May 31, 2012
Sometimes it can take a lifetime to develop an identity. Other times, it can seem to happen overnight.
For years Marinus (658-3595) has reigned as one of Monterey County's premier places to splurge, as Zagat-adored Cal Stamenov and company won both Wine Spectator awards and foodie hearts with impeccable wines and seasonal plunder.
But even as I enjoyed some of the very best meals of my life there—illustrious black morels in black truffle oil, grilled peaches with Moroccan spices and Hudson Valley foie gras, tender alder-grilled Sonoma duck, Colorado lamb in red wine-bacon jus, artisanal cheeses, white peach sorbet and dense chocolate cake—I still didn't know how to say the name of the restaurant with any confidence.
MARE-in-us? Or ma-reen-US? (That's a pic of the old Marinus; at the very top is the new, lighter place, with its designer talking to Chef Stamenov.)
Now I know. It's the latter—like Marine-Us—which helps scratch a small identity itch. I also know what seemed rather unlikely—Marinus moving further up the ladder of legendary—just might happen too, as they've completed a long-coming, fast-executed refresher of their overall identity over the course of the last week.
Part of the inspiration for the update, even though it’s just about a decade old, is that the spot’s come to enjoy much stately prominence so quickly that it can feel intimidatingly fancy and stiff, and not exactly young-and-happening.
So out go the heavy drapes and darker room, in come patterns and colors and textures that draw from the surrounding trees and bathe in more natural light. Longtime collaborator Charlie Akwa of New York's The Silver Peacock—"I knew this place when it was a hole in the ground," she said at the construction party—masterminded the design, from the striking Champagne chiller by tiny French design house L'Orfevrerie D'Anjou to the hand-forged iron chandeliers.
The Baccus Room has been reivented as the Magnum Room for parties of up to 12. (The four-seat chef's table in the kitchen and cellar room below remain essentially the same.)
“We want to break the formalness down, to provide a more relaxing environment,” Wine Director Mark Buzan told me as members of the team passed Bernardus wines, jackhammer cocktails, sweet and sour carrot soup and mango ham among preview peekers. “Approachable” is suddenly a big word around Marinusland at the moment.
The remade Marinus officially opens today, with a reconfigured footprint that seats 60, three themed menus, a more informal wine service and expanded six-acre organic garden. Fear not—chef will continue to do his six-course tasting ($125), one of the best sequences between San Francisco and Santa Barbara, particularly when paired with grape juice plucked from the 35,000-bottle cellar.
Gone is the big table of cordials and wines, in comes a mouthwatering spread of stuff like locally foraged and farmed mushrooms and spring asparagus to reflect an ever-deepening commitment to seasonal stuff.
They're also using the opportunity to spotlight the cocktail menu—and luminous libations like the Bernardus Landscape ($15). How's this for a drink description: "The sweeping views of our surroundings enveloped with an unmistakable aroma of rosemary & lavender inspired this libation. Enlightened Grain Spirits ‘Inspiration’ infused vodka is an exclusive offering to the Bernardus property." Translation: It has Enlightened Grain Rosemary & Lavender Inspiration Vodka, sparkling wine, fresh lemon juice and Bernardus Vineyards Pinot Noir estate grapes.
Forgive me if I find the most exciting changes on the nicely laid-out menu—black chanterelle risotto ($16/$30), crispy veal sweetbreads with braised Swiss chard ($16), “Monterey salad” with local abalone, artichoke, anchovy, cured bay salmon belly, fennel and seaweed ($20).
The dessert lineup is absurd: Marinus pastry wiz Ben Spungin now offers several masterworks based on things he’s done at food festivals like Coastal Luxury Management’s L.A. Food & Wine. They include a chocolate “terrarium” with clever mousse, cake and sorbet constructions worthy of the $32-for-two tag; chocolate “stashes and eyeglasses” with caramels and petit cookies ($24 for two) and “illicit sweets” for the inner rock star foodie in you, a hazelnut-feuilletine “8-ball,” cannibis-scented marshmallow, vanilla yogurt powder and a sassafrass joint ($24 for two).
Photos by Joel Ede and Kathleen Seccombe.