Cepage Wine Lounge and deli
Deli Delish:The inspired Cépages Wine Lounge and Deli redefines lunch from a counter.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
It’s not everyday that the chef takes your order, makes your food and serves you at your table, let alone a Paris-trained Cordon Bleu alum.
With her honey-brown locks pulled back with a headband, Janet Melac is the smiling proprietress presiding over Cépages Wine Lounge and Deli, a casual spot carved out of Rancho Cellars, the wine boutique run by her husband Jacques.
Kitty-corner from The Barnyard in Carmel, the light-filled space is flanked by a series of industrial coolers on the south wall, and the décor stars large windows framing the verdant Carmel Valley foothills and stacks of empty wooden wine boxes. The cavernous, warehouse-like space is not my idea of a cozy French bistro, but I’m not one to complain when the food is this good.
Cépages (French for “varietals”) is a 180-degree turnaround from Melac’s Restaurant, the now-defunct, French fine-dining restaurant Melac owned some 12 years ago in Pacific Grove. Her goal is to serve uncomplicated food as a perfect accompaniment to the wines sold at the store.
“We wanted to have reasonably priced food that you could take to the beach or on a picnic,” she says. “Or you could have a glass of wine together with the wide selection of cheeses and charcuterie.”
Cheeses and charcuterie aside, the delights that emanate from the small makeshift kitchen are surprising. The menu includes rotating soups and about a dozen gourmet sandwiches and salads with daily additions. (“I don’t call them specials because everything on the menu is special,” she says.)
On my first visit, my lunch companion and I stepped up to the counter to order from the blackboard. We then helped ourselves to water and sat down at one of the handful of tables.
In a matter of minutes, Janet delivered our order. My friend’s roasted vegetable sandwich came with a choice of soup or salad ($9.50); she chose the cauliflower soup with garam masala (an Indian spice mixture comprising any combination of the following: cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, coriander, pepper). A little too subtle for my taste – both in the salt and spice departments – but the soup was the only menu item to disappoint.
Fortunately, the meal got much better from there. My harvest salad ($5.50 as a side) was a tasty bounty of endive and butter lettuce intermingled with purple grape halves, orange sections, fresh goat cheese and toasted hazelnuts lightly tossed with a mustardy vinaigrette. Then came my sandwich – a sweet and bitter symphony on my tongue. The streaky duck prosciutto was deliciously salty, chewy and fatty all at once, and was laid to rest on a soft baguette together with fig slices, arugula and paper-thin curls of parmigiano-reggiano ($7.50). I later learned that Melac makes her own duck prosciutto. (She also hangs a ham as well as dry-cures gravlax and hot-smokes salmon.)
Because it’s an eatery in a wine store, tipples were in order. Half a dozen domestic and imported wines by the glass ($7) – sparkling, red and white – are available. We settled on a Chardonnay and it was poured at our table.
Curious, we ordered the pork “meatloaf” sandwich ($7.50) on our next visit. The baguette came with the tops considerately sliced off (don’t you hate it when the crusty bits dig into the roof of your mouth?) and hiding inside were slices of what resembled cold cuts studded with green peppercorns, cornichons and a generous slathering of a Dijon mayonnaise-like sauce. The “meatloaf” was an intriguing marriage of traditional comfort food and the flavor and texture of a pâté.
“It’s essentially a low-fat pâté,” Melac says. “Pâtés are usually about 40 percent fat but that’s not what we’re about.”
The day’s “addition” of salmon paillard ($15) also beckoned. Melac buys wild salmon when it is available fresh but at the moment she chooses Loch Duart Scottish salmon, which according to her is the “cleanest” sustainably-farmed salmon you can buy.
The dish appeared as a generous serving of flash-cooked, quarter-inch-thick salmon slices on a bed of butter lettuce and asparagus spears. A drizzle of tarragon-heavy fines herbes sauce finished off the platter. With each bite, my mouth savored the rich and oily salmon flesh, the brightness of the creamy herb-speckled sauce and the crunch of sea salt.
By this point it was resoundingly clear Cépages is no ordinary deli. Melac seeks the highest quality ingredients and strives to serve local, organic and sustainable cuisine. She frequents the Monterey and Pacific Grove farmers markets, buying vegetables from local producers such as Serendipity Farms and eggs and pork from TLC Ranch. Even her disposable serving-ware is sustainable: biodegradable sugarcane pulp plates and potato starch utensils.
Someone summed it up to me well: “[It’s] the best food you’ll have served on a paper plate.”
CÉPAGES WINE LOUNGE AND DELI 26340 Carmel Rancho Blvd., Carmel • 11am to 2:30pm Mon – Sat. • 625-5646.