Caf& %s; Nico
There's a special ingredient that makes a good meal great.
Thursday, August 23, 2001
Carmel By The Sea, looking like something out of a Harry Potter novel, conjures up images of magical wizards and elves flitting about, darting in and out of the alleyways and shops. Perhaps there exists a parallel Carmel By The Sea on a different plane of existence where storybook characters simultaneously go about their daily lives unbeknownst to us mortals, except the fortunate few like J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien.
What makes Carmel unusual is that, despite appearances, it is firmly entrenched in modern American life...well, American anyway. Plus, it is blessed/plagued by a raging river of visitors from other towns who cascade around and through it, with visions of fairytales in their eyes. In order for those hungry souls to be fed their doses of Carmel magic, legions of service personnel work behind the scene, perpetuating the dream. Unfortunately, as is so often the case when mundane, everyday reality crashes face to face with a fictional, idealized version, the folks that work the show tend to wear down.
In Carmel By The Sea, especially along the Ocean Avenue spine that gets most of the action, loyal, dedicated folks get slowly ground down as wave after wave of humans crash against them, day in and day out, year after year.
In restaurants, the lightning rods of the service industry, the cracks show first in the areas of greatest stress. The toughest, least glamorous positions--usually in the kitchen, where hot, dangerous conditions exacerbate already difficult work--are the ones where people who are wearing down lose their edge. No matter who you are, making that same chicken breast 50 times a day, six days a week, 51 or 52 weeks a year, gets old. So does loading the walk-ins, cleaning up after everyone, chopping vegetables, etc., etc. You get the picture. It''s only natural.
What happens is the end product, the food, appears to be correct in every way except it doesn''t carry inside it the most important component, love. What truly nourishes the hunger inside all of us is the love that is infused into the raw material along all the steps leading up to the eating of it.
Nico, a lovely little warm eatery in the heart of Carmel, chugs along, feeding the masses Mediterranean-influenced interpretations of local ingredients. With fireplace blazing, soft lighting and earthy colors, Nico offers a warm greeting right from the start. Friendly, giving front-of-the-house people make you feel welcome and the overall comfort level of the space settles you right down.
Very good, crusty bread, accompanied by a sun-dried tomato and olive-oil concoction, continue the relaxation process. A simple menu, which is diverse enough to please the varied clientele that drifts in here from Ocean, is easy to follow and covers all the bases. From the starters, we chose pan-grilled Gulf prawns with sun-dried tomato in garlic, lemon and wine, plus a baby spinach salad with oven-roasted almonds and tangerines.
The wine list, adequate overall--made interesting with the offering of some older Bordeaux--offered us a simple, refreshing Pouilly Fuisse by the steady Louis Jadot. We were sitting at a table right next to one of the two wrought-iron wine racks that adorn the middle of the room. I like to sit next to wine.
The prawns were perfectly cooked and richly flavored with the sun-dried-tomato based sauce. Often, sun-dried tomatoes can be cloying and overbearing but the ones used here are delicate and subtle, allowing the other flavors in the sauce to harmoniously interact. We scarfed it (gracefully of course) and sopped up the sauce with bread. The salad of baby spinach (I sometimes get pangs of guilt when I eat baby spinach) was fresh and refreshing. A simple dish of something live like that helps keep the system functioning properly during a meal.
For our entrees, we decided on two fish dishes. Often we''ll choose a wine first, then match the food to it, which is what we did this night. Sweet Thing had the pan-seared Chilean sea bass with asparagus of Monterey. I went with the herb-grilled salmon on a bed of saffron risotto. I find that I am often swayed more by a side dish than by the star of the plate. Saffron risotto is a tempting accompaniment. Both fish were fresh and cooked properly. The sea bass was lightly dredged in flour and pan seared to a delicate texture, simply flavored with fresh herbs. It was excellent. A small portion of thin spaghetti with simple tomato sauce, along with fresh asparagus, rounded out the dish.
The salmon, made more flavorful by the grilling and the addition of fresh herbs, was lovely. Along for the ride were perfectly cooked green beans and carrots that were delicious as well. The risotto which did not pack the saffron punch I''d hoped and was a little bit gummy. Overall, however, it was fine.
We also asked for a half order of the homemade gnocchi for the center of the table. Not only did they accommodate this request but the waiter, Igor, a most gracious young man, suggested both of the sauces...half tomato basil and half Gorgonzola sage cream sauce. Although not profound (but few gnocchi are), I found myself steadily munching them throughout the meal. I enjoyed overlapping the two sauces, making a Gorgonzola, sage, cream and tomato and basil sauce. We devoured the whole dish.
We contemplated dessert on the attractive patio but opted instead for simple vanilla ice cream shared at the table, hands held and bellies bloated. For our finale, a beautiful after-dinner stroll through the magical Carmel By The Sea night.