From the Tapa
Estéban’s charm doesn’t stop at the small dish.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
A “tapa” this is not. Tapas are for sharing, and I’m not about to share this – a big sandwich built on a big rustic roll that’s grilled and then layered with a yogurt dressing, a slice of eggplant (also grilled), a free-range chicken breast spiced with a Middle Eastern blend called baharat (and striped nicely from the grill itself), smoked bacon and arugula. All this grilled goodness is going straight to my grill.
This runs counter to the main motto at the sleek new Estéban Restaurant in the completely re-swanked Casa Munras, which above all announces itself as a tapas lounge where the cultured clientele are encouraged to: “Sip. Savor. Share.” But there is much to recommend the three-and-a-half-month-old place besides the tapas (though they’re quite worthy… more on that later), particularly its gourmet sandwiches, sandstone patio and stylish presentations – from the decor to the flatware to the fireplaces.
The patio, like the entire space, is a combination of tan tones and dark glistening accents, with firepits and pretty polished wood tables and chairs. It’s also a reminder that Monterey is sadly short on quality restaurant patios. This isn’t right – the gods invented Mediterranean climates and Friday afternoons precisely for patios and good sangría.
A colleague and I reconfirmed this reality on a recent Friday and had the Carmel stone expanse to ourselves, which was awfully nice, but seemed a waste – this is a space that deserves to be shared. The sangría had evolved since my first and second visits, now finding the right balance between sweet, citrus and smooth, and the tapas proved satisfying. Our selection of “mini plates” ($4 each) made for a colorful and social sharing session: some simple but savory yellow and orange braised carrots; delicious slow-roasted organic beets in shades of red and orange; a vase of great saffron-and-chive-flavored seafood chowder; and a thick if unexciting lentil and eggplant stew. The four dishes (of almost 20 possibilities) were about right for a light lunch between the two of us. The Spanish anchovies caught my eye for next time – as did the artisan dessert cheeses (Cypress Grove Bermuda Triangle goat milk chevre, Fiscalini Farmstead 30-month cloth cheddar, Valedeon blue cheese, $14/plate.)
On a previous dinner visit the tapas also made for a pleasant experience – with an assist from the Spanish finger-picking guitarist by the fireplace and some Italian Chianti – even if the server was asleep at the wheel, asking us repeatedly if we wanted to order more during the same trip to the table (the patio visit and my final visits saw dramatic improvements).
The grilled prawns, baby squid and seafood chowder ($8 each) all starred, each arriving in various curvy vessels. The modest prawns were impeccable – ideally tender, seasoned just right and set off by an excellently spicy romanesco dipping sauce. The pan-fried local baby squid gets its lift from red Spanish chorizo, arugula and lime, and its foundation from fingerling potatoes. The chowder’s deliciously creamy broth and fresh barramundi, mussels and salmon help overlook the challenge of sharing it without creating a stewage spill.
I’ve been back for the chowder and the prawns since and they haven’t disappointed; I’ve also tried the Dungeness crab cake ($12) and the freshly shucked oysters ($8), which are both good but unremarkable. Given the wealth of tapas, I haven’t ventured much into the few other plates they’ve been experimenting with, but I like the look of the basil-infused Atkins lamb chop – especially given the mantra at the top of the menu: “Estéban strives to purchase all our produce from organic farms, local purveyors and day-boat fisherman.” (Along the sustainable avenue, to-go items come in recyclable cardstock.)
I have tangled with two of their upscale sandwich options ($10 with fries) – both the delicious chicken sandwich (which was just some bacon-crispiness away from terrific) and the Hereford organic burger. On the strength of its quality beef, aged white cheddar, tracing-paper-thin gourmet pickles and garlic aioli, only a distractingly strong vinaigrette dressing stopped it from redeeming manager Chris’ bold praise. (“It’s the best burger in town, it really is,” he told me when I called in the order.)
The wine list has a short but fun and trendy lineup of Italian and Spanish bottles and includes a range of California reds and whites. There’s always the sangría and some fashionable cocktails (from the “Spanish Paradise” to the “Chocolate Covered Raspberry”). The sippers fit well into the buoyant theme at Estéban – namely, this is a spot and a cuisine that’s fun to share.