February 19, 2013
A Valentine’s Day dinner at TusCA Ristorante was love at second taste.
The backstory is something like a rom-com plot in which two fated lovers meet for the first time, but the circumstances are all wrong.
A couple of years ago, I went with a friend to The Hyatt Regency Monterey's fine-dining restaurant and was disappointed on several fronts, from service to cuisine. I crossed the place off my culinary Cupid list, thinking that was the end of it—until I heard news of a new chef and a reworked approach.
The Valentine's Day prix fixe ($63/person) seemed a good opportunity for another chance.
The four-course menu consisted of two choices per round; between my Valentine and I, we were able to taste all of it.
Just about every morsel that passed our lips was divine. Among the highlights:
• A wild-boar-belly app seved with candied shallots and a sprig of frisee tossed with a subtle lemon oil. Also in the first course: cured salmon with winter citrus and a cranberry-soaked grilled radicchio with a surprisingly unique, smoky flavor.
• Sausage served with fried squid tentacles, grilled artichoke and gnocchi (pictured above). The replacement of typical pork casing with well-tenderized squid tubing for the sausage was a clever adaptation. My Valentine’s second course, hangar-steak ravioli with melted leeks, Marcona almonds and Manchego cheese, struck a delightful balance between comfort and gourmet.
• Black cod served with local beets, hen-of-the-wood mushrooms and arborio with a port reduction. The ocean-friendly fish, cooked to a moist and flaky perfection, paired harmoniously with the earthy roots and robust maitakes.
• Exemplary service from waiter Jefferson Elias, whose attentions hit that sweet spot between friendly and discreet; a visit from new restaurant manager J.J. Esloff, who’s overseeing service calibrations in response to Yelp reviews; and a chat with even newer chef de cuisine Michael Behan, who (two weeks in at the Monterey location) is planning to put his signature on the Tuscan-Italian menu. Expect wild-boar-belly specials in the coming days, he says, thanks to the bounty from a Texas hunt.
Only quibbles we could muster: a heritage-pork tenderloin that could’ve been more moist, a farmed salmon the chef represented as “sustainable” (all farmed/Atlantic salmon is on the Seafood Watch red list), and a wait time between courses that felt excessive even for a romantic dinner. (We were there two and a half hours and had to request a quick wrap-up to get back to the sitter.) Go there when you’re in no rush.
It was nice to see the assets of TusCA’s big, sweeping space well flaunted. There were enough bodies at the tables to make the place feel warm, but walk-ins could still be seated with no wait. Four cooks worked in an open kitchen with shiny steel appliances and two blazing gas-fired pizza ovens, imparting a feeling of clean professionalism.
TusCA—a restaurant that’s spread to Hyatts in Orange County and Santa Clara since its 2008 debut in Monterey—left us feeling pampered, satisfied and motivated to try something new in the (ahem) kitchen.
Cupid, lesson learned.
TusCA Ristorante is located at 1 Old Golf Course Road (at the Hyatt Regency) in Monterey. 372-1234, www.tusca.com.