Thursday, October 18, 2012
In the semi-open kitchen of The Bench, a cook tends the fire intermittently, hand-tossing rounds of dough and crafting them into “flatbread” pizza-like creations. He uses a long wooden spatula to fish one of them from the wood-burning oven. A manager nearby inspects the cook’s work.
“Is it perfect?” he asks, flicking away a bit of charred tomato. “This is Pebble Beach. It has to be perfect.”
Club XIX – what was once the signature dining establishment among the Pebble Beach resort eateries like Roy’s and Peppoli – is dead. And in its place lives The Bench, given a $1.9 million reinvention. It’s not perfect, but it is impressive, an airy and inspired transformation and – on a recent Tuesday afternoon – packed.
It is impossible to forget that you are at Pebble Beach – the green of the 18th hole can be seen from nearly every seat in the house, as can Stillwater Cove and the fog rolling in off the water. Yet the elitism of Club XIX is lost. Waiters wear bow ties and white shirts, but the management dresses like the patrons, like they just got done teeing off, minus the corny golf gear. And there is no requirement to change clothes after hitting the links or even clean your cleats: Clumps of grass can be spotted on the floor.
The bench at The Bench sits off to the side of the terrace in a little garden filled with lavender plants and chewed butts of cigars, in the same spot as the 1999 negotiations which led to a Japanese investment conglomerate selling Pebble Beach back to Americans for $820 million. (The buyers, Clint Eastwood, Richard Ferris, Arnold Palmer, William Perocchi and Peter Ueberroth, have their names emblazoned on a commemorative plaque in front of it.) From The Bench’s white marble bar, a bartender presents a mango-essence iced tea on a small platter, with a vial of housemade lavender simple syrup balanced upon a lemon slice ($5). A 10-foot-long communal dining table to the rear is occupied with 16 golfers running up a tab with Front Nine Bloody Marys ($12) and Miller Lite bottles ($6.50). Enclosed in glass atrium, the main dining area is filled with light and the din of forks hitting plates and lunchtime chatter.
Bowls of lemons and limes flank the bar, which is serving up lunchtime libations so fast you’d think they were going for free. (They were not. The Bench’s signature cocktails, like Thai One On, with vodka, Thai basil puree, cucumber and ginger syrup, and the Back Nine Gimlet, a gin base with bitter lemon-lime soda, ginger syrup and basil, start at $12, and the wine cellar has bottles that sell for four figures.)
Stuffed eggplant ($19) is the lowest priced and most inventive item on the “mains” portion of the menu. Light and fresh, almost like a hot salad, it works well for lunch on a grey day. Covered in a healthy dose of shaved pecorino, the entree features candy-sweet red and yellow baby San Marzanos and loads of crisp snap peas, which, along with the tomatoes, were pan-roasted in the wood-burning oven. The eggplant itself, though, didn’t seem to be stuffed with anything other than breadcrumbs – all the goodies were just piled on top of it and covered in cheese.
On a dinnertime visit, The Bench’s outdoor terrace is mostly full, many of the diners wrapped in cozy shearling blankets (provided) and staring into the flames of the fire pits – or the illuminated cypress tree before the 18th hole.
The staff expertly tends to the comforts of the diners. The menu – which is the same for lunch and dinner – is versatile, making it easy to order tapas-style and share the wares, or to choose an entree and have it all to yourself.
Five artisan flatbreads (which might as well be pizza, $15-$18), all hand-tossed and baked in a wood-burning oven, fortify a menu from Chef Yousef Ghalaini that emphasizes the power of an open flame. Words like roasted, braised and blistered highlight a menu of inventive appetizers, salads and tempting mains.
The pork belly starter ($13) is covered in a sweetly tangy soy glaze and a few slices of raw red jalepeño, and while the appetizer is only enough for a few bites, it’s a highlight, the pork crispy, fatty and reminiscent of some of the best flavors found on the streets of Asia.
The organic mushroom flatbread ($18) arrives with a generous assortment of oyster, shimeji, king trumpet and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms with goat cheese and triple cream brie. The crust is perfectly baked and the melted gobs of luxurious cheeses play well against the mushroom textures.
Mac and cheese ($8), baked and served in a cute cast iron souffle dish, has nice Parmesan breading on spiral noodles, but isn’t worth the sticker price.
Charred octopus with cranberry beans and sherry vinaigrette ($15) comes roasted to a point that it easily breaks down in the mouth. It’s an alluring take on an increasingly trendy dish, but a couple of bites were unpleasantly fishy.
When the waiter raves about the wood-roasted strawberries ($8) with talk of a bed of oven-sizzled fruit covered in a brown-sugar-butter-crumble, a savory balsamic reduction glaze and a scoop of cheese cake ice cream, expectations soar – and are met with what just might be The Best Dessert on Earth.
At The Bench, the food, service and atmosphere all on par with excellence. And while it is admittedly hard to forget everything costs about 15 percent more than it should simply because it’s Pebble Beach, when you look out beyond the green and take in the million dollar views, it’s easy to remember what you’re paying for.
THE BENCH 1700 17 Mile Drive, Pebble Beach. 11am-11pm daily (cocktails and a truncated menu between 4-5:30pm). •1-800-654-9300, www.pebblebeach.com/dining/the-lodge-at-pebble-beach/the-bench.