Hanging on the Ranch
The Mission Ranch plays the roles of lazy Sunday hangout and nighttime hotspot well.
Thursday, April 14, 2005
Like a wise elder, the mere mention of Mission Ranch commands a certain respect from both locals and visitors. The exquisite parcel of property has experienced numerous ownerships, a near demise, and a happy ending in the form of a celebrity savior. A colorful history hasn’t affected the traditional feel of this institution, and if you ask most people, they wouldn’t change a thing.
Mother Nature has been fickle lately, but upon arrival at Mission Ranch, she decided to play nice and entice me and my dining partner, Morgan, to settle into a fantastic table on the bricked terrace. The heat lamps and fireplaces took the edge off the weather and made it easier to breathe in the pastoral vista of the wetlands, Point Lobos and Carmel River beach. Our fellow diners, a mixed company of young and old, large and small groups, seemed equally content.
To many on the outside, the whole brunch affair looks like a no-brainer for the kitchen. As a restaurant veteran, I can attest that it’s one of the most difficult productions to pull off—much less do well. Brunch involves an elaborate set-up—heating devices, buffet-style trays, revised seating, and the constant preparation of fresh food. Chef Enrique Javier has done a mighty fine job of making this Carmel tradition a Sunday morning success. The buffet costs $24.95 and they throw in a free mimosa or orange juice. There’s nothing terribly innovative in the basic brunch offerings, but the ingredients are fresh, the food is hot, and it’s done really well. Thick eggy French toast, eggs benedict, baked salmon with crème fraiche, shredded beef burritos, breakfast potatoes, links of sausage, prime rib, ham and made-to-order omelets kept our mouths moving for quite some time. We skipped the baked goods selection entirely, although the banana bread looked like the kind grandma used to make. Our mimosas and bloody marys were weak, but like everything else, they were good enough. After eating to a comfortable capacity, we dove into the dessert table. Profiteroles, pecan pie, and key lime pie were highlights of the extensive sweet offerings. Making serious dessert decisions—dare I have another chocolate-dipped strawberry—got us up close to hear a few minutes of Gennady Loktionov’s smooth piano playing.
A quick history lesson for those not in the know. The ranch was built in the mid-1880s, operated as a dairy farm until the 1920s, and as a private club in the 1930s. During World War II, it became an officers’ club, during which time Clint Eastwood was stationed at Fort Ord. When the California native became Carmel’s mayor in 1986, there was a threat that the property would be destroyed and turned into condominiums. Eastwood took care of that and saved (and improved) the local hangout.
A subsequent visit for dinner proved to be just as pleasant. It’s refreshing to see such a lively and seasoned bar scene on a weeknight. The piano played familiar ballads, and every once in a while, you’d catch some unabashed toe tapping and singing.
Upon being seated in the rustic and cozy dining room, garlic bread and a tray with olives, celery and carrots arrived. The menu features stick-to-your-ribs, ranch-style food, such as roast prime rib of beef, New York steak, filet mignon, and roasted maple leaf duck. Fresh fish and seafood is also featured. In addition to mahi mahi and Prince Edward Island mussels, there is locally smoked salmon, jumbo shrimp cocktail and oysters on the half shell for appetizer offerings.
Since it seems like the kitchen excels in doing the basics right, I opted for The Wedge Salad ($5.95), a head of iceberg lettuce, dressed with blue cheese dressing and dotted with tomatoes. It was exactly what I expected. I’m on a bit of a pork kick, so I decided to entertain the baby back ribs entrée ($24.75). These smoked ribs are lean, cooked until the meat is about to fall off the bone, and finished with a tangy Asian barbecue sauce. A side of salty fries made the perfect accompaniment for sopping up the sauce. I would come back specifically for its finger-licking goodness.
I think Morgan said it best. This is the type of place
where people come—order the same entrée, the same drink,
request the same table and server—for 20 years. It’s a safe
bet. The wine list is safe—you know the names and you know
exactly what you are getting and everything is priced well. At
first I was nonplussed by how homespun the whole experience
was, but later I realized that sometimes playing it safe can
26270 Dolores St., Carmel, 625-9040
Dinner: 5-9:30pm daily
Bar: 4pm-midnight daily
Sunday Brunch: 10am-1:30pm $24.95/adult; $12.95/children 12 and under; $5.50/toddlers.