus flavored Stoli’s flavored vodkas.
• Toys for Tots, sweets for you. Drop by Esteban (375-0176), perhaps during one of the better happy hours in town (5-7pm daily), donate a toy and get a free dessert.
• Menu movements: A new lineup lands at TusCA at the Hyatt (372-1234) Dec. 12: Crab stuffed piquillo peppers, beef carpaccio pizza and such. They’re also doing fancy cheese flights. Kula Ranch (883-9479), meanwhile, has a weekday 4-6pm early bird deal doin’ with a choice of things like panko-crusted sanddabs, fish tacos, Molokai stir fry or Nuuanu Pali sirloin steak for $11.95.
• Not that Andre Lengacher of Lugano’s Swiss Bistro (626-3779) does anything small, but the gingerbread houses up at the restaurant make Santa look scrawny.
• “Food,” Fran Lebowitz said, “is an important part of a balanced diet.