The Future is Now
Bixby’s brings tasty nostalgia to Carmel.
Thursday, September 8, 2005
Two beloved local icons—Big Sur’s Bixby’s Bridge, and Carmel’s Thunderbird Bookstore in the Barnyard—lend their cachet to Bixby’s Martini Bistro, a new restaurant that occupies the former Thunderbird Café. While I miss the atmosphere of rambling informality the café gave the Bookstore, it never quite worked as a space or an eatery, so a new restaurant there makes a lot of sense. And, judging by the large crowds and the local buzz, people have been hungering for what Bixby’s has to offer: tasty, uncomplicated fare, a pleasant location, and, with a separate martini menu, the promise of high spirits.
While recent visits indicate that Bixby’s still needs to work out a few details, in time I expect it will be embraced as a solidly worthy addition to the local dining scene.
First impressions count a lot, especially when everyone arriving their first time is examining, judging, perhaps remembering the former café. Bixby’s makes a nice first impression. Tables are set with attractive stemware, sturdy yet elegant, and I was pleased when the glass did not disappear when I ordered not a full bottle but a glass.
Most restaurants reserve their better stemware for full bottle orders. Bixby’s does not. And it makes ordering by the glass even better by offering two size options, four or eight ounces, which arrive in an individual carafe. This kind of built-in attentive service goes a long way.
And because the Bistro features wines from such excellent local producers as Pessagno and Graff Family Vineyards, ordering by the glass does not feel like a second-tier wine experience.
Also on the table are the usual salt and pepper, only here there is an individual pepper grinder. What a relief not to be subjected to the tedious ritual of waitstaff looming over your plate with a wooden grinder the size of a baseball bat, asking if you want any pepper before you’ve had the chance to taste the food. I wish more places offered these kinds of accoutrements.
Unfortunately, many diners may find they have no need of the salt shaker. One expects a certain saltiness in smoked fish, but the Smoked Salmon Forks ($15) features a salty cream filling that competes with the rich flavor of the fish. One night the Dungeness Crab Macaroni and Cheese ($18.50) seems perfectly balanced in flavor, but on another visit it is just too salty. The Giant Meatballs with Spaghetti ($17) were nicely prepared, the sweetness of the pork and the earthiness of the beef coming through an overlay of mild herbs and spices. The pasta, too, was just right, perfectly cooked and served in a lively garlic cream sauce.
My companion on one visit was very pleased with her order of Kobe Chopped Steak ($18), noting that its rich, beefy flavor was complemented by a distinctive crust on the edge of the meat.
This kind of hearty fare does well with a big red wine, and Bixby’s offers a real steal on its wine list: a wonderful Zinfandel from Renwood (Amador County) for only $23. Someone has put real thought into the wine list, choosing wines that are more food-friendly than stand-alone powerhouses.
Desserts were a disappointment. Bixby’s describes its cuisine as “coastal nostalgic,” and I wish someone in the kitchen would offer a creative, up-to-date take on the kinds of homey desserts one might have found at the Crocodile’s Tail, the mid-century diner that used to be next to Bixby’s Bridge. Instead of lemon meringue pie or rice pudding, we get the usual suspects: a surprisingly unchocolatey Ultimate Chocolate, a trio of sorbets, a crème brûlée, or an extravagant wedge of cheesecake ($8), nicely textured, not overly dense, but alas, too salty.
Other aspects of the dining experience could also use a bit more nostalgia. It’s a shame that a restaurant that wants to evoke the era of Dean-O, Frankie and Sammy should play such annoying music. The contemporary wailings of Celine Dion are sure to puncture that Martini’ed mood. And the ghastly light fixtures hanging from the ceiling in an otherwise splendid atrium-like dining room look like something collected from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Service during my visits was generally friendly and efficient, although on one occasion the waiter was zoned-out enough to make us think he was up past his bedtime. But it can take a while for a new restaurant to sort through its help. Bartenders, hosts, even busboys have been unfailingly courteous.
I look forward to stopping in at Bixby’s again, perhaps for an appetizer shared for two (portions here are enormous), along with a glass of wine or a martini (try one made with Sarticious, a gin from Santa Cruz with a pleasantly spicy bite). If Bixby’s pulls together all the elements, they could give the nearby Rio Grill some real competition.
“Coastal nostalgia” could come to mean—as it does each time one drives over the historic Bixby bridge—a place where the traditional can be new and thrilling. But leave the salt in the sea.
BIXBY MARTINI BISTRO The Barnyard, Highway 1 at Carmel Valley Road, Carmel | 626-1814 Open daily 11:30am-10pm, until 11pm Fri-Sat.