Just One Taste
Taste Cafe & Bistro brings all of the elements together into a pleasing whole.
Thursday, April 4, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell.
Taste Cafe & Bistro is one of those before-and-after stories. "Before" was when the founding owners ran the restaurant, until they sold it to open Cafe Rustica in Carmel Valley. "After" is the time since chef/owner Bill Karaki bought it in 1999. I decided it was time to see how the place has fared.
Right away, I noticed the wait staff all wear chef''s jackets-which makes me feel that they take their work seriously. And it isn''t merely appearances. Our waitperson, Tonya, is exceptionally knowledgeable about the food and wine.
I''m going to confess right here in paragraph three that I''m stressing over my role as a critic after this recent meal. I''m struggling to find something significant to criticize.
I thought the white beans served with grilled shrimp (with cilantro and roasted peppers) were a little too al dente. But come on, nearly everyone overcooks beans to a mash. I''m not even sure they were too firm; perhaps it was shocking to find beans cooked properly.
There is one legitimate distraction, but it''s over once you''re settled into your chair. With a recent remodel, Karaki doubled the interior space into one of the most comfortable dining havens. But outside these calming, butter-cream walls is-well, even the monarch butterflies avoid upper Forest Avenue in the unattractive business end of town.
In every other way, this is how a restaurant should be. Every dish was delicious. Why is this so rare? After working the bugs out of the same recipes every day, few kitchens master such across-the-board quality.
Tonya suggested the medium-heavy bodied Simi Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for $44. I''m regularly disappointed by the wines I can afford, and it shouldn''t be necessary to pay more than $44 for a decent bottle. I plan to return soon before the excellent ''97 is gone.
My two guests agreed to rotate all dishes for the maximum experience. To start, we group-ordered Caesar salad, Valley greens salad, salmon carpaccio, and the aforementioned shrimp.
The Caesar is one of the best, with anchovy and garlic playing a bold duet. I was thrilled to find a light salad on the menu in the Valley greens-red leaf lettuce, curls of jicama and carrot, a dollop of pearl pasta. So many salads apologize for their light nature by adopting nuts, cheese, and other weighty detractors. Nearly every menu insists on offering a pecan, Gorgonzola, and pear salad, and other similarly burdened affairs. They''re obviously popular, because Taste offers one too.
The salmon carpaccio is a savory and extroverted little number, with the usual capers and red onions, plus a hot mustard-dill sauce-more like horseradish than Dijon.
After hearing about the fascinating book Sue recently completed (130,000 words equal 300 pages), the collective palate quickly selected entrees: pork, lamb, and blue-nosed sea bass.
I got the pork first. It looked like a multi-media presentation. There was a canvas of mashed potatoes, medallions of pork at various angles, an abstract arrangement of apples, caramelized onions, celery, and cabbage, painted with a sauce that seemed to exude naturally from the union of the ingredients. Every item seemed destined to end up together on this plate, in this moment, in this way. I feel like I''ve uncovered one of the secrets of Taste''s prowess in the composing of dishes. Things go together so organically, so logically, so delectably.
Blue-nosed sea bass is firmer, milder, less oily and allegedly less endangered than its Chilean relative. This yummy "special" was served with asparagus, caramelized onions, lemon buerre blanc sauce and au gratin potatoes.
Marinated lamb filets were bathed in a cabernet-shallot sauce that derived its richness from natural flavors rather than added fat (the latter method can be a cop-out). Pine nuts, roasted red peppers and spinach generously round out the dish, and au gratin potatoes make it hearty.
Chopped, fresh tomatoes are a theme running through all three entrees-and they''re actually peeled.
There is a kind of philosophical spectrum for cuisine. One end holds that the main ingredient is the featured flavor, with all other ingredients in a gently supportive role-and the other end presents the opposing idea that the main ingredient anchors a dish, with additional ingredients as contrasting accents. Taste Cafe''s food-which is described as European/new American-falls nicely near the middle, a little toward the subtle-supporting-ingredient concept.
We must have had a death-wish because we were so full, yet two desserts were on the way. I''m a fan of fruity desserts like pies and tarts. My man has a one-track mind for chocolate. Tonya''s recommendation was bread pudding.
"You must do something with all that leftover bread," my man joked. "We bake the brioche specifically for this dish," Tonya trumped him.
Even the chocolate-lover adored the warmed brioche bread pudding with apricot coulis, admitting the chocolate torte was sort of a dry, floury wedge. The group acknowledged a preference for flourless types with the word "killer" or "death" in the name.
But that''s just another petty criticism of what is a wholly impressive restaurant.