California Market Cafe
The Highlands Inn is the perfect setting for a perfectly good meal.
Thursday, January 23, 2003
Two first-rate restaurants, a lounge overlooking Point Lobos, and a fine art gallery provide four good reasons for locals who already have a bed for the night to visit the Highlands Inn. Any one of these justifies a visit.
Pacific''s Edge--the grand, celebrated dining room--is currently closed for remodeling, but that wouldn''t have mattered on a recent dining excursion. I wanted to have dinner at California Market because in the past, I''ve only considered it for breakfast or lunch.
The man and I fought against winter weekend inertia and got ourselves onto the outdoor deck before sunset. The heaters were barely needed on the mild evening, and we took a table along the railing with a glorious view of Yankee Point.
Tony, our waiter, offered binoculars. He didn''t want us to miss the 25 to 30 gray whales migrating south. By day, he works as a marine biologist for Monterey Bay Whale Watching, and can tell you as much about gray, blue and killer whales as he can about brie, chevre and Point Reyes blue cheese on the Artisan Cheese Plate. There is no certain time of day when whales tend to show up. We got lucky.
A warm breeze stirred the pine forest and it felt like an instant vacation. As the light faded, we realized that the view is just as good at night--moonlight cast silver glitter on the water and made romantic silhouettes of rocks and trees.
I opened the menu to see if the prices were as prime as the location, and quickly assessed that California Market is comparable to the array of ambience-rich, moderate-to-expensive restaurants in our area. Main courses start at $12.50 for a "Veggie" sandwich and top out at $24 for Black Angus tenderloin.
The decor is more rustic than the rest of the inn, but even the tables and chairs, made from rough-hewn tree branches, feel luxurious. The matte-finished wood floors and walls have a soothing, spa-like feel that calms the senses even before the wine arrives.
You may order from the renowned "reserve" wine list that serves both restaurants, but the basic list is structured to present something for everyone. There are a few well-chosen wines at each price level for each varietal.
The Niebaum-Coppola Claret was served by the glass and I wanted to try it because I like the Coppola Rosso, a blend of five grapes. It won a blind taste test I once set up for friends when we needed to buy wine for a large party and sought the best bottle of red for $10-$12. The Claret is a blend of traditional Bordeaux grapes. It''s nice for the $8 price--softer than a Cabernet Sauvignon, with berry notes from the Merlot and a touch of spice from Cabernet Franc.
The menu created by chef Neil Dunn reflects the advantage of local and seasonal produce. There are just a few Asian accents, and Dunn uses daily specials to explore international flavors.
You''ll find dishes that are expected to be on Central Coast menus: crispy calamari, Castroville artichoke, crab cakes and clam chowder (okay, so not everything is local and in season). And Dunn finds ways of amplifying the dishes. We tried the artichoke, which is half marinated and chilled, and half tempura-fried. It fulfilled my conflicting desires to eat both light and hearty and was excellent.
Our other starter, a "Classic" Caesar salad, had all the usual ingredients. The creamy dressing--always subject to interpretation--was a little too easy on the garlic and anchovy.
Niman Ranch, in Marin County, is a familiar name on contemporary menus. They practice humane and healthy animal husbandry, so I was glad to see their pork chop featured here with bacon-chive mashed potatoes, Savoy cabbage, shallots, and brandy apple jus. We loved it.
Tony knew the swordfish was from the Pacific and on the Aquarium''s okay-to-eat list for sustainable fishing practices. (Avoid Atlantic swordfish.) It was blackened on the outside, moist on the inside (hard to do), and served atop a hearty saffron-pea risotto. It was surrounded by a lovely moat of roasted red pepper coulis and tasted as wonderful as it looked.
Nothing motivates my daily exercise like being able to eat well without gaining weight. Neil doesn''t skimp on the entree portions, so take the necessary precautions.
We wanted to try the Valrhona chocolate mousse cake--Valrhona from France''s Rhone Valley is arguably the best chocolate on the planet. Some regulars sitting near us insisted we try "the best creme brulee in the County." Tony assured us that some locals even order it to go. Well, we had to try it, and yes, creme brulee cognoscenti must make the pilgrimage for the masterful texture of the glaze and the substantial flavors of the creme.
Then Tony, unsuspecting of my access to media that could make him famous, brought a "complimentary taste" of the Vahlrona cake--an entire piece so rich I wanted to roll in it. The service was exceptionally genial and professional, with Tony assisted by James, who works in catering during the peak season.
Does that sound like vacation enough for you? It was for us. We had our money''s worth before we even tasted the food.