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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, February 2, 2011

Special Edible's New Home (and a Baby Monkey on the Back of a Pig)

The people demanded an answer. Their rebukes came at tasting events and by confused texts or awkward e-mail. One chunk of outrage found me at a class where it was otherwise super-sunny skies—and how could it not be? We were pickling carrots and Brussels sprouts at Happy Girl Kitchen—and went a little like this:

"WTF, bro. WTF. What's with the blog."

They thought I was lazy, or AWOL, or laying face down in a corner booth, dead from over-researching my beat.

The real truth reveals a dark side to food journalism detailed beautifully in this film about a sensitive chef with a sharp blade.

Only I was not offed and eaten as retribution for bitter evaluations of an articulate and angry chef.

Special Edible never stopped, it was merely munching along in a new place found on the new Weekly website under Food Blog. I was prevented from updating you here about that until now by a sequence of technological burps that can best be described as life-shortening.

In the meantime, though, in that new Food Blog slot I've unspooled an epic 36-hour loop through Big Sur and Paso Robles, posted an EcoFarm report from an actual organic farmer and listed 2011's top food events, among other palatable posts.

And wait'll you see what's coming soon: scenes from the Napa Wine Train, insider scoops from the blockbuster Clambake for a Cure and the best food commercial series I've ever laid my ravenous eyes on (I can't tell what country it's from, but it doesn't much matter when you are laughing that hard).

I do want to thank you for putting up with the transition. And I see no better way of doing that than with a monkey-wrapped porkchop:

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Hidden Gem #1 of 2010 (and Three Other Top Tucked-Away Treasures)

There are different reasons each of these qualify as undetected treasures—maybe they're off the beaten path, or enjoy a chef with credentials you might not expect to find there. But they don't differ when it comes to taking care of people and clearly loving what they do. You can taste it.

1. Viva La Crepe (601-4847)

It's not uncommon to hear small places compared to closets, but in this case, that might be a disservice to closets.

VLC rents space inside an ice cream and coffee joint that's already petite, on the first horizontal branch of Fisherman's Wharf, where few locals would ever think to look for food, let alone thoroughly authentic and delicious, sweet and savory crepes made with unbelievable buckwheat batter.

Owner-operators Thierry Crocquet and Daniel Peron clearly love what they’re doing. I do too—try the homemade caramel apple sweetie or the seasonal veggie with two kinds of cheese.

2. Courtside Café at Chamisal (484-1135)

Chef David Frappeia could cook in any kitchen in county, but here—where few realize the restaurant is open to the public (and the courts, pools, saunas and such are too, for $20/day)—seems to fit since he's such a fitness nut.

He also loves great ingredients, which makes for great crab benedicts, sandwiches, salads and even French-inspired dinners. The sand dab sandwich I had in the Corral de Tierra sun was heavenly; the robust cobb (above) was on its game in a major way. He's actively evolving the wine list, continuing wine dinners and generally kicking ass.

3. Element Tasting Bar and Pizza Bistro (998-7045)

Buried in a strip mall next to gas station on River Road, this place bursts with familial affection, thanks to welcoming owner-operator Misty Romassa and the hardy but deferential growers and vitners from the neighboring plots who have made it their regular spot.

Massive prime ribs, tasty pizzas and excellent tastes from a solid selection of wines—featuring family label Addamo Winery—rank among the main draws.

4. Brophy’s Tavern in Carmel (624-2476)

Anyone who can tell a a pint from a piña colada knows this is one of Carmel's favorite watering holes, and a good place to watch the game and grab a bite too.

But they may not realize the man behind the quietly excellent—and still improving—menu is one of my favorite chefs anywhere, Brian Christensen, formerly of landmark Stokes Restaurant in Monterey.

Sneaky: a top chef simmering greatness at a little bar-grill. I love it—like I loved the fried chicken sandwich and unbeatable Kobe sliders I had New Year's Eve.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Zmak Some Sense Into You

Maybe you are like me. Not so bright.

It took my remedial self repeat visits to Marina—to the largest ginger purveyor in the world, The Ginger People, to the under-appreciated Italian hideout Frutti de Mar, to new addition Noodle Bar, to always good D'Anna Thai and city standby Dishes Bistro—to actively remember that Marina is an excellent destination for lunch and dinner.

A big contributor to that shift in understanding wasn't word that Tommy's has $1 breakfasts or insider knowledge that Kula Ranch claims some of the best sports-watching specials (and dog menus), though they do. It was the International Flavors of Marina annual event. The party's a bargain, and always leaves my belly stuffed with well-crafted snacks and my pockets stuffed with business cards.

I test drove Mayor Bruce Delgado's electric car at the last one. Soon after, Delgado charged up an effort to better announce those flavors with signs and promotions during the U.S. Open, which helped score a sizeable boom in restaurant business.

Now, Marina is doing its own Restaurant Week Jan. 22-28, something only possible in a town this size with enough quality restaurants and industry cohesion.

Ten restaurants are involved in the sophomore run. I asked longtime champion of Marina, event chair and Chamber of Commerce player Tina Zmak for her recommendations at the establishments involved, and she hit me with the following insights after consulting with similarly qualified Marina taste testers like her husband Steve and Susan and Jay Boettner.

Each of the restaurants or other food movers below is involved in Restaurant Week, in which guests earn passport stamps for each place visited, which are then translated into entries in a prize drawing for free dinners. Eat at seven spots, get seven chances to win a package of 10 dinners.

Here are Zmak's favorite ways to enjoy 10 top Marina spots:

Coffee Mia Brew Bar
Caprese gourmet panini (tomato, mozzarella and basil w/ pesto on green onion focaccia) and a cannoli for dessert

El Palmar
Two sopes with guacamole (a vegetarian special)

English Ales Brewery
Fish and chips with a Black Hound Stout

Everyone’s Harvest Marina Farmers Market
Anything fresh and organic!

Clam chowder in a bread bowl and Francisco's enchilada (with chicken)

Kula Ranch Island Steakhouse
Fire-roasted artichokes appetizer and certified Angus filet mignon

Marina Village Restaurant
Everyday breakfast special (two eggs, two strips of bacon, two sausages and choice of pancakes, French toast or rice for only $5.75)

Michael’s Grill & Taqueria
House burrito (charbroiled shrimp, blackened chicken, rice, cheese)

The Otter’s Den
Wine Down Wednesday complimentary assortment of cheeses when you order a glass of wine

Wild Thyme Deli & Cafe
Greek salad served with hummus and pita chips

Monday, January 10, 2011

CRBC: Suddenly a Music Venue Too

Cannery Row Brewing Company had the liveliest dance floors the Row has seen outside of Sly's, Bullwackers and Blue Fin in some time on New Year's Eve thanks to a friend and colleague of mine, DJ Hanif Wondir.

Now they're going even bigger, with a late-breaking show booked by Joe Fletcher, the local promoter whose biggest coup was his Roots-Michael Franti-Cake-led Monterey Music Summit.

After a Friday show at the Monterey Maritime Museum, Los Angeles-based Morgan Nagler of Whispertown, the Heartstring Symphony, and Jake Bellows of Neva Dinova decided to stick around for an encore, as Weekly scribe Sarah Rubin describes with a recent news flash.

Should be interesting to see how the singer-songwriter fans mingle with the BCS Championship Game crowd.

Best part: The 8pm show is free.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Look Back at 2010: Most Missed Departures

Plenty of restaurants famously fold up their tableclothes every year, let alone in years when disposable income is in the garbage disposal.

Monterey County saw a typical wave of turnover in certain spots that can't seem to retain any venture, like the Mucky Duck-adjacent space when Karma Cafe came and went (in the wake of a flopped sushi joint and a surrendering French outpost)—though the most recent occupant, Cabo Blue Taco Shack, makes a mean and authentic torta (more on that soon).

This list, the first of several looking-back rankings, isn't so much interested in identifying those flash-in-the-sauce-pan spots, but honoring longer and more dearly held operations that bid us adieu in '10.

7. Rancho Cellars and Cepage Deli
This Carmel Crossroads standby didn't evaporate for lack of traffic or the acidic economy, but because the building’s owners sold. Jacques Melac and chef-wife Janet, who ran the Cepages Deli within the store, “don’t know how the wine business is going to make it through the next two years,” so they weren't too stressed about taking a break. Just months later, Janet is cheffing fabulously at Fifi's and Jacques is helping run the show at Cannery Row Brewing Company before he jumps ship for Pacific's Edge.

6. Lattitudes
Tene Shake had a prime tourist spot, but he also made it attractive for locals with various discounts, a strong happy hour and regular lounge music. Anytime you can eat tasty crab rangoons and sip an alcoholic milkshake overlooking the Pacific—at reasonable prices—it's a win, which gives this Lovers Point loss its place on the list.

5. Amarin Thai
Though this sucker sat on arguably the most trafficked corner of the county—across from the Aquarium—shockingly few folks knew its killer coconut soups even existed. Nothing insanely mind-blowing, but above-average Southeast Asian in a cute storefront with good people in a strategic location. Alas.

4. Monterey County Herald local food coverage
People understandably think that I'd be stoked that the Herald's beheaded its food coverage. Not so much. There is so much good stuff that deserves attention there's no way we at the Weekly can spotlight it all. Plus, Mike Hale and Melissa Snyder of "He Said She Said" are insightful, intuitive writers. My colleague and longtime local food critic Ray Napolitano may have put it best: "It doesn't seem very sensible," he said at the time. "My guess is that is a good barometer that, financially, the paper is in deep sh*t. In a community like this where there are more resturants per capita than almost anywhere, to not have a connection between the local daily and the restaurants is really a sad and mournful day."

3. Zocalo
One of the most consistent and popular Mexican restaurants in Pacific Grove said adios, as did its Salinas branch. The good news: Much of the staff is back in P.G. with Mando's, though the results are hit and miss, as new Weekly food writer Ulia Zettie details in this week's review.

2. Clementine's Kitchen
This one hurts. Every time I needed something useful and fun for a friend who likes food and cooking, I could be found finding my way here. They had it all: mustards, wines, trippy tools you never knew you couldn't live without. Practical things with personality, interpreted by a classy and good-humored staff that might even have a wine tasting going on while you shop. Last visit there I tracked down an imported Chianti, a jar of sun-dried tomatoes in delicious oil and a elegant little kitchen contraption that diced, scooped and chopped—all for maybe $25. They also did cooking classes in a little demo kitchen and always brightened your day with their sunny disposition.

1. Tastes Like Chicken Ranch
Speaking of pain, this is a stinger with big-picture revelations. TLC's free-range chickens and pigs delivered amazing eggs and bacon, but more importantly, their small family farm did everything right, asked their customers to pay for it, then paid for it themselves. Their ultimate failure speaks to the flaws with a system that cultivates big, nasty factory farms but demands ultimately way too much from the little guys for them to have a real chance at profit, let alone a reasonable quality of life. Owner Jim Dunlop, an ALBA alum, wasn't shy about pointing out the land-access and meat-processing problems with said system, as I detailed with a post this fall.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Monterey Cookhouse Owner Earns Nice Nod

The Monterey Cookhouse's (642-9900) supremely welcoming owner-operator Linda Cantrell (above) received a much-deserved honor the other day with the inaugural John "Spud" Spadaro award, named for the late iconic owner-chef behind longtime Salinas institution Spado's.

This plaque honoring her achievement will appear on the wall from here on. Longtime industry vet Johnny Aliotti hatched the idea for the award and spoke to her warmth in front of a packed house there for a surprise ceremony at the Fremont spot.

"She represents everything that this award is about," he said. "You've seen it. She makes everyone feel good. Not many people do that. She knows and hugs almost everyone who comes in the door. John was the same way. He was all hospitality."

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Eat Like a "Web Superstar"

Fame is often just a detail or two away.

The right conversation in an elevator. The right lactose-free smoothie in the morning. The proper wording in a press release. The right choice for which mountain to ski.

Seriously. Local semi-celeb and Cachagua resident Kevin Klein, who has appeared on Comedy Central and at scores of national events as a George W. Bush impersonator, told me he was discovered skiing around at Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe. What if he went to Heavenly that day?

Snappy Shelly Steinbeck, an African leopard tortoise who lives at Salinas Public Library, is now a bone fied superstar: The webcam that tracks his snacking and napping and just reached 1,000,000 webcam views with the close of 2010—the most ever for a tortoise, according to library spokespeople and Justin TV, who provides the streaming service.

The detail he owes his web dominance to? Might just be his diet. It's all organic, local, garden-grown lettuce, radicchio, cherry tomatoes, grass, strawberries, nopales and the occasional plum, says head turtle caregiver/library clerk Valerie Henderson. He even chows native weeds like wild dandelion.

"You gotta eat healthy, you gotta eat right," she says. "It's a very healthy diet. He's got a good appetite. He eats a lot and grows a lot."

It's remotely possible it's not his diet—though studies have shown that 40 percent of how you feel is based on your last meal. If it's not, here's the other best contenders for what makes Snappy special enough to reach Internet superstar status appear below:

He's well-connected.
"Everybody knows Snappy," Henderson says. "When he's on his walk, people on their lunch break say hi, even the mailman knows Snappy. There’s a church across the street that provides meals and things to disadvantaged people. They all know Snappy."

He's an intellectual.
The guy's always hanging out at the library, after all. "Snappy’s very smart," Henderson says.

He's on message.
His favorite thing to tell kids: Reading makes you smart. At the weekly Snappy Time (Tuesdays at 4pm) kids read a nature-themed book and get to visit with the little reptile before doing some Mother Nature affiliated crafts. Yesterday Gabriel Xavier Morales, 6, of Salinas, bought a book about reptiles because of Snappy. "I like that he can swim and go inside his shell," Morales said. "It's cool."

He's a political playmaker.
"I don’t know if Snappy can run for mayor," Henderson says. "But [Salinas Mayor] Dennis Donohue is a fan of Snappy. He actually invited him to a press conference when [Snappy] was getting close to a million hits. Donohue awarded him a special recognition that posted in his habitat, for his service."