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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.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Profile in Staying Power: Carmel's L'Escargot

For me, one the spots that jumped off the page when looking over the Monterey Bay Restaurant Week roster was L’Escargot (620-1942).

The divine snail's been sliming around my mind for some time because two worldly Weekly food writers, Jeanne Howard and Tony Seton, have both emerged from experiences there thoroughly impressed. For years previous, my predecessor in the food columnist chair, the indomitable Ray Napolitano (last seen plotting a Chardonnay Summit), regularly raved about chef-owner Kerry Loutas warmth and way with the kitchen. And it seems the perfect kind of special spot to hit during restaurant week because Loutas will assemble some great trademark tastes that highlight what he does best for a fixed price.

Seton stopped by the other day. His thoughts follow, paired with pictures from Nic Coury:

The restaurant business is a tough one. It may be that 90 percent of new such ventures don’t make it through the first year. Good restaurants, where you invest your time savoring your meal, are suffering during this economic downturn. Ironically, if understandably, fast food emporiums are doing very well; nutrition be hanged, you can stop your stomach from grumbling for a buck.

But back to dining...for a restaurant to survive, it needs to develop a following among the locals. That means quality and consistency. Few establishments in the country have done as well in these terms as L’Escargot in Carmel. The proof is in the fact that they have been pleasing patrons for more than half-a-century.

L’Escargot was founded in 1958 by Yvan Nopert and his family. Today it is in the talented hands of chef-owner Kericos Loutas. The fact that a considerable number of Peninsula culinary cognoscenti are regulars is testimony to the wonderful country French ambience, the fine service, the smile-watering preparation and the delicious cuisine.

In all too many restaurants, the food is prepared by assistants according to recipes. At L’Escargot, some of the dishes like the salads are left to capable assistants but the primary elements of every meal – from the appetizers to the deserts—are managed personally by Chef Loutas himself. This is an important distinction because measuring spoons and timers can get a tyro cook close to the mark, but it is only the master, using his all of his senses, who can deliver perfection.

The L’Escargot menu offers Small Plates and Appetizers, including veal sweetbreads with forest mushrooms in a Madeira sauce and frogs’ legs sautéed in garlic butter and lemon for $12; escargots in garlic-parsley butter ($10); fresh Maine mussels with shallots and cream, or the Paté du Jour for $9. Also there are several different salads, French onion soup gratinée, and a soup du jour. Plus there are several specials.

There are seven entreés plus several specials that the chef decided upon based on what was fresh in the market that morning. Among the regular dishes are panko-breaded sand dabs served with an exceptional risotto ($19), several lamb dishes including a whole rack with Dijon mustard crust and garlic lamb jus ($34), Yvan Nopert’s chicken with black truffle-Madeira cream ($32), sautéed prawns scampi ($29) and medallions of veal with wild mushrooms and dry white wine ($29). There is also a grilled New York steak with black truffle-shallot butter ($32). The steak comes with their renowned pommes frites and if they aren’t part of your meal, order a side ($5) to share.

For those who would like a little guidance, L’Escargot has a three-course prix fixe dinner for only $36. There is a salad, soup, or paté to start, then a choice of entreés including a fish of the day—that night it was a marvelous petrale sole in beurre blanc—coq au vin, and the New York steak. Two of us went ala carte and two chose the prix fixe. We all cleaned our plates, except Denise who had to take some of her grilled leg of lamb home in a box.

We all also had dessert, guiltily I might add after the rich treats of the meal, but we quickly dispelled our resistance. The prix fixe dinner includes five selections, among them apple tart and a chocolate brownie that brought new meaning to the word. And a speciality of the house...a poached bosc pear with vanilla ice cream and Merlot syrup. The desserts rang $7.50.

It would be fair to say that L’Escargot is at the very opposite end of the dining spectrum from fast food. We spent 3½ four hours at our table. We didn’t have to wait for our food; it was served in a timely fashion. Nor did we ever feel rushed or ignored. This is an establishment that understands the noble purpose of enjoying a grand meal.

None of us are major tipplers and it was over this sumptuous evening that we gently consumed two bottles of wine. I mention this because L’Escargot has a very nice wine list to meet a broad range of tastes and budgets. A special treat for you oenophiles—Wino Wednesdays...on Wednesdays, all of their wines are available at half-price.

L’Escargot is a success because of the talents of Chef Loutas in maintaining the quality of this landmark restaurant—he will start his twelfth year in December—and his innovative approach that complements the popular dishes with fresh ideas designed to spark new awareness in the cultured palates of those who regularly enjoy his work.

Another reason the restaurant succeeds is that they don’t exceed their capacity to assure quality. They are normally serving only fifty to seventy-five dinners each evening, though it should be noted that on Bastille Day they rose to the challenge of a reservations-only sell-out and fed 100 happy patrons.
Of course the regulars know how to find L’Escargot, but for people unfamiliar with Carmel, you really have to know where you are going to find their entrance; it’s at the back of a small courtyard. There’s a sign at the sidewalk—don’t you love the quaint signage rules in Carmel?—but when you get within a block, you can likely follow the compelling olfactory invitation.

West side of Mission between Fifth and Fourth in Carmel • Open seven nights a week at 5:30 but call for reservations because they may be booked for private parties. • 620-1942.