Thursday, April 8, 1999
Casanova is quintessential Carmel, with its own charm and a history that is impossible to resist. The story starts with a small, tumbledown cottage where its owner, Aunt Fairy Bird, lived for half a century. A former cook for Charlie Chaplin, she and her husband, a well-known handyman, were part of only a handful of blacks that resided in the area. Aunt Fairy Bird lived to be almost 90 in the little shack on 5th Avenue.
When Walter Georis acquired the property more than 22 years ago, childhood memories of his grandparent's farmhouse in Belgium provided the inspiration that would guide the remodel. The result is an architectural style that has imprinted itself on the surrounding area, recognized now as "Casanova style." Hand-painted Portuguese and Italian tile floors, white hand-brushed plaster walls, flower-filled terraces and lambent fireplaces create a soulful atmosphere that emanates warmth and intimacy. Together, Walter and his brother, Gaston, along with sister Denise and another partner, Michel Mignon, have managed to not only create a thriving business in a notoriously capricious industry, but to sustain a landmark with an attendant legion of fans from all over the world.
The chemistry was also right when it came to attracting--and keeping--Didier Dutertre as Casanova's chef. Dutertre accepted the offer of the chef position at Casanova, sight unseen. "I had always idolized California as a beautiful, sunny place, as sort of a dream. So, I had in mind to come here, just do one year, and go home." Seventeen years later, he's still there.
Dutertre's background includes taking a degree from Ecole Hoteliere de Strasbourg and cooking positions in France and Switzerland, in the Alps and on the French Riviera, experience that ripened him for the concept that became Casanova. "The idea was to bring the ambiance and flavor from Europe, and that is what has made it special," he explains, "as well as the friendly atmosphere and service."
"In 1981, we were way ahead of our time here," he continues. "In general, the food business needed to improve. The quality control, finding the right ingredients--it was a challenge. Nouvelle cuisine wasn't here yet."
Casanova's menu changes with the seasons, and now is the time to again welcome fishes like Alaskan halibut, and spring vegetables like fava beans and asparagus. Influenced by several Mediterranean cooking styles--the south of France, Provence, Spain and Italy--the country-style paella with saffron rice, chicken, lamb, chorizo sausage and seafood is a well-loved menu standard, as is the charbroiled rack of lamb with Merlot sauce.
Dinner is done in three courses, beginning with olives and Feta cheese and the addictive house tomato pesto, for slathering over bread. A choice of half a dozen second courses offers choices that run along the lines of duck pt, homemade spinach gnocchi, steamed clams in a savory broth, or a pan-seared, sundried tomato salmon cake. Roasted guinea fowl, linguine with lobster, prawns and shellfish, and veal medallions in orange citrus sauce are just a few more choices from the abundant list of dinner items. The cannelloni Casanova on the lunch menu is a long-standing favorite, filled with spinach and ricotta in fresh tomato sauce. And with two pastry chefs on staff (just try to ignore the hot chocolate cake with Armagnac ice cream), you can plan to pull out all the stops and indulge, Casanova style.
5th Avenue between Mission and San Carlos, Carmel-by-the-Sea, 625-0501
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Sat., 11:30am-3pm; Sunday brunch 9am-3pm. Dinner Sun.-Thurs., 5-10pm, Friday & Saturday, 5-10:30pm
Price range: $3.75-35.75