Thursday, March 25, 1999
If there's one style of restaurant upon which Carmel has staked its reputation, it's the genre of cozy, intimate, out-of-the-way places that might be scarce in some other hamlet that's less dictated by romance. In Carmel-By-The-Sea, wine glasses and candle flame ought to be stamped on the municipal seal. Somewhere else, it might just be the matter of going out to eat. Around here, we dine.
You'll need to look up to find da Giovanni, the newest of the not-too-far-out-of-the-way places, less than a couple of blocks off Ocean Avenue, and up one flight of stairs above the San Remo and Su Vecino courtyards.
Once inside, it's hard to remember the place in any of its earlier incarnations. There couldn't have been as many windows, it seems, or maybe it's just the components of light and air that have been let in, benefits of a recent and fairly thorough remodel. Where formerly there were dark, oversized booths, rustic pine chairs stand at tables draped in white linens and the effects are inviting.
For many years, the sign outside said Swiss Tavern. More recently come and gone were Cher Chez and Brix, the latter also doing a confusing stint as Bricks. Enter on the scene Faisal Al-Nimri and, opened one month ago, da Giovanni. Acting as your host, Al-Nimri might also be familiar to local restaurant-goers from the Carmel bistro, Nico, and Chili Great Chili, a restaurant recently acquired by his family in Pacific Grove. From the back of the house, Bill Williams brings his expertise from places like Fresh Cream and Stokes Adobe, along with Antonio Camagnini, formerly at Chez Christian.
Opening for lunch in the next couple of weeks, right now, the menu stays focused on dinner: warm-blooded Mediterranean fare made up mostly of Italian dishes, and occasionally flirting with Greek, Spanish and Moroccan specialties.
If you've brought your appetite, appetizers are the place to start. Misto di Assagi is the sampler du jour for two, antipasti that might include the made-in-house fresh mozzarella, roasted eggplant and peppers, hummus and kalamata olives. Grape leaves are stuffed with arborio rice and roasted vegetables in this version of involtini, with a complement of tangy tzatziki sauce.
Choose from traditional Greek or Caesar salads, or the Bufala mozzarella and vine-ripened tomatoes, but don't miss the blue neck mussels, steamed in pungent garlic and saffron broth. House-made pizzas come in combinations of fresh mozzarella, feta or goat cheeses, with salami and homemade Italian sausage, or simple roasted vegetables.
The pasta selection highlights homemade spinach gnocchi with rich mascarpone cheese, napped with bechamel, already a signature dish. Fresh ricotta cheese and spinach fill over-sized squares of fresh pasta, presented in (what could be better?) fresh tomato sauce.
Da Giovanni's mousaka replaces ground lamb with layers of roasted eggplant, and the risotto is also vegetarian, made with woodsy porcini mushrooms. Prominently jutting into the dining room, the mesquite and oak grill still remains in use, with both certified Black Angus filet and T-bone cuts of beef. Fresh Chilean seabass is dressed in lemony olive oil and Greek oregano, grilled and served with a Basque potato cake. Atlantic salmon comes over sauted Swiss chard, with saffron rice.
Desserts are done in-house and vary (classic canolli, fresh ricotta-filled crepes with Grand Marnier and citrus sauce). The wine list, with about 65 vintages is better than decent, making da Giovanni one more reason to dine. cw