Thursday, December 22, 2011
It’s not every day that you get to trash talk Thomas Keller.
But that’s what tastemaker Robert Weakley of Coastal Luxury Management (324-0771) did last week, after San Francisco Chronicle critic Michael Bauer posted a blog “Best dishes from the French Laundry [in] Yountville to 1833 in Monterey.” (The full 1833 review comes out Christmas Day.)
“We called Keller,” says Weakley, who co-owns Restaurant 1833 and works with Keller on Pebble Beach Food & Wine, “and told him, ‘Watch your back.’”
A singular line, surely, and one that fits into a unique year like 2011 nicely.
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It’s like the Niners getting Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Frank Gore in the same draft. Or getting to see your favorite artists – Willie Nelson, Bon Iver, Vermillion Lies and Tupac, perhaps? – in a single show. Like meeting your five best friends in one night.
In 2011, Monterey County found its best foodie supply store (by far), craft beer outlet (by farther) and arguably its three liveliest restaurant scenes, all in the space of just a few months.
Stone Creek Kitchen (393-1042) appeared in the former Clementine’s (392-1494) with little tubs of Tuscan salts and giant pans of signature paella, Carmel Valley olive oils and Mediterranean wines, take-home recipes and in-house cooking classes. Throw in endless preserves, kitchen tools and slick props and you have a can’t-miss spot to grab either a gourmet lunch from the stacked deli or a gift for a foodie friend. Post No Bills (324-4667) survived a baffled Seaside City Council – who rejected the craft beer lounge’s birth in its City Center out of fear of another Shadow Box – and landed in Sand City with eyecatching art, a huge stainless U bar and, oh, several hundred lovely small-batch sud brands.
1833 took a wildly ambitious aim (to wow for $20 or $800 a head) and an all-star roster (recruiting top Vegas and N.Y. talent) to hatch a game-changer worthy of Levi Mezick’s “crispy egg.” Il vecchio (324-4282) has authentic and affordable Italian flying from the kitchen and a thoroughly hip and happening feel occupying the beautifully salvaged-material space. Fellow Italian standout Vesuvio (623-7373), meanwhile, has shaved years off Carmel’s geriatric average with the only rooftop spot, with its splashy cocktails, comfy couches and a few firepits.
It’s a great ’11 gone by – before we even hit the kangaroo steaks and soy duck.
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Here was a menu you don’t see every day: antelope and alligator, llama and buffalo, shark and turtle, from $12.99 a pound (ostrich) to $150 (iguana). That’s just a peek at the legally farmed product in the freezer Gary Nana curates at Quality Market Liquor & BBQ Grill (424-1045) in East Salinas. (The alligator nuggets are tasty, the kangaroo a little rich and gamey.) It’s also a peek at the 2011 discoveries our team tasted. Dave Schmalz showed folks Schoch Family Farmstead (214-6760), where the curds are incredible, largely because, as cheesemaker Beau Schoch says, “my dad knows every cow, which ones milk fast or slow, which ones kick or lick.” Sara Rubin found grease-free taco truck El Rinconcito (750-4644) and Castroville’s Golden Field Greenhouses mastering the fickle fire of the ghost pepper, whether it sends its eaters to heaven or the hospital. Adam Joseph tracked down Diggitty’s tribute to tube meat in the Prunetree strip mall, Amanda Womack unearthed superb Hanabi Japanese (633-4262) in a Castroville hole and Nic Coury struck taco shack gold with Taqueria Hidalgo in Chualar (679-2384).
I dove into the wilderness to find the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center (659-2229) monk food well worth the trip by itself and sipped turtle soup in the swamp to see if the Nawlins legend was legit. I tried to turn locals onto Wubeez, the best wine glass polishing towels ever, from Sierra Mar server Robert Hendrickson (233-9635), and kept them tuned in as a bumper crop of tasting rooms fermented in Carmel Valley and Carmel proper, with Caraccioli, Figge, Tudor, Aiena, Chock Rock, Joyce, Holman Ranch, and Chesebro joining the swirl of nice spots. I now count 16 tasting rooms in the Valley and 10 by the sea. To me it feels like 11 new sipping spots appeared in ’11.
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Sure there was stuff like bacon-wrapped bacon and foie gras soup, but there was a lot more to sniff out at the year’s roster of food events like Pebble Beach Food & Wine, which thundered through year four with an unprecedented celeb chef collaboration called the Lexus Culinary Masters (Dean Fearing, Daniel Boulud, Christopher Kostow, Masaharu Morimoto, Michael Chiarello and Michael Symon), brighter Guy Fieri-style wattage than years previous and more after-parties than ever. Ben Spungin kicked off a tour-de-force-kind-of-year at the Chanterelle Cook Off (667-0241) by taking multiple taste titles with his chanterelle white chocolate mousse and fellow Bernardus star Cal Stamenov’s own unexplainable magic. Tene Shake took Most Creative and Best in Show at the Monterey Wine Festival’s (1-800-422-0251) chowder throwdown. Big Sur’s own F&W (869-1341) added more packed events, including a Magical Mystery Tour and a Wine & Swine blowout. Dressed as nuns, the Weekly team was prevented by an opposing sympathy vote from first place with its Oh My Goat (OMG) Chili From God at the Carmel Valley chamber’s contest. Cooking for Solutions (644-7561) broke records for attendance and ambition in year 10, pulling in minds like Raj Patel (Stuffed and Starved) and Anna Lappé (Diet for a Hot Planet).
Not all event news was delicious, though. Harvest Carmel parked the tractor after two inspired installments that starred everyone from Tyler Florence to WAR, and the 2011 chanterelle soiree will likely be Big Sur’s last. And not all happened around here. Monterey Beer Festival (521-7921) bros Jeff and Mark Moses rocked S.F. with a big ol’ Holiday Beer Fest. Cannery Row’s CLM team uncorked an inaugural L.A. Food & Wine three times the size of PBFW, starring a whole cast of local chefs and wineries, plus a bunch of truffle-infused roe.
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The area’s greats, meanwhile, didn’t sit on their saucepans – and managed to put Napa on notice. At Aubergine (624-8578), floor general A. Kay Musich and new chef Justin Cogley made few miss Christophe Grosjean as creations like Cogley’s foie-gras mousse helped the joint earn a number five Zagat rating among all eateries between here and… Napa. The Aquarium added one of, um, Napa’s biggest names in Cindy Pawlcyn to take its food to new oceanic depths of farm-fresh flavor. Elsewhere, Doris Day released a top-selling CD, at 87, as her Terry’s Lounge (624-3871) evolved its cocktail menu, and already saintly Passionfish (655-3311) hosted an unprecedented 12-course benefit for Tag-A-Giant and bluefin tuna.
New restaurants came in (mostly) tasty waves. Next door to a reinvigorated Mucky Duck (655-3031), Cabo Blue (920-1692) started serving nice tacos from Mama Chiqui. Down the block Caffe Trieste (241-6064) has earned an immediate following and neighboring Sushi Moto (646-1109) is making a go of it with creative, vegetable-laden maki.
Mando’s (920-1677) now keeps authentic Mexican alive in P.G. Pastries and Petals (620-1400) does carefully crafted cakes and impressive breakfast sandwiches in a tucked-away Carmel spot. Julia’s (656-9533) is cheffing up all vegan on Forest Hill. In Salinas, Salinas City Barbecue (758-2227)and XL Grindhouse (422-5500) are heading the other direction with fine grilled meats and massive burgers wedged between grilled cheese “buns,” respectively. Mom-and-pop Mundos Cafe (656-9244) does a little bit of lighter fare (portobello burger) and bold-and-heavy (the “squealing pig”) with its homemade sandwiches in North Monterey. Carmel Food Company (624-0300) deals refined Euro bistro fare in a cozy setting. A must for Francophile foodies, Provence Bakery (521-9459) has started doing lofty bakery tastes at a low-pro spot in Prunedale. Salumeria Luca (625-6500) gives its team another tasty tool to entertain tastebuds (see story, p. 52) and Corral De Tierra Market (484-5100) now does it own Americanized deli on Highway 68. The Vietnamese soup thickens, too, as Chopstix Two (372-BOBA) set up shop near Del Monte Center, Taste of Vietnam (394-8855) moved into Seaside and Bahn Mi Bar (384-6599) now delivers yum value with $3.50 Nam-style sandwiches in Marina. In the Barnyard, Món Chay Vietnamese Vegetarian Cuisine (622-7777) delivers fresh and leafy oomph – think crispy orange eggplant and herbed duck noodle ($7.50) with marinated soy “duck.”
More excitement: David Fink went toe to toe with Carmel residents over his tentatively titled What’s Your Beef burger joint and won the right to open it in Carmel Plaza. Even though our lawmakers in D.C. decided pizza is a vegetable, there is some sense happening at schools: AquaTerra Culinary, Earthbound Farm, MEarth and MPUSD’s Jenn Gerard made admirable in-roads, bringing farm-fresh fare – and even mini farmers markets – to local kids. Seafood Watch’s sustainable seafood guide debuted on smart phones, and Big Night Out at Belle established itself as our most dependable pop-up.
But enough about ’11. We’ve got reservations to make in ’12 – next week Edible looks at what might pop up. I predict it will be louder than this year. Thomas Keller, consider yourself warned.
• Edible took you behind the scenes as a farmers market “marketeer,” onto the track with the Napa Wine Train and into the heart of L.A. Food & Wine. Tour the most compelling columns of 2011 at www.mcweekly.com/edible, where readers can also find a ranking of the year’s top 10 new restaurants and other vaguely insane tastes.
• The year gone by also witnessed the debut of our Joel Ede’s In Your Dish, a video profile series of local restaurants doing types of tasty with unique taste: 2011’s video archives are also up on the blog now.
• Sad news: Tara Mackay, a pillar at First Awakenings of Salinas, died in a car accident in Soledad this week. Let’s make it hope and healing that follows in her wake.
• The Drummond Culinary Academy out at Rancho Cielo, where kids referred by the courts get chef training under Mark Whisenant (and locals get great deals on Friday night dinners), needs chefs for its visiting instructor program. Community-minded toques should touch base with local Sardine Factory pioneer Bert Cutino (649-2610, firstname.lastname@example.org) and call me if they need an iffy sous chef.
• Stopped by one of the breakouts of 2011, Vesuvio, to see how the new Pepe era is proceeding. Fresh-out-of-college scion Christian Pepe was gingerly tending bar, clearly working on getting more comfortable with cocktail service. We tabbed hot toddies from the chalkboard (Woodford reserve bourbon, lemon juice, honey, nutmeg and cinnamon, $10 each), tasty and toasty in the Carmel chill, but heavy on the lemon.
• Another standout spot, il vecchio (324-4282) has one of its creative ideas going for New Year’s Eve: a Roman banquet stacked with a full menu of salumi and formaggi, cannellini salad, lasagna Romana, eggplant-sqash lasagna, four-cheese polenta, stuffed pork loin, chicken cacciatora and panettone – plus live music from rock-R&B-Latine outfit Foolish Pleasure, dancing and a spumante Italiano toast for $48 per paisano.
• “Nothing says holidays,” Ellen DeGeneres once said, “like a cheese log.”