Garden of Eatin’
Gardiner’s Resort now uses its stunning setting as a spot to serve food.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
After 51 years in business, Gardiner’s Resort, Carmel Valley’s renowned “world’s first tennis resort,” decided to invite the neighbors to dine. Visitors are now welcome for lunch and dinner year-round.
The 25-acre grounds are an amusement park for garden lovers– a wonder of human labor and natural splendor. Cool green grass, floral color, hanging plants, frilly tendrils and the shade of leafy trees ease this dry summer.
Founder John Gardiner sold his resort to a privately held company before he died in 2000. His wife, Monique Gardiner, still works there, along with the general manager of 25 years, Cheryl Fournier. Its history can be felt mostly by viewing photos of famous visitors like Charlie Chaplin, Dinah Shore and Eva Gabor. The aura of these stars gives an idea of the aesthetic, the tone and the stately courtesy one can expect, recalling a time before hip irreverence became the predominant sociocultural M.O. I appreciated the respite.
Twice weekly the menu breaks from the usual, and these are the best offerings. Thursday’s Locals Night features a generous three-course prix-fixe dinner for $30. Sunday Brunch features live jazz, a complimentary glass of Champagne and entrées ranging from pancakes, eggs and applewood-smoked bacon to huevos rancheros ($12-$15). Friday evening also includes live jazz.
Dine outdoors if possible. Otherwise, lunch is served in a light-filled room where the casual (a black-and-white checkered floor) meets the elegant (white tablecloths). Dinner is served in a separate building that houses a dining room and a “clubhouse” that is homier than its name implies. Adobe brick fireplaces are cozy hallmarks of early California residences, and high ceilings allow for plenty of space for local artists. Art is rotated every six to eight weeks– a nice service to artists and guests.
A friend and I stopped by for lunch recently and loved our first refreshing beverage of tropical ice tea. There’s a full bar and a lunchtime wine list that’s more limited than at dinner, with about one-third of its selections from Monterey County and virtually all from California. The most common varietals are represented, which is to say, nothing adventurous, but you can enjoy some fine wines by the glass or bottle.
Chef Hugo Barragân, formerly of Tehama Golf Club, interprets classic, reliable recipes, some influenced by Mexican, Asian and Italian cuisines. Appetizers include crab cake, Caesar salad, grilled artichoke and a Mexican-style shrimp cocktail ($7-$15).
The bread is something rare– a crescent roll. Though common with traditional European bakers, this version is not as flaky as the familiar French croissant, nor as dense as a well-made roll. It could go back to the drawing board to improve texture and flavor.
On this visit, I went with the Caesar salad ($8). It was desirably edgy, steering clear of lackluster creaminess in favor of anchovy and garlic. In the future, I’d like to try the intriguing “vanilla vinaigrette” that dresses the mixed-green salad and the “jalapeño-cilantro emulsion” that enhances the crab cake.
A laborious process of elimination led to two selections among lunch entrées ($13-$20). Examples of dishes we did not try include a Kobe beef burger and basil ricotta canneloni.
One of the winners, a Chinese chicken salad wrap ($13), was colorful with dark greens and carrot, flavorful with ginger and sesame, and textured with crunchy wontons. With a toasted wrap, it was a well-balanced package, served with fresh fruit.
The second dish, ahi tuna salad ($17), included shaved fennel, peeled concasse tomato, kalamata olives, capers and a wonderful sweet-tangy tapenade with balsamic vinegar and marinated onions. The tuna was freshly grilled to order and the assorted flavors were a delight in both entrées.
But in each case, portions were small for the price. The bill came to nearly $60. That included one dessert from a rotating selection; in this case, housemade chocolate ice cream. It met my criteria: deep flavor, creamy, dense.
Gratuity of 18 percent is included. This isn’t unusual at resorts, though I’d normally tip more. And, yes, someone has to nurture the thousands of plants, but it’s still hard to justify prices that are higher than at comparable restaurants, other than on Thursday night. Dinner portions are larger, but prices are still steep.
Other than that, dining at Gardiner’s is a lovely experience. I spent more time using my eyes than my mouth. If eyes could consume, I would have left the place stripped to the bone.
Gardiner’s Resort 114 West Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley • 11am-2pm, 5pm-9pm daily except Wed. • Sunday Brunch 10am-2pm • 659-2207.