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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, June 30, 2010

The C Gets an A

C Restaurant (375-4500) is doing wine dinners differently on Cannery Row. And the sequence of oenological excitement is but one element of the InterContinental Hotel's magnetic epicurean endeavors this summer.

A week from Thursday, July 8, they host Stag's Leap, and the lineup looks lavish, even for $85 (plus tax and tip), given the Napa wines they're pouring and Chef Jerry Regester's penchant for fresh tastes, local ingredients and sustainable seafood. The key difference: Instead of sitting at a big table and enduring the winemaker and vineyard manager and winery owner speeches, folks are free to set up at their own table.

Here's the rundown:

1st Course
Wild King Salmon Tartare
Masumoto Family Farms Pickled Green Peaches, English Peas & Asparagus
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, 2007

2nd Course
Caramelized Pancetta Wrapped Sea Scallop
Grilled White Corn, Brown Butter and Black Truffle Sauce
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Chardonnay, Arcadia, Napa Valley, 2007

3rd Course
Lightly Smoked Lamb Rib Chop
Porcini Mushroom Bread Pudding, Braised Summer Greens, Maple Cap Mushroom Jus
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Cabernet Sauvignon, Fay, Napa Valley, 2006

Cheese Course
Whipped Fromage Blanc and Goat Cheese
Spiced Hollister Cherry Compote and Cocoa Scented Honey
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Merlot, Napa Valley, 2005

Quintessa is on the bill for the next wine dinner in August (the date is pending). But the saliva-inducing action at the InterContinental goes well beyond there. Also of note:

• The perfect-for-summer Ocean Terrace, complete with firepits and views of Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz beyond.

• The generous public walkways.

• The comfortably appointed Reading Room off the lobby, where, like the restaurant and the Ocean Terrace, you can also enjoy wines from A Taste of Monterey (646-5446)—which carries scores of great local labels at its gorgeous tasting bar just up the block—or Sheid bottles from their sleek tasting lounge (386-0316) across the street…with ZERO corkage.

• Happy hour Sunday-Thursday 4-7pm—on the awesome Ocean Terrace or the pretty little bar patio, in the Reading Room or the slick bar (above)—means half off everything. That includes draft beers like Scrimshaw, Longboard, Anchor Steam and Leffe Blonde ($2.75 instead of $5.50), Jekel house wines ($4-$6 instead of $8-$10)…

…and signatures flights in New World, Old World and Best of Both iterations ($9 instead of $18 for four 2-ounce pours). Small plates—oysters on half shell, shrimp cocktail, calamari, clam chowder, lobster bisque, garlic fries, cheese plate—are all half off too, so they range just $2.25-$8.25 rather than $5-$16.50.

• Live music Thursday-Saturday. Bryan Diamond does light rock 4-7pm Thursday and 3-5pm Saturday. Terrence Farrell finger plucking classic guitar 5:30-9pm Friday and Saturday.

• Sunday brunch 11:30am-3pm with highlights pulled from the C's breakfast and lunch menus. Think smoked pork loin tonnato ($10), crossaint french toast ($11.50) and huevos rancheros with prawns ($15.25).

• A three-course chef's menu every Friday that run $39-$45 and spotlights Regester's creativity and sourcing. This week he sends out (1) Swank Farms heirloom tomatoes with shaved copa, cabernet onions, St. George cheese and rosemary bread, (2) Syrah-braised short ribs with white corn polenta, local chard, maitake mushrooms and horseradish cream and (3) an indulgent cheese courses starring whipped formage blanc, mascarpone with wildflower honey, Hollister cherries and apricots.

• A 10 percent discount for locals.

All told, there's a lot to C.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ginger Winner

Our own modest little Marina has Mortimer's, that new walkway over Del Monte, Noodle Bar #2, a city councilman who says the mayor should be shot in the head and—don't look now—the best product line in the land.

The Ginger People contracts with folks who grow the rizome for them in Fiji, Australia and China. They sell their cleverly marketed, all-natural chews, syrups and treats in an increasing amount of countries the world over (and at spots like Bruno's and Whole Foods locally). But their little world headquarters is in Marina across from D'anna Thai (883-9399); its leadership lives on the Peninsula; and its owners call Carmel home, as they have for years.

For a recent Food & Wine issue, the Weekly put together a Ginger People cover story exploring the flavorful things that they do.

Apparently they are still on top of their game. Yesterday the GP team scored big at the Academy Awards of its industry, the New York Fancy Food Show sofi Awards Competition, which recognize excellence in specialty food and beverages in 33 categories. Their ginger-rich line of products earned the gold in the 2010 sofi™ Awards for “Outstanding Product Line"—and the golden chef statue that comes with it.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Ready for Tastebud Takeoff

A weekend inches a lot closer to perfection with proper pancakes. I've had my plates of griddle greats at First Awakenings (784-1125/Salinas; 372-1125/P.G.) and Old Monterey Cafe (646-1021) and The Breakfast Club (394-3238), but Loulou's on Wharf II in Monterey did me better than anywhere I can I remember on a summer Sunday.

We sat at the cute little bar in the cute little yellow spot, though we usually set up outside to soak up views of Del Monte Beach and Window on the Bay, weather willing. The position gave us a nice view of the masterwork in progress.

The raspberries and blueberries merged wonderfully with the batter, staying moist and juicy without compromising the fluffy consistency of the cake. The summer got yummer.

Though I concede the pancake debate is real and ongoing, Loulou's knows no equal when the salt-and-pepper vehicle discussion shakes out. My favorite was the astronaut and the shuttle (pictured up top), but the golf ball is no shank either. Different kitchy classic appear at each table, including the always cute barn-and-silo pairing.

Peek at a piece on the place Weekly food writer Tony Seton recently wrote here.

Indisputable Proof Monday Is OK

LinkRed's Donuts is so much more than a donut store—it's a gossip caucus, a rite of passage and an undeniable institution that just celebrated 60 years.

It's also a weapon to dent maneating Mondays. A dozen of their standard donuts runs but $5 every Monday and Tuesday at their Monterey (372-9761) and Seaside (394-3444) stops. (The Alvarado location in downtown Monterey is open 6:30am-1:30pm—though they close an hour early on Mondays and Sundays—and the Fremont spot in Seaside goes 4am-3pm.)

That's $3 off. The office will love thou for just a five spot.

Staff photog Nic Coury recently snapped some shots that help illustrate the rhythmn over at Red's. Check that out here.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Of IPAs and So Duh! Liquid Fire

Local beer master Jeff "Holy" Moses of Monterey didn't rest long after last month's Monterey Bay Beer Festival (check him out in the You Tube video on the fest by Monterey's Zee Labega).

Moses, his brewer Peter Licht and their new Hermitage Brewery in San Jose are putting out a handful of new brands available at Salinas' BevMo (442-2411)—who wisely buy up all of Moses' limited production brews—right about now.

The elixirs include HOPTOPIA Double Imperial IPA (8 percent ABV), an American oak-aged IPA called Hermitage - Ale of the Hermit (8 percent), a black dry-hopped IPA called Menage a Singe (8 percent) and some sassy pops for the designated driver in us all, So Duh! Root Beer and a red-cinammon scorcher called So Duh! Liquid Fire.

In each case, the scale of the operation translates to taste, according to Moses.

"With small batches you end up with more flavorful beer, and with more clarity," he says. "I find the larger the batch, generally the less flavor."

The scale of the beer fest may change come next year, or at least its flavor may. A source I spoke with on background (and the condition of anonymity) says talks between Moses about and the Coastal Luxury Management-Cannery Row Brewing Company people—who could be seen strolling the fairgrounds grass at last month's event—about the sale of MBF are ongoing.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Opening Night at Cannery Row Brewing Company

The CRBC powers-that-be kept looking at their watches. At least three relayed a version of, "Whoah. We've only been open [fill in the blank] minutes and look at this…"

The big historic brick building was open at 5pm. The bar was spilling over by 5:20pm.

"We got 78 reservations in the first hour we went active on Dining Out," Rob Weakley, co-founder of CRBC parent Coastal Luxury Management, said during a break from expediting in the kitchen (that's him hustling, below left). It's not like the online Dining Out reservation service has an alert built in. Folks were waiting and watching.

The whole CLM team was on hand to double staff the madness—Tim Mosblech, chef of 1833, CLM's other restaurant to be in the former Gallatin's, was among the many pitching in (above)—and the service was a notch higher than I was anticipating for opening day insanity. One of the most welcome sights was seeing experienced people from extinct spots like Stokes and Monterey Live manning the taps and tables.

Another welcome sight: beer. And more beer. I was a little worried when a soft opening a week earlier starred not a drop of hops. But on this night it flowed well past midnight as a big ol' woofer boomed from above the bar area, shifting from classic rock to more house-like club action as the night spooled out.

I tried a couple signature brews, Madame Flora's "Red Light Special" and Tipsy Seagull American Pale Ale ($5.75), done exclusively for CRBC, who isn't doing any brewing themselves. The pale ale stood out thanks to an herbal tastiness I haven't found elsewhere.

Friends toasted tasty Old Rasputin ($7.25) and Spaten Premium ($6.50). Most everyone drooled over a selection that ranges from "lawnmower beers" like Milwakee's Best ($4), Hamm's in a can ($4) and even Mickey's Wide Mouth ($4) to Allagash "Fluxus" ($39) and Bosteels - Deus "Brut des Flandres" ($75) with stops at Bear Republic Red Rocket Ale ($6.50), Abita Turbodog ($5.75) and Hofbrauhause Munchen Original ($7.25) in between.

Meanwhile the wine list delivers more than 30 California bottles ranging from Red Rock Winery Reserve ($23) to Trefethen Chard ($60) and the bourbons number several dozen.

And the place can bring the burgers. Chef Mark Ayers grinds his own meat with 75 percent chuck and 25 percent short ribs. They come on artisan bunds with fries or a salad and receive toppings like crispy shallots, Marin French brie and signature sauce (as with The Big Belly Bomb, $10.50) and fried egg, bacon and french fries (the Breakfast Burger, $11.50).

I like the looks of the crispy oyster po' boy ($13.50) with caper-pick remoulade on an artisan potato roll and the triple grilled cheese with thick-cut bacon on Santa Cruz sourdough ($9.25, above).

On this trip we stuck to appetizers. The "2-hour wings" (.75/each) are up to the hype—they don't even need the Point Reyes blue cheese. The crispy fried cheese ravioli ($8.50) rock ricotta, mozzarella and pecorino romano well. The truffle fries ($7.75) are good but not worth the price.

The big several hundred thousand dollar smoker, Cheech, makes things like the wings, the smoked baby back ribs ($15/half rack; $24/full) and the slow-braised pork belly ($16) possible.

One of the stars of the operation is designer Carissa Duncan. Her details are dope, including the kegs dangling outside...
...and the beer bottle "wall"...

...keeping with the theme, here's the chandelier (chandebeer?)...

And windows to the keg room further the beer-as-art design scheme.

Chalkboard walls escort a walk through the halls to the restroom...

Attention to detail is apparent most everywhere, including the check cups made from vintage beer cans.

Retro signs hang around. The door to keg room is pretty cool in a space shuttle way.

A bunch of flatscreens bring the game live above the bar and in the dining room (that's a look from the front towards the bar starring CLM restaurants boss Gary Obligacion.

I doubled back after the Bela Fleck mindblower in Carmel to see how lively it was past the dinner hour and the place was still pretty much poppin', on into the early morning.

The next course: the balcony, featuring firepits and a look over the Rec Trail. And 1833, which is maybe a month away, insiders say.

With a side dish of world domination.

Chris Rock and Garlic

Chris Rock rules. Exhibit A might be his rant on his family's belief in the powers of cough syrup to heal anything. Put a little Tussin on it.

In the kitchen, I have a similar solves-all appreciation for garlic. Veggies need an accent? Garlic. Pasta need some self-respect? Garlic? Your constitution need a boost? Garlic. Need your place to smell nice? Garlic.

Now there's word that there are still more heady garlic applications out there: "Crawfish Gravy Over Grits," "Cranberry Bread Pudding" and..."Watermelon Crabmeat" are three finalists in the Great Garlic Cook-Off, happening as part of 32nd annual Gilroy Garlic Festival July 23-25.

Lay that on a plate with live music rocking on several stages afternoon and night, acres of vendors, mist tents and cold beer to treat the inland heat, plus the ultimate fixer: garlic.

"Come to know garlic escargot," I wrote last year after attending, "to jam with the garlic jelly, to feel for the garlic fried green tomatoes, to play with the garlic poppers, sizzle with the garlic chicken pizza, grope the garlic chocolate, celebrate the garlic mushrooms, dive into the garlic cookbooks, rock with the garlic Battle of the Bands, stir with the garlic cook-off.

"Behold the delicious beauty of the bulb. "

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cannery Row Brewing Company Opens (For Real)

It's official. The CRBC opens tomorrow (with a brand new sign supplanting the Willy's leftover in this shot from earlier in the spring).

The powers that be confiscated my menu at the soft opening, but I can testify there is a wide range of nice items that demonstrate talented Executive Chef Mark Ayers, late of Pacific's Edge and long of the Hyatt family of properties, is enjoying the freedom of a casual atmosphere, but not leaving his rigorous standards behind. And he's got a heroic smoker they've dubbed Cheech on his team for pork chops, ribs and who-knows-what-inventiveness beyond that.

The chops, pork belly and ribs I had were juicy, saucy-indulgent and fall-off-the-bone tender with a nice crisp edge, respectively. A rare ahi salad was melt-in-the-mouthy, corn-flake-crusted chicken strips beat any I remember (homemade ranch is a nice touch) and the service benefitted from some local veterans happy to land at such a buzz-worthy spot. The only just-misses were slightly-oversmokey sliders and a potatoey clam chowder, but the Coastal Luxury Management team behind the CRBC (and forthcoming 1833 in the former Stokes) were so good about soliciting feedback I'm sure they've already got those elements buttoned up like a tunic.

The real intrigue will involve the big seller-to-be: beer. They plan to pour 73 carefully juried beers (including four house labels brewed off site), which requires an inspired network of taps and chill technology, little of which was in place last week beyond the beautiful brick cooler behind the bar with windows that peek at the kegs.

Stay tuned.

Hope in a Parking Lot

The ringing so often heard in the Seaside streets—announcing the roving ice cream cart and bringing joy to so many little hearts—only makes me sad.

It’s not that I don’t like a little rompope egg noggy treat as much as the next nene (or maybe a little barcillo de fresa)—shoot, I just like saying rompope and barcillo—it’s that I’d trade 1 million of the south-of-the-border style ice cream items for one well-layered Mexican elote.

Elote, for the unitiated (and unlucky), is the name for the huge roasted corn on the cob squirted with lemon juice, swabbed with mayo, rolled in mild white queso and finished with chili powder and, often, more lime. Um, sí.

Alas, unlike a number of the roving wheelbarrow ops in my old barrio in Los Angeles or my favorite haunts in Baja or most colonias in Mexico City, these wagons do not carry the elote I seek. And hence depression descends.

There is hope, though, found in a Seaside parking lot. Outside La Preciosa Market (392-0463) on Broadway at San Lucas (before Noche Buena) in Seaside—though apparently only on weekends, and without a regular schedule that I can discern from the staff inside—are a man and woman selling authentic elote for $2 (and some roasted papas for $5).

Weekly Seaside beat writer-assistant editor-new elote lover Kera Abraham hit me with the tip. Girl’s got good instincts.

“First bite was like, wha?” she writes, “Then the rest was gone within 60 secs.”

Monday, June 21, 2010

Brewing Company Line

Coastal Luxury Management's Cannery Row Brewing Company now has a eyecatching string of kegs dangling from its northern corner, but no beer yet being poured inside.

After hoping to launch in time to pull in the U.S. Open crowds and hosting a handful of soft openings last week, CLM co-founder David Bernahl (below, left, with co-founder Rob Weakley) says their lack of a license to serve sauce was the reason they haven't opened yet.

They had all their documentation in as of Thursday, and according to Bernahl all they needed was "an activation," but Friday was a agency furlough day so the future home of 73 beers on tap, 30 small-batch bourbons and homemade grub by Exec Chef Mark Ayers remains dark.

"Everything happens for a reason," Bernahl e-mails, "just don't always know why... All good!"

Friday, June 18, 2010

U.S. Open Season

Talk about a U.S. Open scoop—here's the exclusive behind the scenes look at what they're serving the media in the aircraft-hanger-sized press tent. (OK...I can say "exclusive" because no one else was silly enough to be taking pictures of the little sizzlin' indoor grill.)

Maybe a lil' chef salad, Rick Reilly? Fellow Sportscenter star/big-boned boy Chris Berman might want to go this direction rather than the ice cream treat fridge.

For a little more photo-driven fun at the 2010 U.S. Open, bounce over to the staff blog where I posted a report of life in the crowds.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Escalating Greatness: Tasting Montrio's New Mantra

The mocktails send a message, one that's stowed by the salt pig, sizzling in the bacon-and-egg salad (above) and wildly alive in the oxtail risotto. It's even in the water.

The message: Montrio, long one of the area's adored restaurants—pulling in repeated Best of Monterey County awards from Weekly readers in categories ranging from Best Restaurant Over 10 Years old to Best Monterey Restaurant to Best Appetizers to Best Mojito—has been reborn: As it celebrated its 15th anniversary last month, the Tony Tollner-led team didn't take the milestone as self-congratulation session, but as an occasion to rexamine its fundamentals and fine tune almost everything, from sourcing to the seasoning.

"It's been a big change," says longtime GM Kathy Solley. "It's a new place—and kinda tough to get your head around all of it."

The aforementioned mediums for the message are diverse (and don't end with the salt and the water). Take the "De Fresa" mocktail: crushed strawberries, fresh basil, balsamic vinegar, lime and orange juices, agave nectar and a splash of soda, all sourced with care, designed by Anthony Vitacca. Not exactly what neglected nondrinkers get to look forward to at most places.

The wider drink menu and bar itself have undergone a small revolution. The espresso machine has been shipped to the kitchen to provide Vitacca with more space for small-batch hand crafted spirits and room to to take his mixology PhD to higher degrees, mixing his own housemade bitters, maraschino cherries and "shrubs," a fruit syrup often made with a vinegar base, into marvels like the Braveheart (Dewars White Label scotch, blackberry and plum shrub, Angostura bitters and organic agave nectar, $9).

But it doesn't get any more fundamental than water. And Montrio's new water system is the sexiest thing since sliced San Francisco sourdough.

Montrio no longer ships hundreds of heavy bottles of water in from suppliers an ocean or two away (or out to recycle centers), but nevertheless customers can enjoy bottles of pure still or sparkling tableside, chilled or room temperature. For free.

A new UV-treated filter that upstages comparatively wasteful reverse osmosis set-ups makes that possible. Not only do customers get deliciously pure (and unlimited) agua, staff stays better hydrated—all with tons less waste. And something about the little blue latching corks is just cool.

Many of the most attractive upgrades appear on Tony Baker's menu—more on the whoah-baby risotto and pinch-me pork trio in a moment—but less obvious adjustments speak to the comprehensiveness with which Montrio went after its anniversary audit.

Gone are salt and pepper shakers; in are salt pigs filled with kosher contents and a personal pepper grinder at each table. New flatware adds subtle grace. Sleeker stemware feels more appropriate for an already very good wine list that Solley still steers. Slick menus with leather spines offer new appetizers (wild salmon flatbread) and entrees (wood-roasted brick chicken). The servers look sleek in new burgundy shirts, but none of the servers are new—a key accomplishment/prerequisite in undertaking such a change.

"We haven't had to hire a server in five years," Tollner says.

But back to Baker. He's long been a conscious pursuer of excellent ingredients, he's just doing it more publicly and aggressively now. Some of his favorite growers and ranchers appear on a tribute collage near the kitchen; some of their best beets and meats appear announced on the menu and delicious on the plate.

Thanks to the grace of the food gods, Baker took Tollner, Weekly CEO Bradley Zeve and I through a taste tour of many of his new creations earlier this month.

The first bout with newness might've been the best: the oxtail risotto ($10.50) is luxuriously fortified with big green fava beans from Swank Farms, melted brie and big tender lengths of tender, slow-cooked beef in rice that's expertly evolved after years of making Baker's nice baby artichoke risotto (which remains on the menu). This dish is a must-do for meat eaters.

The salad that followed is somehow indulgent and healthy and light and rich at the same time. The bacon and egg salad wears an egg poached in bacon grease as a layer of flavor over local greens and sun-dried tomatoes touched just enough with sherry vinagrette. Maybe a microscopic morsel survived between our three plates. Maybe.

Quail flew out of the kitchen two ways after that. The best of the two treatments was an apricot-stuffed breast on a bed of warm and smokey bacon-walnut salad. I'd order it again as an entree, but love the fact that it's an appetizer ($11.50) so I can share and save room for things like the chicken. The simpler grilled quail was good but suffered from an overly enthusiastic vinegar gastrique.

The next course had what a wise chef once told me—"you can judge a kitchen by its chicken"—echoing in my head.

Baker the playmaker has a winner here with the wood roasted brick chicken ($23).

Not all bites are created equal, but if you get the right cut of hot-brick-singed skin sealing in sweet preserved lemon, Monterey Bay Salt Company sea salt, fresh oregano and black pepper, many a kichen would love to be judged by this bird.

Baker, who serves it with some dynamite Asian-influenced spiced green beans (above) and yukon gold potatoes, says the brick allows him to whip out juicy plates in a fraction of the time it would take otherwise.

The roast duck breast in a cherry port reduction ($25) didn't do it for me, partly because the sweet onion-potato gallette was a little hard to negotiate with a fork, and partly because I was distracted by the powerhouse "pork-trio" ($23.50).

Whoever said the pork trend is overblown hasn't wrestled with this wrapped star—a pork tenderloin stuffed with sweet dates and shredded pork then sealed tightly in thinly sliced ribbons of bacon and all nestled into a maple parsnip puree with a dynamic smoky-sweet taste that whoops the pants off mashed potatoes.

By the time the playful lemon curd sealed with a scorched brulee-style sugar lid arrived with some ginger cookies, the tasting had evolved into an epic afternoon.

~ ~ ~

I returned the next Monday under the cover of darkness with some friends from out of town. The place was stuffed like the pork tenderloin—and my allies came away enchanted by the established elements (the 1910 firehouse ambiance and ceiling potato-clouds) as much as the recent ones (the new ratatouille-risotto fritters and white anchovies on garlic toast).

I shared the feeling, finding my own romance between things new and old. The new included a Beta Vulgaris 2.0 (with St. Germain elderflower, green chantreuse, roasted beet juice and lemon) a woswer wild king salmon ($24) Baker has added that enjoys a lively dijon-, caper- and taragon-spiked sauce gribiche. (The chimmi churri he lays on the potato wedges that he stacks the salmon on was also interesting in the best way.) The old favorite elements felt like a friend's hug, particularly the classic oatmeal-crusted brie with cumberland sauce and the crayons on the table for scribbling, hangman and a closing note.

"Happy Birthday Montrio," it read. "You age well."