Apr
01
2014

Around the Bay

The brick patio of L'Auberge Carmel

The brick patio of L’Auberge Carmel where I enjoyed pre-dinner aperitifs, read books & inclusive hotel breakfast

CARMEL WEEKEND: Michelin-starred Restaurant & Romantic Hotel

Photos and article by Virginia Miller

Welcome bottle of sparkling wine waiting in my room

Bottle of sparkling wine chilling in my room

Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel, a boutique hotel right in the walkable, intimate town of Carmel, is no stranger to awards. They are one of only 500 Relais & Châteaux privately owned hotel and restaurants in the world, awarded for being a standard setter in the combination of cuisine and charming hotel character. In 2013, Executive Chef Justin Cogley was named one Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs, a title that historically represents some of the best chefs in the US.

Service is impeccable at the quirky, elegant hotel. From sunken tubs to breakfast in the garden/brick patio the rooms center around, the experience is pampering.

Each of the small handful of rooms is a different layout

Each of the 20+ rooms is a different layout

Similarly, a 12 course chef’s tasting menu ($145 per person, or a shorter menu $110), with three dessert bites from Executive Pastry Chef Ron Mendoza, is a pleasure from start to finish. The meal represents the region’s wealth of seafood and produce – a common theme all over California. The menu arrives as a list of ingredients merely hinting at the tastes in store. There’s only a handful of tables so the experience is intimate and the wine pairings strong.

Through my photos, journey through L’Auberge’s property and a few of the best courses at Aubergine, a winning California getaway.

Sipping a digestif post-dinner fireside in the intimate hotel lobby

I sipped a gorgeously funky, dry 2009 Királyudvar Tokaji Pezsgo Sparkling Wine post-dinner fireside in L’Auberge’s intimate hotel lobby

Kumamoto oysters topped with caviar in dashi broth and tied up inside an oyster shell, paired with Tissot Cremant de Jura Champagne

Kumamoto oysters topped with caviar in dashi broth, tied up inside an oyster shell, paired with Tissot Cremant de Jura Champagne

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My favorite course: just wowed by black trumpet mushroom in a sheet of French sheep’s milk Ossau-Iraty cheese accented by sorrel, dotted with chicken jus and gingerbread crumble – excellent umami drink pairing of Tannenbaum Imperial Korean Rice Wine made from rice neutral grain spirit & mushroom concentrate

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Artful presentation, tender flavor: dry-aged (28 days) ribeye, with a dusting of matcha green tea powder, lined with mustard greens, radish flower, kale, turnip, puree of Chinese shallots, parsley, almonds

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Lush Monterey abalone over hijiki seaweed with artichoke & tosaka seaweed, paired with lovely, rare 2011 Herri Mina Blanc blend (Gros Manseng, Petit Courbu, Petit Manseng) from Irouléguy, France

Dessert of pear sorbet over chocolate crumbs, topped with a celery leaf, next to walnut croquant & chocolate cremeaux

Dessert of pear sorbet over chocolate crumbs, topped with a celery leaf, next to walnut croquant & chocolate cremeaux

Lovely L'Auberge

Romantic L’Auberge

L'Auberge at dusk

L’Auberge at dusk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cookies & milk await in your room at night

Cookies & milk await in your room at night

Good night

Good night

Modern tub, old fashioned windows looking out over Carmel rooftops

Modern tub, old fashioned windows

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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May
01
2012

On the Town

PEBBLE BEACH FOOD & WINE
April 12-15, 2012

Landing in a helicopter at the base of the Santa Lucia Highlands for a Carmel Road vineyard wine tasting

My first Pebble Beach Food & Wine this April. Despite chilly breezes post-rainfall and those outrageously high ticket prices ($500 is a cheap dinner ticket), it was a bustling, fun-filled weekend of food and far more wine, much of it high quality, celebrity chefs, after (and after-after) parties, copious amounts of caviar, champagne and white Burgundy sipped overlooking the waves from the Inn at Spanish Bay fire pits, and a helicopter ride with sommeliers landing in Carmel Road’s idyllic winery grounds at the base of the Santa Lucia Highlands.

Here is a photo recap of highlights from the weekend…

Helicopter view just after takeoff from the Monterey airport

After landing on Carmel Road's expansive grounds, we road this tractor to a pinot tasting tent among the vines

Carmel Road riesling tasting tent waiting as our helicopter landed

Bites from Restaurant 1833 in Monterey to pair with the wines

Inside Saturday's Grand Tasting

Intelligentsia coffee station

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At Saturday's Grand Tasting: Chef Craig von Foerster's (Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur) raw beef

At Saturday's Grand Tasting: Chef John Sedlar's (Rivera, Los Angeles) corn pudding

Chef Sang Yoon of Lukshon (Los Angeles)

Chef Sam Choy of Sam Choy's Kai Lanai, Kailua-Kona (Hawaii)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joe's Stone Crab crew came out from Florida bearing fresh stone crab which was available in endless supply at Saturday's mid-afternoon caviar & champagne party at the Inn at Spanish Bay fire pits

Chef Chris Cosentino of Incanto (San Franisco)

Chef Elizabeth Falkner - moving from SF to NYC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunset at the Lodge at Pebble Beach before Saturday's Italian Love Affair Dinner

Chef Paul Bartolatta (Las Vegas) in the kitchen preparing his course for Italian Love Affair Dinner

Chef Nancy Silverton (Mozza, LA) preps her course at Italian Love Affair Dinner

THE best course of the Italian Love Affair Dinner: Chef Michael White's (of Marea, NYC) agnolotti filed with duck liver & guinea hen in rich foie gras sauce

Chef Paul Bartolotta (Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare, Las Vegas) explains his course at the Italian Love Affair Dinner

Italian Love Affair Dinner: Fabio Viviani jokes after intro as a Top Chef star: "I've lost that freakin' show twice-screw Top Chef!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Food Network star Anne Burrell smiles & interacts with fans at Sunday's Grand Tasting

Chef Douglas Rodriguez (Alma de Cuba, Miami) serves a Sunday Grand Tasting favorite: egg baked inside a pupusa-like corn patty

Chef Michael White (Marea, NYC) explains decadent ingredients of his agnolotti, receiving an "ahhh" from diners when mentioning foie gras sauce, joking: "I wish I could get this response from my wife"

Nancy Silverton (Mozza, LA) prepares one of the simplest, best tastes of Sunday's grand tasting: perfect burrata & tomatoes in pesto sauce with toasted bread

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Apr
01
2012

Around the Bay

Fire pits under a massive oak tree

The Magic of Monterey’s Restaurant 1833

View from booths above the bar

There’s nothing quite like Monterey’s Restaurant 1833 in San Francisco. Yes, our city boasts fantastic food, cocktails, wine and beer lists, competitive with the best in the world. But 1833’s magical setting sets it apart, truly the whole package – and worth a drive from SF. Housed in an adobe structure from 1833 (hence the name), I was captivated by 1833 from the moment I stood under a massive oak tree sprawling over a patio lined with firepits. A giant palm tree and redwoods tower over an expansive side deck. 

From the top of the stairwell, a tweaked photo of the house's original owner

1833 evokes New Orleans or haunted Savannah in Spanish-influenced California architecture.

Enter a broad wood door unfolding into one enchanting room after another. Red velvet antique couches sit in front of a roaring library fireplace, an absinthe bar is tucked away upstairs, dining rooms are presided over by ghosts that have haunted the house over a century (note Hattie’s Room upstairs).

There’s an intimate, one table dining room (Gallitan’s Room) with a boar’s head standing guard over the fireplace and relics from the restaurant’s former incarnation as Gallatin’s, a restaurant where presidents and movie stars dined in decades past. Vintage and modern pieces combine, each room claiming a distinct personality. The bar is equally mesmerizing: an illuminated white onyx bartop glows under slanted roof rafters with coveted booth tables above gazing down over the bar.

Gallatin's Room, presided over by a wild boar

But what about the food? This is no LA style-over-substance scenario. Chef Levi Mezick’s menu wanders from whole-roasted meats to pizzas and pastas. There’s bone-in ribeye for two ($75) or a real splurge (temporary until the foie ban kicks in this June) of whole roasted lobe of foie gras ($150). Whole truffle chicken ($38) is a blissfully decadent. The chicken is brined for two days with truffle butter injected under the skin. Pizzas ($16-17) are topped with Dungeness crab and leeks or pineapple and sopresatta, while dense, pillowy gnocchi ($22) rest in Parmesan cream with Swiss chard, chanterelles, pickled onions and crispy croutons.

Roasted chicken w/ truffle butter injected under skin

Appetizers shine, like a delicate beet salad ($12) accented with Greek yogurt and hazelnuts, or a heartwarming helping of bone marrow ($16) with horseradish crust. Bites offer more gourmet delights, particularly fresh, raw hamachi ($6) dotted with pickled jalapenos, avocado, oranges. Among the best items on the entire menu are $4 biscuits: sundried tomato feta biscuits with roasted garlic basil butter or bacon cheddar biscuits with maple chili butter. Both are flaky, dreamy delights, warm and soft under a smear of butter.

1833's magical exterior

Michael Lay flames hot buttered rum tableside

Generous portions leave you fat and contented, while drink offerings threaten to outshine the food. Wine director Ted Glennon curates a playful, sophisticated wine list highlighting the best of the Central Coast and the world. His passion and palate have deservedly led to accolades such as being named one of 2012’s Food & Wine’s Top 10 Sommeliers. Glennon’s wine list is whimsically annotated with comments such as this one about Chardonnay: “The blonde bombshell has taken the hearts of so many…”

There’s no slacker in any of his pairings. I was absolutely smitten with 2000 López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Rosé ($50 bottle). This stunning rosé is unlike any I’ve ever had, crisp and acidic, yes, but also funky, earthy, with notes of mushroom and ripe cheese. As it sits it sweetens, evoking sherry while maintaining its crispness.

Fireside seating in the library room

Local highlights were 2006 Caraccioli Cellars Santa Lucia Highlands Brut Rosé, a dry, floral, sparkling beauty, and 2007 Pelerin Wines Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, from a Santa Lucia micro-winery producing age-worthy California Pinot. With acidity and body, green tea and licorice notes play with cranberry and dark cherry – lovely with the truffled chicken.

On top of everything else, 1833 is a cocktailian’s destination with no equal in the entire area. Bar manager Michael Lay oversees aging cocktails in barrels with colonial names like Betsy and Abigail. Lay’s talent is apparent in a range of classically-influenced cocktails like Commander in Chief ($11): Bulleit Rye whiskey, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, Campari, Cherry Heering, and orange bitters with a peaty Laphroig Scotch rinse.

Barrel-aged Negroni duo: Abigail & Ruth-Anne

Besides a tableside absinthe cart (brilliant), offering some of my favorite absinthes like Duplais or Vieux Pontarlier, Lay makes a mean Hot Buttered Rum prepared tableside. His recipe is perked up with pumpkin pie spice and lemon peel. My favorite cocktail here is a twist on the Penicillin, a Penicillin No. 2 ($11). Instead of Scotch, Lay uses Tres Agaves Reposado Tequila and tops the drink with smoky mezcal, alongside the usual lemon and candied ginger. Further fun is had comparing barrel-aged Negronis, a 9 week-aged Abigail ($12) using Tanqueray gin, Campari, Amaro Nonino, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, and Ruth-Anne, a more gin-forward Negroni.

We’ve seen each of these parts, yes, but not this exact whole. I long for more settings in my own city as bewitching and multifaceted as 1833. Thankfully, Monterey is not too far away.

Commander in Chief cocktail

Cozy bar booth

Further Monterey/Carmel Stops

View from Schooners' bar deck

While in Monterey, you won’t find another quite like Restaurant 1833, but here are a few more notable options:

MONTEREY PLAZA HOTEL & SPA
Monterey Plaza Hotel is the most elegant on Cannery Row, thankfully removed from the Row’s touristy bustle, though only a short walk from the Aquarium. In addition to stunning views from oceanfront rooms jutting out over the sea, the hotel offers one of the better spas I’ve ever been to. A striking rooftop with hot tubs and radiant ocean views feels like a Mediterranean escape, while I enjoyed a superb deep tissue massage. Even the workout room is blessed with views of the Monterey coastline and Pacific.

Schooners' oysters

Just remodeled and re-opened, Schooners restaurant is downstairs in the hotel, with waves lapping underneath and blue and white ceiling contrasted against wood walls, plus sunny outdoor patio off the bar. Open all day, there’s plenty of seafood, chowders and stews, alongside steak, braised short ribs, and satisfying desserts.

HAPPY GIRL KITCHEN, Pacific Grove
Just down the street in the idyllic town of Pacific Grove is Happy Girl Kitchen. Happy Girl has long been a favorite in San Francisco, selling their pickles and canned goods at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. It’s a pleasure to see their full range of products, including candied lemon peels in cayenne and sugar, in their open cafe and bottling space. They serve Blue Bottle coffee and a few breakfast and lunch menu items.

View from my room at Monterey Plaza Hotel

CANTINETTA LUCA, Carmel

Cantinetta salumi platter

We experience a lot of “real deal” Italian food in SF, from house charcuterie to Neapolitan pizza, but for the Monterey/Carmel area, Cantinetta Luca is a rarity. They form a fine duo with Salumeria Cantinetta next door offering salumi, cheese, paninis, sandwiches and pizzas to go. Besides a strong charcuterie platter including house spicy Calabrese salame and Italian-imported speck and mortadella, they serve solid Neapolitan pizzas, and comforting, authentic, housemade pastas such as pappardelle alla bolognese ($16.95) and pumpkin ravioli ($16.95). Another selling point? Their Italian-centric wine list.

Under a giant palm outside 1833

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Nov
01
2011

Around the Bay

SANTA CRUZ WEEKEND

The Renaissance Man surprised me recently with a quiet weekend away in Santa Cruz and unexpected meal off the slow, winding roads of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Though Santa Cruz is far from my favorite town, its laid back feel and beaches work for a quick getaway from SF, and its gourmet pleasures peak with ice cream and coffee.

The Penny Ice Creamery

Ice Cream, Coffee, Chocolate

THE PENNY ICE CREAMERY, 913 Cedar St., Santa Cruz  831-204-2523

The Penny Ice Creamery may not achieve the texture and flavor perfection of Humphry Slocombe, but it’s in that family of gourmet, out-of-the-box creameries, with changing flavors and hip status that keeps lines out the door. They use grapes from nearby vineyards like Birichino for their sweet, bright Malvasia Grape Sorbet, or Dirty Girl berries in Strawberry Pink Peppercorn, one I particularly liked for its peppery creaminess. My top pick was Celery Raisin, which was both vegetal and sweet, almost healthy tasting. One thing’s certain: I’d include a stop at the Penny every time I’m passing through Santa Cruz.

Marianne's

Filling Station

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MARIANNE’S ICE CREAM, 1020 Ocean St., Santa Cruz  831-458-1447

Donnelly Chocolates

I’ve been buying Marianne’s Ice Cream at Faletti Foods market in SF for years, particularly the peppermint stick flavor. Their ice cream is made with butter fat, explaining it’s dense texture. Also over 50 years old, Marianne’s ice cream is old school yet satisfying like Mitchell’s here in SF. Their shop evokes an America of decades ago in flavors like a creamy root beer or candied ginger.

FILLING STATION, 1500 Mission St., Santa Cruz  831-427-3455

Filling Station is an atmospheric spot for coffee in an old filling station. Retro gas station architecture meets third wave coffee as they serve SF’s Four Barrel coffee, while permanent food truck, The Truck Stop, offers eats.

DONNELLY CHOCOLATES, 1509 Mission St., Santa Cruz  831-458-4214

Santa Cruz' coffee king (photo: Daniel Stumpf)

A humble looking shop across the street from Filling Station, Donnelly Fine Chocolates is obviously a chocolate lovers haven from the moment you walk in to witness the chocolate being made by hand.

Bars are elegant in flavors like cardamom, smoky spicy chipotle, or Chinese five spice, while truffles/chocolates come with a range of fillings, including a booze-filled series. I tried tequila (Patron Anejo), brandy (Germain-Robin), and Scotch-filled (brand changes) chocolates.

VERVE COFFEE, 104 Bronson St., Ste. 19, Santa Cruz  831-464-8141

Verve's new 2nd outpost

To coffee fanatics, Verve needs no introduction. THE coffee of note to come out of Santa Cruz, its original shop has long been a staple in these parts.

Verve remains one of my top coffees, served to perfection at home in SF at Matching Half Cafe and farm: table. There’s finally a brand new, second Verve shop in Santa Cruz. It’s in an ultra-cool warehouse that shines in modern design and spaces for coffee roasting, cupping classes and tastings.

The glowing welcome of Tyrolean Inn set amidst towering redwoods

Restaurants

TYROLEAN INN RESTAURANT, Ben Lomond (9600 Highway 9, 831- 336 -5188)

Williams Birne Poire Williams

Blink and you’ll miss the “town” of Ben Lomond where the Tyrolean Inn welcomes with a red cabin accented by white shutters, white lights and hints of green. Surrounded by a biergarten, one imagines sunny idylls among redwoods sipping German beers. Alas, Sunday afternoon is the only lunch/daytime option (open 12-9pm, or 5-9pm Tu-Th, 4-10pm Fr-Sa).

Geraucherte Forelle ($8) - smoked trout with German farmer's bread and whipped horseradish cream

I fell in love with Tyrolean cuisine in the Italian Alps about three years ago, exploring mountain towns and roadside sausage stands on the Austria/Italy border. I wouldn’t exactly call Tyrolean Inn what I tasted there, rather it’s German food with whispers of Austria.

Though in the middle of nowhere, locals are clued in about this convivial wood cabin where one is serenaded by live accordion throughout dinner. Service was stressed the night we dined and a reservation was crucial. Waiting for our reservation was helped by a small, sweet selection of poire williams (Germanic-style pear eaux de vie), particularly Williams Birne.

Accordion serenaded us throughout the evening

Steins, pretzels, gardening tools and Germanic phrases eclectically line the walls, creating convivial distraction. Though short-staffed, servers kept a sense of humor in their frazzled state.

Draft German beer flows

I wouldn’t call the food gourmet, but portions are enough for a few. Tyrolean Schmeckerplatte ($21) is a mountain of meat, starting with a slice of smoked pork loin, Cordon Bleu (smoked ham and Swiss cheese layered between breaded pork cutlets), bockwurst sausage, sauerbraten beef over red cabbage in gravy, plus spatzle and sauerkraut. The highlight was Cordon Bleu, reminiscent of Italian Milanese-style dishes, which you can thankfully order as its own dish. Zigeunerschnitzel ($18), pork cutlets in spicy red & green pepper onion sauce (with fried potatoes and a German salad), didn’t quite work for me. Again, it could feed two, but tasted as if the pork and peppers were doused in seasoning powder, evoking quick-and-easy 1980’s meals.

An enchanting woodside setting with flowing beers and hearty food, comforts as if your German mama was presiding over the kitchen herself.

Bonny Doon's quirky barrel bar w/ submarine above

BONNY DOON’S CELLAR DOOR in the winery, Santa Cruz

Fresh boquerones at Cellar Door

To wine fans, Bonny Doon Vineyard and its legendary founder Randall Grahm need no introduction. One look at their whimsical website, and you know this is a different kind of winery. Sitting right in the middle of suburban Santa Cruz, there’s no vineyard setting, rather a funky warehouse with tasting room and Cellar Door restaurant.

I finally made it to the Cellar Door for an a la carte lunch (there’s a $40 per person prix fixe at dinner). Burrata salads, anchovies, wood-fired pizzas, are all foods I’ve seen in excess and had in excellent form in San Francisco (and beyond) for years.

Bonny Doon's funky tasting room

One could not honestly call the menu inventive, but for Santa Cruz, it stands out, and, in typical Northern California fashion, does so with exceptional ingredients. A simple plate of boquerones ($5) yields silky fresh anchovies in olive oil laced with slivers of garlic clove, thyme, a touch of red chili. Transported me straight back to Italy.

Di Stefano burrata with Heirloom tomatoes and rosemary toast ($12) is admittedly a small portion. But each bite was excellent, from luxurious burrata (mozzarella) to buttery toast. Roasted Early Girl tomato soup topped with sheep’s milk ricotta was a special of the day, while 2/3 of the restaurant seemed to have ordered the El Salchicherro bacon pizza. I followed suite but added a fried farm egg ($16 without, $18 with). There are many “bests” in the Bay Area for Neapolitan pizza and this wasn’t it, but it was quite satisfying on a grey October day in Santa Cruz.

Perfect burrata & tomatoes

The highlight of eating here may be the choice of Bonny Doon sips to pair with your meal. My top was Querry apple/pear/quince cider ($7 glass/$26 bottle). Dry and tart, its effervescence made a gorgeous contrast to the satin sheen of the anchovies. 2008 Ca’Del Solo Grenache Blanc ($7 glass/$11 quartino/$25 bottle) is a creamy, round Grenache, clearly oaked but it works.

2007 Cuvee ET is a Mourvedre blend, exhibiting bright berry but with balanced acidity. Their 2000 Le Cigare Volant flagship Rhone blend ($10 glass/$15 quartino/$40 bottle) is, as our server said, right at its peak at 12 years with light tobacco notes, earthiness and a fine minerality.

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Jun
15
2009

Wandering Traveler

Monterey/Pacific Grove/Carmel

Carmel to Pacific Grove coastline

Carmel to Pacific Grove coastline

A recent weekend trip to the Monterey/Pacific Grove/Carmel area was ‘just what the doctor ordered’ for my deadline/detail-overloaded mind lately. The Renaissance Man and I took to the rocks along the sea like kids, climbing as far out as we could get, oohing and aahing at big waves and shimmering blue. California is one gorgeous place and there’s a reason why whenever I’ve lived in other states or been away from its shores, it calls me back like a siren song. Whether it was Laguna Beach as a girl or Nor Cal’s windswept shores as a woman, it’s home.

Tuck Box, example of common Carmel architecture

Tuck Box, example of common Carmel architecture

The coast along the Monterey area is spectacularly rich, with moss, vibrant flowers, exploding in purples and feathery waves, rocks just begging to be climbed on. Sunsets are spectacular, and shifting breezes from chilly to warm, are all part of the moods of this ethereal coastline.

Monterey Aquarium: mind-blowing as that jellyfish exhibit is, swimming through the never-ending sea of scrambling kids and strollers was near hellish after a couple hours. Besides walking the streets of Carmel and visiting it’s striking Spanish Mission, best hours were spent watching waves, reading poetry on the sand, taking in sunsets. That’s our backdrop… now where do we eat?!

DRINKS

Hula's Tiki Lounge

Hula's Tiki Lounge

Hula’s Tiki Room, Monterey – No match for Forbidden Island, it at least has that kitschy, retro charm I love, even if drinks are just alright. They aren’t awful – a Dark & Stormy ($8 – Whalers Dark Rum & Cock-n-Bull Ginger Brew) works. With surfing on the TV and regulars at the bar, it’s a relaxing way to start the weekend… tiki-style!

Sardine Factory, Monterey – It’s old school, expensive, and a Monterey institution. I’ve heard pretty mixed reviews on the food so skipped it, but the multi-room restaurant is uniquely engaging (love the Conservatory and Wine Cellar), and a drink in the bar feels like being a high roller in the ’70’s/’80’s. When the fire is roaring and the piano lounge singer moves deftly from Neil Diamond to the Temptations to Sinatra, you’re feeling goood.

Renaissance Man by the fireside at Sardine Factory

Renaissance Man by the fireside at Sardine Factory

Artisanal cocktails these are not, but I thoroughly enjoyed sipping a Grasshopper (creme de menthe, creme de cacao, fresh cream – it’s been a long time!) in homage to the classy, ’70’s vibe. Singing along by a roaring fire, even the spontaneous dance party that broke out when he sang “Sweet Home Alabama“, made for a delightful evening: partly Vegas/Reno, partly party-in-a-rich-friends’-dated-house. I found myself grateful that places like this still exist. At 10:30pm, it’s a ‘late night’ option for these parts.

Carmel Coffee House courtyard

Carmel Coffee House courtyard

The Tuck Box, Carmel-by-the-Sea - A darling little, “down the rabbit hole” kind of spot for tea, it, once again, isn’t about great food (we’re in the ‘burbs now!) but about charm and a place to linger with conversation or a book over tea and scones. This architecture admittedly feels like Disneyland, but it nonetheless is part of Carmel-by-the Sea’s yuppie-gone-quirky appeal.

The Carmel Coffee House, Carmel-by-the-Sea - Through a narrow courtyard of Spanish-style architecture, this is a quintessential California courtyard, ideal for a morning cup of coffee, if you can deal with dog-friendly hordes. The coffee isn’t notable, by any means, but they make a decent cappuccino.

FOOD

Spot Prawns at Passionfish

Spot Prawns at Passionfish

Passionfish, Pacific GrovePacific Grove (PG, as locals call it) is my favorite part of the whole area. Charming Victorians, sleepy streets and a dramatic coastline all bode well… but also, it housed my favorite meal of the weekend. Service wasn’t perfect in this understated dining room, but it was well-meaning and quite informed of where its local, sustainable seafood comes from, a point of pride on a meticulous menu. Husband and wife owners, Ted (chef) and Cindy Walter, clearly display their passion in each dish – a virtual treat from Berkshire Ham Arancini ($6) to Rosemary Strawberry ice cream with passion fruit & pineapple coulis. Our meal ideally paired with a recommended bottle of 2006 Tablas Creek Vineyard Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. A layered white blend that tastes of honeysuckle, lemon, carmel apple and meringue… with a long mineral finish. Gulf of Maine Scallops ($24), with thyme risotto custard in tomato-truffle butter, were giant, juicy and seared just right. And hard-to-find Monterey Spot Prawns ($24), native to these local shores (and Santa Barbara), were just like our waitress described: the appearance of crawfish with the buttery taste of a lobster. Getting down and dirty to dig tender meat out was a pleasure, especially when there’s lemon brown butter to dip it in. Served with a cauliflower bacon linguine, it’s a filling dish. I’d come back just for the spot prawns… when they’re on the menu.

Yin Yan Salmon at Flying Fish

Yin Yan Salmon at Flying Fish

Flying Fish Grill, Carmel-by-the-Sea – Have long heard raves about this half-underground Japanese haven for fresh seafood. The food showed creativity and portions were large, though often puzzlingly paired with angel hair pasta, local fish and artichokes plentiful on the menu. Service was haphazard: at 8:30pm, we were seated next to an uproariously loud table on one side (in an an otherwise quiet, small space) and a family of about 8 with kids on the other, with nowhere to move. With entrees ranging from $19-33, we were hoping for a slightly more grown-up experience for that price. Too bad, given that the pricey fare stands strong. Free ginger salsa & wontons (basically Asian ‘chips and salsa’) to start, are a little too easy to polish off. Rare Peppered Ahi ($26) was overcooked initially, which the waitress apologized for even as she set the plate down, saying she could take it back. Yes, we want it sent back. It came back actually rare the next time, with an addictive mustard, sesame, soy sauce over angel hair pasta, Chinese cabbage and mushrooms. Another take on fish and pasta is the Yin-Yan Salmon ($24), half the salmon covered in plain sesame seeds, the other in black. This one’s creamy with a soy-lime cream sauce and snow peas.

Neilsen Bros. Market, Carmel-by-the-Sea - For picnic lunches and all-around gourmet selection of meats, produce, mustards, wines, jams, breads, etc… this old-fashioned market is your best stop in town.

And the rest…

Sunday Jazz Brunch at Eastwood's Mission Ranch

Sunday Jazz Brunch at Eastwood's Mission Ranch

Brunch at Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch, an idyllic patch of land in Carmel with sheep-filled meadows and ocean in the distance, is a leisurely experience. At just under $30 a person, it’s all-you-can-eat with one glass of champagne or a mimosa, but the “Jazz Brunch” mention is misleading as it’s one guy on a piano plus occasional drum sequencer which you can only hear inside, not on the large patio where everyone is seated. I’d never recommend for the food (basically a glorified hotel buffet), though the omelet station has plenty of good ‘fixins’, plus a range from steak, salmon, soup, pasta, desserts to fruits, pastries, cereals, eggs. It’s 100% about the setting – on a vibrantly blue day, the Renaissance Man and I read Keats to each other over mimosas… now this feels like vacation!

Casanova's front garden

Casanova's front garden

I wish I could tell you Carmel-by-the-Sea’s Casanova was worth eating at because this fetching house (once lived in by Charlie Chaplin’s chef? Random!) is an absolutely charming spot for lunch or glass of wine, whether you sit in the house’s alcoves, patios and inner courtyards or the front garden. If you can, it’s worth walking through just to see the space. But food was lackluster at best… and not cheap. $16 entrees for lunch (salads, sandwiches, pastas) and I could’ve had better at a non-descript cafe in San Francisco. Makes me sad since the place truly feels like Europe, as the owners re-created it in homage to their childhood European home. If only half as much care went into the food.

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