Thursday, March 27, 2014

Weekend in Carmel: Eat local pork, taste clones and sleep under a vine

Views like this make Carmel the 3rd most romantic destination in the world, according to CNN
No longer just a quaint Republican enclave where visitors hope to catch a glimpse of former mayor Clint Eastwood, Carmel has suddenly become a great wine destination.

There are now 13 tasting rooms within a short walking distance in the cute downtown. Most opened within the last three years. There's good food, unique shops, a beautiful beach (though the water is frigid.)

The rise of Pinot Noir has played a role in the rise of Carmel as a wine hotspot. One tasting room staffer said, defensively, if you're looking for big Cabernets and Zinfandels, you've come to the wrong place. Monterey County seems finally to be figuring out where it fits in the wine world at a time when many Americans are ready to drink the wines it can do well.

I had never spent the night there, but when I was offered the chance by a motel with an interesting concept -- individual rooms have been decorated by different wineries -- my wife and I hit the road. It's only two hours from San Francisco, but Carmel feels like a trip somewhere very different.

The quaintness downtown is aggressively enforced. Pluses: Interesting, quirky architecture. An absence of chain stores. Minuses: There are no streetlights by ordinance, so if you stay a bit outside the main area, as we did, you walk back by moonlight. 


Katy's Place looks like it's growing out of a redwood tree, with a comfortable outside patio. Plenty of locals eat here; some address the servers by name. Katy's specialty is eggs benedict, with more than 10 types, but we were in the mood for lunch so I had a patty melt. It's usually hard to get a burger truly rare when it's re-grilled inside bread with Swiss cheese and grilled onions, but Katy's pulled it off. The fries were cut a touch too fat but they were fresh. Be warned, breakfast diners: the coffee is awful. And it's cash only.

For dinner we were lucky to get a cancellation table at La Balena. Dining in Carmel is famous for being expensive and formal, but not cutting edge. La Balena chef Bradford Briske has made a fascinating transition from cooking at Millennium, the creative vegan restaurant in San Francisco, to butchering his own meat. I had to see the results of that.

We ordered two specials from a pig he butchered the day before. First, a soup with a broth made from pork bones along with fresh asparagus and potato croquettes. It was terrific, with the asparagus giving lightness to the strong porky flavor, and the croquettes adding texture.

A pork chop served medium-rare on a bed of white beans, was so fresh, so simple and so pristine. My wife said it was the best pork chop she'd ever had. The meat was tender, and I couldn't resist picking up the bone to gnaw on the bits close to it.

I walked by the kitchen on the way to the men's room and Briske was there, sweaty, pan-frying some broccoli. I praised the pork chop and he was enthusiastic to talk about it, and soon another cook wordlessly took over the broccoli pan. Briske said the chop's pure flavor came because so few hands had touched it. He bought it from the nearby farm where it was raised, and while he didn't slaughter it himself, he picked it up himself and immediately butchered it. He says even most farm-to-table meat goes through several more hands and days of storage before reaching a restaurant.

Ravioli neri
We also had two fine dishes from the regular menu, a starter with grilled octopus and potatoes, and ravioli neri with fresh crab. Both were delicious, again highlighting fresh ingredients, with a real fishing industry based nearby (unlike San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, which is a shopping mall). The saucing on the ravioli neri was light, allowing the delicacy of the crabmeat and the squid ink in the pasta to shine.

Owner Emanuele Bartolini runs the wine list. I loved the way he talked about wine: he didn't assume I knew anything, but didn't talk down to me. I came to Carmel planning to drink something local, and we had a quick discussion about Chardonnay. There are great Chardonnays being made in Monterey County, but he didn't really have any on the list.

He steered me to a 2010 Statti Mantonico from Calabria ($44 on the list), which is already showing secondary characteristics, but got fresher as we drank it. It's juicy, with a nice round mouthfeel, but not heavy, and goes well with the menu. We finished the bottle, adding a degree of difficulty to the moonlit walk back to the room.

Spring salad at Basil
For our Sunday lunch, we dined outside in a little alleyway at Basil, which is known for its devotion to fresh ingredients. That paid off in a terrific salad of asparagus, watercress and spring onion with aged sheep cheese and a light vinaigrette dressing. It was like biting into spring.

We also enjoyed a ravioli of local artichoke in an asparagus butter sauce. The chef is German so we ordered the strudel, a restrained, not overly sweet version with Fuji apple, fig and golden raisins with cinnamon ice cream on the side. 


Scheid Vineyards was the best we visited, though the tasting was pricy at $10 or $20 for four wines. We had the interesting Reserve Pinot Noir flight ($20), which included two single-clone wines (Pommard and 667). A single-clone tasting might be a little on the geeky side, but to me, experiencing something unusual like that is what makes a tasting room room visit fun. The staff was knowledgeable and used maps to answer my questions.

Manzoni, in the alleyway across from Basil, had some good Pinot Noirs and a good story, as the Manzonis are vegetable farmers whose land is right next to the Franscionis of Garys' Vineyard fame, but on the valley floor with little soil suitable for grapes. I was reminded that Carmel is a Republican stronghold in liberal Northern California when the tasting room staffer, with no antecedent, started complaining about taxes in California, claiming that they change so often that it's impossible to keep track. I suggested he buy a computer.


The McIntyre Room at the Vendange Inn
We stayed at the Vendange Inn, which the Lee family bought in 2012 and renovated top to bottom. It had been a run-down budget motel on the outskirts of town. "It had flowered wallpaper, a very country look," Brian Lee said. "We wanted to do something on the younger side to get away from the antiquey-ness that Carmel already has."

Lee hit on the idea of inviting area wineries to decorate individual rooms. It's quite cool: in the McIntyre room, you sleep under an actual grapevine. Twisted Root changes its photos of the vineyard in its room seasonally, so you get a sense of what the vineyard is like during your stay. Others have barrel sculptures and art made with bottles.

"It became a competition," Lee said. "They were saying, I'm going to make a better room than yours. We found the ones that let their wives do it, did the best."

Vendange Inn is about a 15-minute walk from downtown, and you may want to bring earplugs because the road noise doesn't completely go away. On the plus side, the inn has a good wine list with wines from its winery sponsors at the same prices you pay in their tasting rooms, so on a chilly day, you could just light the fireplace and have a tasting room experience that's more romantic than just comparing clones.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Jim Caudill said...

Coffee's maybe not so good, but for breakfast, Katy's is always packed. Unless it's changed, the real warning for visitors is: they don't take credit cards, at least for breakfast, cash only or you're washing dishes....

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks Jim, it's worth noting, I'll amend the post.