At Culinary Center of Monterey, the education is supremely edible.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Learning never tasted so good—that tender pancetta-wrapped halibut is some delicious curriculum. The strange, cold scallop-and-shrimp soufflé, however, isn’t really worth studying. But whether inspired or haywired, every dish along the odyssey that is a Thursday, Friday or weekend brunch at the Culinary Center of Monterey (CCM) is a dynamic experience—and eaten in the name of education.
The nonprofit school on Cannery Row has been organizing special group cooking seminars, corporate team-building events and wedding receptions since 2001, but started up their vocational school in ’04, and just began doing the restaurant thing this spring. Consequently the restaurant remains off the culinary cue cards of most local foodies—and the CCM seems to like it that way, as it prevents the young chefs from becoming overwhelmed as they complete the year-long training that prepares them, 12 at a time, for placement at top restaurants across the country.
Each week presents a new skill for the students to master, so their menu is constantly changing, though the prices are consistently low.
When I called on a Thursday to make reservations, Lelei Fernandez, a co-founder of the center’s new partner Monterey Culinary Arts Foundation, said I was in luck—she had tried the menu Thursday (it remains the same through Friday only), and thought it was tasty. She was mostly right.
The big, beautiful Cannery Row facility, complete with a large stone terrace peeking past Spindrift Hotel to the Pacific, opens up welcomingly; on my visit the soothing sorbet walls and dusky sky helped Fernandez play hostess. More hospitality followed: After a nearby table recommended my friend Jules and I split the eight courses, our smooth server Jim allowed us to share the main plates and still enjoy our own appetizers and desserts for $70 total.
The first plate, a rabbit and shitake mushroom terrine, looked a little busy between the caramelized onion and marsala wine sauce, the bed of frisee, the so-so tender rabbit, fresh herbs, garlic and shallots, but it worked well.
Next came a wilder mushroom dish: wild mushroom and beef tenderloin, with fresh thyme and garlic on some tasty pizza-like foccacia bread served on a golden plate. Meanwhile, microbrews and local wines from the bar amplified the savory flavors—I had a Kona Longboard Lager ($5) from a nice list of draft microbrews, while Jules danced with a dynamic Pietra Santa Sangiovese ($8) drawn from a rotating lineup of about 50 wines.
Next came a crawfish bisque, snazzily presented in a square porcelein coffee cup and sprinkled with tiny chopped chives. I was skeptical about the cool temperature, but came away converted by the rich character of the soup. The proscuitto-wrapped halibut followed, surviving an overpowering olive tapenade to outshine everything else on the menu, followed by an oven-roasted pork tenderloin, with a deliciously nuanced cranberry-raisin-red wine reduction.
The journey hit a pair of potholes with the next two dishes: the cold scallop and shrimp souffle’s ice-crystallized shellfish in heavy cream turned us off; a sturdy classic eggplant lasagna tasted bland.
From there two inventive desserts wrapped up the sequence—a nicely balanced apple and mango sorbet and a “snow egg,” a puff of poached meringue in simple syrup and milk decorated with chocolate and blackberry sauce.
Instructor-Chef Mark Goller stopped by after dessert, bringing with him one of the more enjoyable moments of the night for someone like Jules, who fancies herself a full-blown foodie. He wanted to know where his students, who are listed with each dish on the menu, really impressed.
Jules did her best impersonation of a Top Chef critic, and we both agreed that the students met the intended challenge of the sophisticated multi-course menu: the presentation was both inventive and impeccable, and the flow of the menu and the diversity of ingredients were sound.
This coming weekend’s main event ingredients look even more appetizing—including braised Castroville Artichoke stuffed with garlic, pine nuts, sourdough bread crumbs and parmesan cheese ($7) and tea-smoked chicken with heirloom tomato risotto ($8.50). Meanwhile, classes earlier in their CCM curriculum learn to cook up classic and exotic flavors and all sorts of other savory platters every lunch, all at bargain prices. Locals would do well to study up.
Culinary Center of Monterey
625 Cannery Row, Monterey • 5:30-8:30pm Thu; 11:30am-1:30pm, 5:30-8:30pm Fri; 10:30am-2:30pm Sat-Sun.• 333-2133, culinarycenterofmonterey.com.