Kurt Grasing and company's Carmel Chop House offers big-city thrills.
Thursday, May 16, 2002
Photo: Head chef Kurt Grasing brings a sophisticated sensibility to the Carmel Chop House.
Photographer: Randy Tunnell
Carmel Chop House was born in spring, 2001-before the economy palpably tanked and when 911 was only a phone number. The Chop House was likely conceived well before its birth, during a rhapsodic time of young tastebuds coming of age and easy money with which to gratify them.
This contemporary restaurant wisely fills a deficiency in the syntax of Carmel dining. It falls somewhere between everyday, run-of-the-mill local restaurants (more sophisticated than run-of-the-mill restaurants in most towns) and the ultra-refined eateries serving the ultra-wealthy, or functioning as special-occasion indulgences for the majority.
The restaurant interior is medium in size and big-city in style. The distinct features are lovely pendant lights, art deco-inspired wall sconces, and figurative paintings that blast color into the room (the work of artist Rudi Pillen). The acoustical quality is above average due to a cabernet-colored carpet that soaks up most of the sound (along with wayward red wine).
A bar spans one wall, its dark wood appearing black in low light, transmitting a chic, urban feel. The bar has the welcome effect of taking the edge off the restaurant''s formality, and sending forth an affable air of jokes, repartee, and strangers communing.
The Chop House, like its older sibling and neighbor, Grasing''s, is owned by a trio of intense devotees of food: Kurt Grasing, Narsai David and Larry Chazen. Grasing is executive chef of both restaurants and is unpretentious enough to fill any temporary vacancy in the kitchen, from pantry chef (cold food) on up. David is well known in the Bay Area as a chef, culinary educator, media personality, and owner of Narsai''s restaurant in Kensington.
I don''t know of any other local restaurants with the double-barrel ownership of two chefs, so I have high expectations for every aspect of the experience.
The wine list has been honed to a polish, including selections from Narsai''s personal cellar. If you throw a dart at the list, chances are you''ll be well over $40 for red and $30 for white, but there are a few wines below these points.
I''m in a mode of trying new Sauvignon Blancs. My guests recommended the 2000 Selene, Hyde Vineyards ($40). This unusual, creamy departure from the grassy, veggie-like traditional versions presents an exceptional floral essence and a range of fruit.
Our red wine was a special gift to my guests (to whom I''m indebted for multiple culinary favors) a ripe ''98 Jones Family Cabernet Sauvignon, with long-lasting berry flavors, moderate oak, and hints of tobacco and anise ($125).
Wine decision-making really works up an appetite and as if on cue, housemade potato chips appeared gratis, with a tasty black bean dipping sauce. A variation is served nightly.
Daniel Eul is chef de cuisine, charged with a menu that lives up to the restaurant''s moniker, and then some. There''s a herd of dishes in the Nebraska corn-fed USDA prime beef department, plus lamb and pork, all grilled over almond and oak. There''s an equally sizable number of seafood, pasta, and poultry selections.
Appetizers are mostly simple-oysters, steamed mussels, sauteed mushrooms, fried calamari, grilled asparagus. I tried crab cakes to test the kitchen, though often the simplest foods do this well.
The cakes were among the best I''ve had for their moist texture, chunks of identifiable blue crab, and a spicy remoulade-the most expensive appetizer at $12.50. An excellent tuna tartare came as two balls of diced raw fish, red onions and capers, served artfully with toast and wasabi.
We ordered the Chop House Caesar Salad, the name signifying pride of achievement. It''s an intelligent, low-risk approach-a subtle dressing over romaine with anchovy strips. I prefer the potentially offensive blended anchovy with screaming garlic.
It seemed fair to order as much red meat as possible. The Kansas City steak ($29.50), a bone-in New York cut, was my favorite. It''s a flavorful, tender cut that makes you want to have your arteries replaced with something uncloggable. The filet mignon ($31.50) was an unapologetic, unmitigated meat experience. We also tried the lamb loin special-not a lot of meat, but a high-grade dish all the same.
Doneness is crucial, and here the Chop House excels. We got what we asked for.
Meat entrees come with vegetables and a wonderful galette of layered potato slices, folded over and toasted to a nice crust. The side of creamed spinach is recommended.
Service was average. Our waitperson had not yet memorized the specials and the pacing was off-we felt rushed to order (we didn''t), then the food arrived at uneven intervals. Fortunately, we were engrossed in conversation and weren''t bothered.
We indulged in expensive items, so the bill was of course enormous. I analyzed the menu to determine how the average meal here would compare to similar restaurants.
The final analysis: If you order items priced from mid-to-low range on the menu, you''ll have a worthy meal at the Chop House for your money.
If you order from the upper half, price-wise, you''ll spend what you would at the very finest and most expensive restaurants in the county. Only you can decide whether the food, ambience and service are transcendent enough to justify it.