Thursday, April 12, 2012
The first clue I was wrong: the butternut squash pizza. The pizza also enjoyed sage, Speck ham, arugula and Gruyère, but it was the fresh pureéd sauce made from squash plucked from the organic school gardens at MEarth Hilton Bialek Habitat in Carmel that told me Le Bicyclette Executive Chef John Cox was doing newly dynamic and delicious things.
Cox is also the chef at sister establishment Casanova (625-0501), one of the great dames of Carmel-by-the-Sea eating, which thickened the plot like his waterzooi stew. I had already categorized Casanova as a storied but predictable place, a spot where the aging, set menu feeds a flourishing business (and 250 seats), but the food seems better suited to waves of visitors than seasonal-eating freaks like me. So something had to give.
Fortunately the clues kept coming. Last week Cox uncorked a dynamite pop-up at MEarth’s sparkling new kitchen classroom. The fava-bean-and-burrata bruschetta and spring-onion Belgian tarts proved yummy, but his work with mini student chefs was more impressive. He led them through the gardens to harvest miner’s lettuce and edible flowers, then taught them how to plate a salad with bright green dots of housemade nasturtium-and-mustard-flower oil. The local red abalone with brown butter and Carmel Valley pig three ways were good too, but it was the virgin concoctions he paired with them – no booze at schools – that betrayed a creativity I didn’t expect from the Casanova kitchen: cucumber-eucalyptus agua fresca and sweet-corn-and-almond atol among them.
So the evidence was now approaching overwhelming. Dinner at Casanova was mandatory. We went the next night.
The joint’s transportational charm remains intact. The Walter and Gaston Georis-led team has a masterful way of bending a complex range of variables – timing, setting, sounds, service – into a seemingly simple and elegant equation. The menu, though, has changed dramatically. There are still holdovers – spinach gnocchi ($12) and cannelloni Romagnola ($27), for instance – but as of last month the Georises have wisely given Cox, 30, the reins to gallop in his own directions, to prioritize intuition over tradition. “We took the jump and changed our formula,” Walter says. “We can be more relevant and contemporary.”
After culinary school, Cox was Craig von Forester’s chef de cuisine at Sierra Mar by 20, then worked as head chef for the Passport resort group that owns Post Ranch – though his attention to detail across six Casanova courses suggests his skills have found a better fit.
“With hotels I was more of a CPA than a chef,” he says. “It’s nice to get back to my passion.”
His gently poached local squid escabeche ($9) channels that enthusiasm nicely. The gin-and-blood-orange mignonette on the oysters ($9/three) is subtle enough to let the ocean star but strong enough to share the spotlight. The clever cast around the Dungeness crab cake ($9) – a black rice tuile and a mango “egg” on top that breaks just like its avian cousin – take a staple to new places. Similarly sexy accents elevate a charcoal-rare filet ($37), accompanied by a marrow bone and dragoncello sauce, and the-catch-of-the-day Hawaiian ahi ($35), with braised clams in a rich bourride built from mussels, saffron, leeks and potatoes.
A look at Casanova’s past reveals a savory story. Belgian brothers start selling hippie bags and sandals in their adopted Carmel, help Birkenstock go big and contribute to the Endless Summer soundtrack. They start a spot called La Bohème in the little original footprint of Le Bicyclette, launch Fandango in P.G. (they later sold), and buy a tiny (and hidden) house on Fifth that seats about a dozen, adding rooms, a wowser wine list and cellar space over time.
Now Cox furnishes a look ahead, and it’s just as appetizing as the past. His new menu represents the latest evolutionary step of many at Casanova, and one of its most important. It also offers a reminder. Sometimes, being wrong can taste wonderfully right.
• Just a glimpse at one morsel of the Pebble Beach Food & Wine (www.pebblebeachfoodandwine.com) madness to come this weekend: For Saturday’s grand tasting, Chef Andre Bienvenu of Joe’s Stone Crab is packing stone crab, lobster, shiitake mushrooms and more into a sealable jar, adding hot broth and having attendees squirt out their own foie gras noodles with a syringe. Really. Check out his video on the blog, and a bonus look back at years one through four.
• I’ve never heard so many people ask about a single event as much as they did in the wake of last week’s debut Independent Marketplace in Sand City. Well, in a word: Damn. The undertaking met a prodigious amount of hype – and expansive pent-up demand – with nothing short of a festival experience stacked with Dory Ford double-cheeseburgers, Cal Stamenov fried chicken, Gladys Parada fish sliders, Post No Bills brews, fresh-catch seafood, live (and bumping) music, wine tasting, artisan clothing accents, kids’ crafts… essentially everything you could ever want in an afternoon. Look for a $20 Challenge from the event on the blog (www.mcweekly.com/edible) soon. Next market is in three weeks.
•Through April a school of Fisherman’s Wharf places are doing dab deals: The sand dabs are $8.95 grilled daily at Abalonetti (373-1851); served with lemon basil caper white wine cream sauce for $13.95-$14.95 at Crab Louie’s (373-6969); blessed with beurre blanc, risotto and all sorts of sides at Old Fisherman’s Grotto (375-4604) for $20; and salt-and-pepper pan-fried at Rappa’s (372-7562) for just $12.95 for Monday-through-Thursday locals deals.
• Ray Napolitano sighting – or at least a text. “Maybe while all these ‘superstar’ cooks are in town they might need to know: Troia’s Market (375-9810) has the largest selection of De Cecco pasta on the Peninsula… by far. No one even close.”
• Lugano Swiss Bistro (626-3779) is now open daily, 11:30am-9pm. Thursday, April 12, Mike Marotta plays for the people.
•As the Jewish proverb says, “Worries go down better with soup.”