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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.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Sardine Factory Cellar: High-End Holiday Dinner Inspiration

Intrepid Weekly food contributor Tony Seton went down to the cellar the other day and came back dizzy with delight. Apparently this wasn't just any cellar. I'll let him explain.

Though the room is a catacomb, it has a surprisingly similar feeling to the great dining hall in the Hearst Castle at San Simeon, in part because of the large table and the high-backed chairs. Mostly though it’s because of the sense of history. One can see and smell—even hear—the years of living that have gone on in this room. Grand moments in the lives of important individuals. And maybe those not so important, or at least not well known, but the hours they spent in The Wine Cellar beneath the Sardine Factory were significant.

This was my first experience of this extraordinary place. I was a guest at a political fundraiser. I have been in a number of wine cellars in restaurants, vintners, and private homes, both here and in Europe. They can vary as much as rooms used for other purposes. But here at the Sardine Factory, as at a few others I’ve visited, there is a spirit that is much deeper than the grapes.

It’s actually a small room, only 14 feet wide by 30 feet long with a nine-foot ceiling, and even though it is filled by an immense table, no one feels cramped. Around this dining room are myriad racks where the Sardine Factory stores its wine, with more than a hundred private lockers where various individuals keep their own private stock. Terminator and Dirty Harry both have lockers there. Altogether there are some 35,000 bottles in the cellar, among them some historic works, including a $10,000 1870 Lafitte Rothschild.

There’s something about dining amidst such time-honored splendor; something akin to perusing a good book in a private library filled with only the leather-bound and many of them first editions.

The dining area itself is rich in history. Two huge wooden doors lead into it. They were discovered and “rescued” from the old stone Christian Brothers Winery in Napa Valley, during a remodel for the Greystone campus of the Culinary Institute of America. Inside is the massive table. It was built from a thousand-year-old Sequoia that had fallen down in Big Sur and was, with special government permission, brought to Monterey, where it was cut into appropriate form using chain saws specially ordered from Alaska. The pieces were then brought down to the cellar and assembled into the table.

The former tree—there was much left over—also contributed its grand wooden self into beams to support what was built above, plus the stunning bar that sits in the ante-room to the dining area. Many people enjoy a glass of something before they take their seats inside. For us, Veuve Cliquot was certainly a good starter.

Complementing the huge table are heavily but delicately upholstered high-back chairs that once graced the elegant dining room aboard a 19th Century luxury steamship. There are 14 on each side of the table with comfortable spacing between them. The table has three leaves that can be removed for more intimate parties.

On the walls are wonderful paintings and along them other artifacts, some of which once lived in a Spanish abbey during the 16th Century; other pieces hail from the Louis XIV era.

The dinner was staged by the Cellar Master Giovanni Sercia—he has worked for S.F. founders-owners Ted Balestreri and Bert Cutino for 35 years and held his current position for 10—and was ably abetted by two assistants. We started with crab ravioli in a truffle sauce that I would have re-ordered several times. It was followed by a salad of mixed greens and vegetables in a red wine vinaigrette. Next came something of a pièce de resistance, at least visually: each of us received a dish of sorbet served in an ice swan, lit from below.

We had a choice of entrees...pan-seared wild Alaskan halibut fillet in tarragon beurre blanc sauce, chicken breast in a Madeira wine sauce, or filet mignon in a port demi sauce. I got a taste of the halibut next to me—you don’t reach across the table at an event like this—it was delicious, and thoroughly enjoyed my beef. The entrees came with risotto with chives or potatoes and sautéed vegetables. The meal ended with chocolate Marquis, a surprisingly and pleasantly light dark chocolate sponge cake with vanilla crème anglaise.

The wines were an excellent 2005 Rombauer Chardonnay and a 1995 Galante Red Rose Hill Cabernet Sauvignon. Plus there was a glass of delicious 1970 Taylor Port with the dessert.

A dinner in the Wine Cellar in the catacombs beneath the Sardine Factory is clearly a special occasion. If you have the inclination to so celebrate, you will have the opportunity to custom design your meal and your wine pairings. The cost factors include not only the victuals and libations, but of course the number of people. There is no charge for the room; the minimum expenditure is $1,900 on food and drink, plus tax and 17 percent gratuity...figure $2,400 and up. Don’t expect to necessarily get your first choice around events like AT&T and Concours. Contact Dawn Rodriguez at 373-6625.