Thursday, February 2, 2012
Plenty of places proclaim they’re The Next Napa. Those places miss the point.
Yes, Napa’s beautiful. Stuffed to bulging with Masaharu Morimotos and Cindy Pawlcyns. Juiced to the gills with Stag’s Leap Cabs and Duckhorn Merlots.
But it’s also over-priced, over-hyped, over-boutiqued and often over-booked, which is nothing to drool over.
The real ideal isn’t being The Next Napa. It’s being The Pre-Napa.
Welcome to Carmel Valley, where we have our own world-class wines, celebrated chefs and beautiful landscapes. Only it’s still rustic, quaint and authentic. And it’s wildly walkable: Rather than having to shuttle from winery to winery across several municipalities, the heel-toe highway gets you there in minutes. And for most of Monterey County, it’s a half hour away.
With this Wine & Food installment, we look at facets of its foodie evolution through the lens of a local winemaker with deep valley roots, a native with a game-changing restaurant opening this month and a round-the-valley tour of its wine-and-food fundamentals. And we throw in a peek at a new international addition and an ever-increasing list of the tasting rooms ready to lubricate the whole thing.
Art & Wine Festival
A small-but-vibrant enclave of artists carves out a home in the village, from Alan Masaoka and his blown-glass mindblowers to Paola Fiorelle Berthoin and her arranged-leaf mosaics. With June’s Carmel Valley Art & Wine Fest (659-4000, $15) they throw open their doors, while still more creatives fill the streets, live music rains down from several stages and hyper-local wine flows. Eateries stand ready to fuel impromptu picnics as locals toast the knowledge that they can easily stroll the entire town and its flavorful flood of tasting rooms (see list, p. 25) without getting in a car – though there is always the horse-drawn wagon.
Bernardus boasts not just the best chef in the valley (Cal Stamenov), but the best two (hello Pastry Chef Ben Spungin). In addition to their Wine Spectator-wooing, truly magical Marinus restaurant (658-3595) and cozy-gourmet Wickets Bistro (658-3400), there’s the award-winning wines (some grown right on property, others made with partners like Gary Pisoni); the resort massage treatment; the fireside piano; the immaculate bocci ball courts; the rose gardens; the billions of lavender plants; and the classes where they give you a hint how to pull off such splendor yourself.
Carmel Valley Brewing
There’s but one brewer in the hood. Fortunately, CVB (659-4341) is pretty good – or at least good enough for its smooth pale ale and unique blonde ale to earn taps in popular watering holes like the Running Iron (see “N”) and Plaza Linda (“P”). Local beer authorities the Beer Geeks (Chris and Meredith Nelson) live nearby with dachshunds Porter and Stout, but their scope is more global as they scour the planet draining every quality brewery they find and blogging their exploits on www.thebeergeek.com.
The recent departure of the popular Carmel Valley Fish House left a vacuum at the heart of the village. Fortunately family-run Cima Collina (620-0645) is taking over the place to pour its beautiful Pinots, Chards and blends just down the road from its Hilltop Ranch estate. Danzer does the marketing, Annette Hoff does the wine-making and son Luke helps tend to their menagerie of animals.
Though the operational headquarters of its produce dynasty lives in San Juan Bautista, the original home and true face of Earthbound is its farm stand. There are farm tours and events on occasion, and Chef Sara LaCasse’s panini of day ($8.95), soups ($3.95-$5.95) and honey froyo ($2.99-$4.99) every day. And, of course, honest-to-God organic salads. “No one else can say that,” says EBF’s Hillary Fish. “Not even Whole Foods.” Check out the ryeberry, garlic brocolette and red-and-golden-beet salads along with the avalanche of greens ($8.99/pound).
The sun loves the valley more than any place in the county, hence here come some of the best places to eat al fresco: The front patio at Cafe Rustica (see “Z”) is popular; relative village newcomer Vineyard Bistro (659-5020) has a garden sanctuary; and Corkscrew Bistro (see “G”) has a great pebbled, leafy tasting area. Toast (“T”) has a nice deck and Bernardus’ patio (see “B”) enjoys a big patio with a huge fireplace too.
The original Georis brothers’ flagship is Carmel’s Casanova (625-0501), and its La Bicyclette (622-9899) is drawing more raves after expanding and crafting insane pizzas with stuff like squash and speck. Out in the valley, though, they not only have a large sum of yum at Corkscrew Café (659-8888) – wood-fired pizzas plus homemade country pâtés and rustic meats – but a welcoming wine tasting room behind it and an art space across the street for stylish private parties.
The green-and-golden grounds and very capable catering team continue to host some of the most breathtaking weddings and special events, but now a new tasting room (659-2640) in a stretch of several in the village is not only pouring its new Pinot and Pinot Gris, Sauv Blanc, Chardonnay and Rosé ($5 tasting), but extra virgin olive oil too.
Ioli’s Garlic Bread
The bread’s cheesy, gooey and garlicky, and one of the many non-pizza options at the only family-owned pizzeria for miles (622-9463), including calzones, salads, wings, soups and subs. But the creative pies carry the place, with things like the Manhattan Veggie, Grand Concourse and the Grundy, with roasted chicken, mushrooms, red onions, tomatoes, basil, cashews and roasted garlic ($11.99-$30). Expect a balance between East Coast tradition and West Coast creativity.
Arguably the best breakfast spot in C.V. (The Wagon Wheel and Toast merit mention for breakfast too), Jeffrey’s fans are legion and loyal, drawn by the berry pancakes ($8.50), spinach-asparagus-artichoke omelets ($8.95) and insane wild-mushroom hash ($9.50). Ioli’s, CVCRC (see “V”) and new Athena’s Cafe (see story, p. 32) linger nearby, but it is Jeffrey’s (624-2029) that anchors Mid-Valley’s mini-foodie front.
Kathy’s Little Kitchen
One of Carmel Valley’s newest additions, year-old KLK (659-4601) was also one of its most desperately needed: a simple blue-collar cafe with basic breakfasts, burgers, burritos and tacos for about $5 or $6. Another half mile out, time-tested Taqueria del Valle (659-1373) is definitely tastier, but also pricier. The chile relleno burrito ($7.95 with a salad) there will knock your calcetines off.
Los Laureles Lodge
Between the C.V. sun, bikinis and cocktails, the pool is the place to be in the summer. But come winter, the cowboy bar next to the LLL kitchen (659-2233), with nude paintings, vintage typewriters, locals clientele, a fireplace and personality-plus servers delivers an appealing saloon feel. Instead of chaw or a bullet, though, chew on a drippy flatbread N.Y. steak hoagie ($12.25) or a blackened salmon salad ($11.95).
No town can retain true foodie cred without a serviceable general store, yet for years C.V. ached in the absence of the one-time legendary Randy’s. In 2009, though, Carmel Valley Market (659-2472) settled, and now boasts all the bottles of local wines, all the boutique honeys and cheeses, all the deli salads, meats and sandwiches, and all the toothpaste and soap necessities a village could need. The drugstore Indian is back out front too.
Nelson and Jenn Foreman
For four years the next generation took over the reigns of one of the valley’s strongest traditions, The Running Iron (659-4633), and the town took notice as the food and service suffered. Like the return of CVM (see “M”), the Foremans’ second coming two years back represents a crucial renaissance. The bar is a longtime landmark with unequaled authenticity, and the dozen hamburgers (try the bacon-avocado-jack Valley Burger, $9.99 with onion rings, salad, curly fries, coleslaw or potato salad), hot sandwiches (like the Gobbler, $9.99) and ribeye ($15.99) come recommended. Salads and portions alike are scaled to cowboy appetites.
The aforementioned Earthbound in the country’s biggest organic produce pusher, but it’s Heller Estate (659-6221) wines that pioneered pesticide-free grapes locally. Now Winemaker Rich Tanguay is poised to release a brand new Petite Syrah, a first for Heller and mighty rare for the area. “It’s got a different mouth and different nose than what’s grown in our area,” he says. “Inky and extracted and almost overboard.”
The carpet’s dingy, the colors cheesy and the veggie quesadilla entree spendy ($19), but Plaza Linda’s (659-4229) live music knows no peer around here. There is no better place to pluck from 70-plus different tequilas and soak up bluegrass, country rock or jazz with your cactus juice. When the county readied to shut down the music, the sudden and cacophonous response offered ample evidence of how much the area counts on tunes coordinated by indomitable Kiki Wow.
One of the most influential chefs of the area, Julio Ramirez, quietly simmers excellence at golf-course-adjacent Edgar’s (620-8910), which means superior eats like the Guiness-braised beef short rib osso bucco ($31) are served in approachable indoor or patio environs. Daily specials keep it even fresher.
Appropriately named Chef Jerome Viel’s 14-ounce rib-eye ($30.95 with soup or salad and choice of potato preps) is the signature cut at the valley’s spot for steak, Wills Fargo (659-2774), which is saying something given the 20-ounce porterhouse ($44.95), 16-ounce Kansas City ($35.95) and sought-after filet mignon ($29.95/5-ounce; $34.95/8-ounce). But longtime local and Weekly writer Jeanne Howard says, “The place is the thing.” Given those meats, that’s saying something about how cool the old-school setting is.
The sweeping grounds, with enough grass for a nine-hole golf course, enough horse track for Seabiscuit the Sequel and enough vintage mansion square footage to film a period piece, Stonepine (659-2245) is a world-class wedding facility with a price tag to match. Now it is partnering with fellow world-classers Coastal Luxury Management (324-0771) for an exclusive catering deal that means folks staying here can potentially customize their event with the likes of CLM-collaborating chefs Thomas Keller and Tyler Florence.
Toast Carmel Valley
Housemade breads help make Toast (659-8500) the best breakfast east of Bernardus – just try a biscuit – but don’t food coma through dinner. Chef Philippe Breneman’s “wine country cuisine” dishes five nights a week for supper with slow-braised lamb shank ($23), truffle-Humboldt Fog fettuccine ($10/$18) and roasted chicken mascarpone orzo ($19). Great beers on tap, too.
While interests as entrenched as old-growth vines perpetually battle the merits of making Carmel Valley a town that can be governed by a local council rather than county supervisors (as it is presently), culinary projects balance the pros and cons of the current rules. Some projects, like Rancho Canada Village, fare better with the more development-friendly county, while things like MEarth school garden would likely benefit from being able to work with local city leaders.
A bag of this popular java from Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Company (624-5934) runs $12. CVCRC extends past basic beans, though, with a nice lineup of stylish snacks from local celeb chef Dory Ford, food-festival collaborations with other local culinary stars like Todd Fisher – who rubbed grounds on his duck – and treats like a limited release from a co-op of farmers in Nepal.
As in Tim, not alder and almond – though he uses those to smoke seasonal treats like wild salmon for special events. The exec chef at Carmel Valley Ranch Lodge Restaurant (626-2599) works closely with garden manager Mark Marino to pluck the best freshness from the two-acre organic garden, then puts them to use in dishes like the day boat sea scallops over Jerusalem artichoke puree with Santa Cruz apple and fennel slaw ($18). The honey from CVR’s bees, meanwhile, goes into the honey-chili chicken wings ($12). “Farm to table,” Wood says, “without the fridge.”
This is a wine-swilling foodie’s dreamscape: more tasting rooms than your tastebuds can hit in two trips paired with a burgeoning eats scene. The X-factor, though, is the music of unparalleled composer Philip Glass, who last year launched the high-minded orgy of dance, film, art, theater, poetry and, yes, classical music that is the Days and Nights Festival (659-PHIL) at idyllic outdoor Hidden Valley (659-3115). With his tractor-beam, Glass’ll pull cultured folks who might not have ever seen C.V. previously, and who will taste greatness when they do. If they start tuning in – and turning others on – the valley will, for better or for worse, see a spurt in visitors.
That’s the style of the chicken mole ($12.98) at Baja Cantina Grill (625-BAJA). Even with the parking lot barbecues, live music from the likes of C.V.’s own Cachagua Valley Playboys and Done Right margaritas ($10) that dominate our Best of Monterey County poll, one of the strongest draws is the 11am-2pm weekend brunch – think bargains on shrimp and crab omelets ($10.98), steak and eggs (also $10.98) and chiliquilles ($7.98) plus a $1 mimosa. The light and fresh Castroville halibut tacos ($16.98) are killer too, every day of the week, especially paired with C.V. sol.
Zucchini-tomato galette provencale
Now one of the valley’s adored institutions – and a perennial pick for best Carmel Valley restaurant by Weekly readers (vote now, p. 11) – Cafe Rustica (659-4444) succeeds in part because of attention to details like the gourmet galette. Arriving with a fresh wild salmon fillet ($21.75), mashed potatoes, caramelized red onions and a lemon beurre blanc sauce, the galette could be an afterthought. But it’s not – instead, it’s a discovery. Like the Hungarian paprika beef goulash on egg noodles (also $21.75). And Carmel Valley itself.