Search This Blog

Let's eat.

From Big Sur's killer cliff-clinging eateries to Salinas' unparalleled produce, this blog aims to sniff out all things Monterey County can stomach, via picture and prose, curiosity and appetite, hand and mouth.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

River Road Revelation

Sometimes you just know, you know?

You walk in someone's house, and you can tell the friendship's gonna flow deeper. You step on the field and somehow discern it's your day. You ease into a new restaurant and sense it's a spot where you'll get along famously.

So it goes with Element Tasting Bar & Pizza Bistro (998-7045), the kind of place that, thanks its obscure coordinates and that you-just-know vibe, feels like a discovery definitely worth permanently downloading to the hardrive in the head.

It sits a good three miles east of Highway 68 on River Road, so you gotta want it, or live in the area, though folks there insist that's changing quickly. My pal and I actually drove past it on our virgin voyage, but I'm glad we doubled back and found it next to a 76 gas station.

The door swung open and—bang—the small bar area was packed. Warmth bubbled from clearly collegial parties at the bar, where I asked the barkeep if there was a wine she might recommend. Owner Misty Romassa (above right) didn't hiccup, retreating for a taste of Element Syrah, a wine that turned out to 1) be the product of her sister's Addamo Winery in Santa Maria; 2) enjoy the kind of smoky bacon fat flavor that only a quality Syrah can do righteously; and 3) a heavy-pour bargain at $6.

Specialty pizzas like the Tuscan (onion, tomatoes, kalamata olives, garlic and fresh basil), Jordan's (artichokes and bacon) and the midwestern (barbecue chicken, red onion, corn, black beans, cilantro drizzled in ranch dressing) traveled to tables nearby ($8.95/nine-inch; $13.95/12-inch). At the bar, though, it looked like the only thing on the menu was what Romassa calls their most popular plate, at least when it's on special Thursday-Saturday: the prime rib ($16.95, above left, with accompanying au jus, broccoli slaw and a twice-baked potato). Thing was massive, somehow dwarfing one of the largest and most carefully crafted iceberg wedges (right) you will find for $5.50.

For a place only a year old, Element felt awfully homey and established, so what Romassa (left, with server/pal Ashley Buck) told me next made sense: She's been in restaurants her whole life, serving most recently as manager at Ellie's in Salinas for six years.

Her fiancĂ© Jim Armstrong tasted us on some other winner wines, keeping with their code to honor family-owned wineries. Speaking of family owned wineries, Mark and Sabrina Manzoni of Manzoni Vineyards—whose Pinot ranks among the region's best—sat next to me at the bar, and pointed out that fast-approaching May 1 is a prodigious day for wine in these parts, what with the 16th Annual River Road Springfest and its collection of open houses starring new releases, barrel samplings, food and entertainment.

Good times ahead. Good times going on at Element. Something tells me I'll be back (maybe to try the artichoke bruschetta, $7.95, above)—just got that feeling, you know?