Wills Fargo Is Back
Wills Fargo is rustling up the beef again, but needs to unwind its lariat.
Thursday, January 16, 2003
Photo By Randy Tunnell: Hold On, Pardner: Prime Rib is the way to go at Wills Fargo.
Wills Fargo has been a Carmel Valley steakhouse tradition since 1959. It''s in a wonderful old building done up in the style of an old-time Western saloon, with low lights, lots of wood, cowboy and Carmel Valley memorabilia on the walls, and a great barroom. I remember going there in the 1970s for a great, big slab of steak, served no-nonsense style with a baked potato on the side. I even liked the complimentary relish dish of celery sticks and canned olives waiting on the table when you arrived-very Middle America. Best of all, right inside the front door you''d turn to the right, enter the little butcher''s block alcove, and pick your own cut of meat from inside the glass case. They''d cook it up for you right then and there-like picking your own lobster from the tank.
But the restaurant''s reputation suffered in recent years. I can''t say why, but I do know that I stopped going. So when Valley Resort Management, operators of Bernardus Lodge and Quail Lodge Resort and Golf Club, took over Wills Fargo last year and installed Cal Stamenov as executive chef, I had high hopes for a return to the glory days. Stamenov is one of our best local chefs, and has done wonderful things over at Quail and in the two kitchens in Bernardus, where he spends most of his days. With him overseeing the menu at Wills Fargo, help had to be on the way.
Unfortunately, a visit one recent Sunday evening demonstrated that you can create a great menu, but if it''s not executed properly in the kitchen by whoever''s actually cooking that night, dinner ain''t worth a hill ''a beans in a cowpoke''s mess tin.
That said, the meal started off auspiciously enough.
I was seated with my two dining companions, Ma and Pa Kettle, in the main dining room. The Victorian-cum-Old West décor gave us a cozy, warm feeling, and we enjoyed the World War II-era music while choosing our meals. The menu choices haven''t changed much, which is a good thing-still focused around the beef, which is now all Nebraska corn-fed, brought in by a small, independent packer. There are seven steaks on the regular dinner menu, ranging from a top sirloin for $15.95 to a two-pound Porterhouse for two at $36.95. The menu also includes chicken, lamb and a daily fish special, along with the more unusual options of liver and onions, sweetbreads and grilled quail.
Stamenov also offers a "daily specials" menu more reflective of his culinary talents. The evening we were there, these included venison saddle steaks with peach apricot demi ($24.95), linguine with duck confit ($19.95), and double-cut pork chops stuffed with bacon, gruyere, pistachios and greens ($22.95).
All dinners come with soup or salad and potato-baked, twice-baked, or French Fried-and along with the never-empty basket of cheese garlic bread on the table, we felt incapable of stuffing in an appetizer. So we went straight for the entrees: I ordered Prime Rib ($17.95) and Ma Kettle chose the pork chops, both items from the daily specials menu; Pa Kettle, a man who likes his meat straight up and flavorful, went for the top sirloin.
The salads and soup arrived, and were quite good. Both salads were crisp and heavy on the iceberg lettuce, which is fine in a steakhouse, and the housemade dressings were hearty. My New England clam chowder was delicately sweet, more a light cream soup than a heavy chowder, redolent with sherry and soft, plump clams.
All was going along swimmingly, and then the entrees arrived. First, the good news: The Prime Rib was excellent. I''d ordered it medium to medium-rare, and was served a large, juicy slice of very pink roast beef, seasoned just right. Prime Rib is a luxury in today''s rush-rush world. Who has time anymore for the leisurely Sunday night roast beef dinners of childhood? So when I get the chance to order Prime Rib in a restaurant, I do. And when it''s as good as this was, I rejoice.
Pater and Mater, however, fared less well. Pa''s steak was burnt to a crisp, a flat board of blackened beef that stubbornly resisted his fork and knife. Ma''s "double" pork chop wasn''t quite as blackened, but was hard, thin, and embarrassingly ungenerous for $22.95.
Now, it must be admitted that both ordered their meat medium-well, and the back of the menu carries the following disclaimer: "We are not responsible for the appearance or tenderness of meats ordered past medium temp." But to my way of thinking, no restaurant should serve a meal they feel is less than the best they can offer. The kitchen must always be "responsible" for what it cooks, or the customer should not feel responsible for paying for it. I''m sure that, disclaimer or no, if Mr. Stamenov had been in the kitchen that night, neither plate would have been allowed to pass his door.
Ma put on a brave smile and tucked into her chops, but Pa seized his sirloin by the horns and called the waitress. "I can''t eat this," he complained, and she, quick as a wink, whisked it away with a polite, "I''ll bring you another." The second steak was better than the first, but not good. Not by a long shot.
A word must be said about the service. Throughout the meal, our waitress and two busboys busied themselves about the table, always making sure we had what we needed. The waitress was lovely and professional, comping us our apple pie dessert as payback for the returned steak. The teenaged busboys, although very eager, were less successful in their efforts to serve. One brought me a cup of pure, chopped horseradish when I asked for horseradish sauce; the other forgot to tell the waitress that I wanted a glass of wine (Wills Fargo has a full bar). Nice boys, but they need a little more training.
The apple pie was absolutely scrumptious, topped with a nice dollop of fresh whipped cream and vanilla-bean ice cream. In sum, I''d say come to Wills Fargo for the Prime Rib, order your wine directly from the waitress, and don''t ask for the meat well-done.