New Bistro On The Block
The new Carmel Bistro is one of the best values in town.
Thursday, September 26, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell.
Photo: Bistro Fair--a bright room, relaxed staff and good food and wine make Carmel Bistro work.
The restaurant-owner fantasy is rampant--not only among the experienced, but also among home cooks, creatively under-stimulated professionals and retired doctors. Friends laughing at the bar, lines out the door and rave reviews in newspapers--even I''ve been known to wax quixotic about the restaurant within that''s eager to be manifested.
Sal and Ashley Tedesco have done it. Not without experience--Sal spent ten years at Pasta Mia and currently owns Captain Gig''s, a seafood bar on the Wharf. But Carmel Bistro is a big leap.
Ashley''s gracious mother helps with hosting and other tasks; Dad tends the wine-and-beer-bar after his day job of international investing.
On a Wednesday, the Big Man and I had no dinner plans at 8pm. Expecting a quiet evening, we arrived at Carmel Bistro without reservations. The dining room was surprisingly full, but there were seats at the bar.
The bar is central, with a cool wrap-around counter of mustard-hued cement. We dined there on two occasions, because we enjoyed talking with Dad, and liked the view from our position at the secondary hub of the operation. Waiters zipped in for beverages and glasses, wine was dispensed, problems were solved.
Ashley and Dad were prodigal sources of information. Both possess an infectious enthusiasm for the magical world of restaurant ownership. Dad was particularly enamored that Sal''s friend taught them how to fold napkins in the Florentine style earlier that day.
Ashley and Mom have years of gallery management experience and designed the interior. Let''s call it California Wine Country. With sepia-washed butter yellow walls, Saltillo tile floors, white tablecloths, paintings of vineyards and pastoral scenes, it''s a warm room, neither banal nor overreaching.
The food is California bistro style, with wine-country accents and Mediterranean influences. Dad plopped a bowl of clam chowder before us, gratis, after someone ordered it by mistake. It was New England style and loaded with clams as tender as tofu.
We quickly discovered Carmel Bistro is one of the best values in town. A Bambino Menu makes it reasonable to bring the kids. The regular menu features several entrees under $10; most are $11.95 to $16.95, and red meat runs $18.95 to $23.95. Lemon Gelato, made by Pino''s Cafe on Alvarado, costs $3.50, while the more elaborate desserts go for a bit more.
Most wines by the glass are $6 to $6.75--notable options are the acclaimed David Bruce Pinot Noir and Adelaida Chardonnay, a voluptuous wine with floral tones and crisp fruit to brighten oak and vanilla. The 30-bottle list is admirably crafted to include both boutique wines and well-known names.
We tried a Caesar Salad, interpreted to a delightfully unrecognizable form by Chef Giacomo Stoltz. It''s served in a large, flat pasta bowl with ripe tomatoes and polenta croutons (so fresh, they''re soft). Even at $6.95, this is a bargain in Carmel, where prices often factor in the charming ambience of about six square blocks.
Again, Giacomo improvised around a familiar theme with the Pomodoro Fresca, "...vine ripened tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and fresh basil over linguini." Many kitchens produce this rustic classic, but this one was sublime. The first time I tasted it, I knew I would go again just for this dish. And I did. But it wasn''t as good the second time.
The first night''s version had the obvious: tomatoes--sweet and not overcooked; linguini--prepared al dente; a tasty splash of olive oil; and delicate salt. Its uniqueness lay in the addition of a very few pine nuts, copious garlic, and luxuriant basil. The second time I ordered it, the dish was primarily tomatoes and was, frankly, bland. I could understand it--it appeared less labor-intensive and less costly. Giacomo said the dishes are in flux. He''s tweaking for the first few weeks. But I want that dish back, even if it means raising the price a buck or two.
One entree sounded irresistible: "A tender stew of lamb, artichoke hearts, garlic and Riesling, over soft rosemary polenta." Like pasta, soft polenta has a short plate life, but it''s delicious and the effort is applauded. The hard little triangles and rectangles that restaurants often present are easier to keep and serve. This is a wonderful new context for local artichokes.
Bistro ribs come as a starter or an entree. I like that in a dish. The first time I ordered it, I got short ribs. The second time, I got spare ribs. Giacomo later explained that for now, there''s a choice. And given a choice, I recommend the meaty, tender short ribs.
The lasagnette of eggplant is a starter similar to eggplant Parmesan, but with goat cheese and Parmesan. This layered recipe was all finesse, with none of the common crimes of its source dish--no item was overplayed and soft goat cheese was an ideal match for the Marinara sauce, in texture and strength of flavor (why didn''t I think of that?)
I have never intended to become jaded. I do not want to be a bad cliche. Yet lately, I find myself rolling my eyes skeptically and thinking, "Another new restaurant." Carmel Bistro took me by surprise. They get Feel-Good Restaurant of the Year. They''re doing so much right--especially in hiring Giacomo--that with a little fine-tuning, I predict it will be difficult to get a table there.