Carmel is a tough restaurant town. Although the tourist numbers are enormous, only places on or around Ocean really benefit from the out-of-towners'' arrival. The majority of visitors don''t venture more than a block or two from the downtown core, especially if there are no other shops around to lure them.
Loutas, located in the space that once housed L''Escargot, is easy to miss even if you live here. It is on Mission, between 4th and 5th, far away from the hubbub of Carmel activity. Add to that the fact that it is set back from the street (except for a small sign and a gigantic wooden snail), and it''s a wonder anyone would open up shop in these parts.
Miss Boom and I had almost hit this spot a few different times before, but somehow always missed out. On a recent Friday, however, there wasn''t going to be any misfire. We arranged 7:30pm reservations, found a good parking spot after only one trip around the block and headed in to eat. A couple that just beat us onto the restaurant''s walkway was looking at the menu posted outside. As we passed by, the gentleman half asked if we had eaten here before. We mentioned we hadn''t and bopped on in to Loutas.
Once inside, earthy tones and warm vibrations gently seduce you. It feels at once both elegant and relaxed. Friendly, helpful faces greet and seat, then prepare you to eat. With about 50 seats spread over two separate rooms, Loutas is typically Carmel-sized. The layout makes it seem like a house rather than a commercial building.
Before we hit our seats, we noticed a couple of our wine-loving friends sitting at a table in the corner, happily munching while they deflowered a couple of very young, well-bred pinot noirs. They--let''s call them Mister Magoo and Goldie--are very outgoing (some might say boisterous) folk and can easily convert a low-key, quiet little dinner place into a Senate-floor debating session with opinions and comments flying back and forth like SCUD missiles over the Golan Heights.
It turns out our pals are regulars here and have been following the progress of chef/owner Kerry Loutas since he first opened just over a year ago. Chef Loutas (pronounced "Loo-tahz") makes his presence felt throughout the dining experience, quietly interacting with customers and checking on things. He stopped by our table twice to ask unobtrusively about our special requests and overall happiness. It was pretty amazing.
The menu is traditional French country. Appetizers of escargots, smoked salmon, steamed mussels, pate and a caramelized onion/goat cheese tart invite if right, fright if wrong. I almost avoid this genre of restaurant because few of them ever get these traditional dishes correct, creating instead cloying, hackneyed, tired caricatures of classics. No chance of that here.
The Real Thing
Loutas delivers the goods. The leek and potato soup was rich, velvety, intensely flavorful and hot. A warm duck confit salad prepared with field greens and adorned with sliced Fuji apples, brandied cranberries and walnuts and then delicately tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette just blew Sweet Thing away. The duck was juicy, tender and perfectly prepared and formed a loving marriage with the greens and other ingredients. We knew we were in for a special treat.
For our entrees, it was tough for me to choose from among the "two way" duckling, filet mignon (served with a port/cabernet reduction, wild mushrooms and Parma ham) and braised lamb shanks. Chickie Boom wrestled with picking from a bouillabaisse, roasted rack of lamb, and a pan-seared-then-steamed sea bass. We finally went with the lamb shanks (I can''t resist braised meats) and the sea bass.
To the table came our elegantly dressed, regally comported and tastefully presented entrees. The piece of sea bass looked like it had been specially cut out of the fish for maximum visual impact. It was geometrically interesting in shape and quite thick. Along for the ride were perfectly snappy pea pods, flavorful rice and a delicate lemon caper sauce. The bass itself was so tender that it seemed to defy the concept of texture. Sweet Thing loved it.
My shank was large and in charge, surrounded by a rich, deeply flavorful sauce pool inhabited by tasty beans and eggplant ratatouille. The lamb was as tender as butter and extremely yummy. Together with the proud beans and the meltingly soft eggplant, each combination bite composed a wonderful taste sonata in my mouth.
Mister Magoo, never shy with an opinion, told me I should have ordered the filet mignon. To prove it, he sent over a small sampling of his. Sure enough, achingly delicious beef with a most outstanding wine reduction reaffirmed my belief in Kerry Loutas'' talents in the kitchen. His truly hospitable personality, which he generously displays throughout the evening, rounds out the experience.
After our meal, we joined up with Goldie and Magoo for dessert and after-dinner conversation. At Kerry Loutas'' recommendation, we ordered the crème brulee, which, unlike most versions, comes free form in three little mounds surrounded by fresh berries. It proved to be one of the best versions we''ve encountered, with perfectly delicate crust, gorgeous custardy texture and lovely accompaniment.
Between the homey, comfortable elegance, the warm hospitality of Kerry Loutas and his staff, prices that are not out of line and the exceptional execution of country French cuisine, Loutas distinguishes itself as one of the brightest stars in the Monterey County culinary sky.
Loutas is located on Mission between 4th and 5th in Carmel and is open from 5:30pm ''til closing (around 9:30 or 10pm) Wednesday-Monday. For reservations or more info, call 620-1942.