Ring My Belle: Carmel Belle’s avid attention to ingredients results in fantastic tastes.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
The Ocean Avenue entrance to the Doud Arcade in Carmel is always buzzing with people scattering in different directions, like bees entering and exiting a hive. The hive itself is a covered atrium of shops called the Doud Craft Studios, where I recently investigated the hype about a good, new deli-café, food-and-wine type place.
For more than 50 years, the Craft Studios were anchored by the Italian eatery, Paolina’s. When the founders sold seven years ago, Paolina’s began a slow fade-out. Ultimately, a husband-and-wife team from western North Carolina, Stephen and Kristin Viguerie, took the opportunity to fade in. They opened Carmel Belle in early February.
A wrap-around wooden counter and glass cases separate customers giving orders to Kristin and the staff from the action in the kitchen where Stephen, the chef, rules. Orders are delivered to your table, either outdoors on San Carlos Street or indoors under natural light, filtered through windows in the old wood and corrugated aluminum ceiling.
Chalkboards are crammed with menu items, but this isn’t your traditional deli, overstocked with inventory, piled up in the open. It’s neater and more selective than that. The counter surfaces are adorned with edibles, but each item is showcased as if it’s a treasure and, indeed, each item is. Nearly every product is ordered from a different supplier. Take the baked goods, for example. The canelé French pastry is from Parker-Lusseau in Monterey. The organic cupcakes are made by an employee. Bread comes from Kelly’s in Santa Cruz and Golden Sheaf in Watsonville. The chocolate chip cookie dough is shipped from Kentucky. Sounds extravagant, but Kristin assures me she hasn’t found a better dough. I believe her.
Any small business owner who’s willing to pay more than 50 separate suppliers’ bills is taking each product seriously. Carmel Belle is a designer-food, brand-conscious café and I’m all for it. Only a devoted hobbyist will recognize the brands, but the fact that many are noted on the menu tells you something.
There’s McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma for organic olives and olive oil, Glaum Ranch in Santa Cruz County for organic eggs, Clover Dairy in Northern California for organic milk and cream, Fra’ Mani sausage from Berkeley, La Quercia prosciutto from Iowa, Hobbs Shore’s applewood-smoked bacon from Marin County. Mr. Shore died in December (he was 86), so we’ll see how his smoked meat business fares. The cheeses come from about a dozen different dairies.
If you haven’t gotten the idea, it’s all about quality at Carmel Belle. As many organic products as possible are used, including coffee from Mr. Espresso and ingredients like flour and chocolate. The Vigueries’ respect for each supplier is high, and they also prepare certain items in-house. They roast pork and chicken for sandwiches, make fresh meatloaf and soups, and prepare fresh condiments like mayonnaise, ketchup, chutney and vinaigrette, to name a few.
You might guess that the Belle is pricey, but the opposite is true. One popular dish, the polenta, from heirloom organic grains producer Anson Mills in South Carolina, is served hot for breakfast at $5 a bowl. You can add truffled mushrooms, a poached egg, roasted tomato or creamy goat cheese individually for $1 to $3, or add all for $4.
In fact, these “morning sides” can be added to any dish for $2 or $3, along with sides of asparagus, house cinnamon toast, and the above-mentioned charcuterie selections.
For breakfast, I tried two poached eggs with vegetables – asparagus, roasted tomato and truffled mushrooms – on thick “country toast” ($11) with a side of Fra’ Mani sausage ($3). Though truffle oil adds the truffle flavor, they aren’t simply dressing up ordinary mushrooms. We’re talking shitakes, oysters and crimini, roasted to perfection and exceeding my already-high expectations. The asparagus was slightly firm, and each item was at least as good as it looked. My guest raved about his breakfast.
I stopped by another day for lunch with my mother-in-law. She had a grilled cheddar cheese sandwich ($7); Hobbs bacon could be added for $3. I had a “slow-cooked” Berkshire pork sandwich with red onion-current chutney ($9.50). Both came with a small side of mixed greens and two tiny gherkins. These aren’t overstuffed workman-style sandwiches, rather, in the case of the pork, a modest layer was served on ciabatta. It was delightfully sweet and delicately spicy, with well-shredded, melt-in-my-mouth pork. The artisanal aged cheddar from Grafton Village Cheese Company in Vermont was deliciously pungent and served panini-style (pressed).
Since Carmel Belle lacks four walls of its own, it’s worth mentioning that there are some intriguing neighboring shops that are part of the setting, especially Black Bird Art & Craft and the eye-catching Artemis Decorative Arts, purveyors of Turkish embroidered boots, carpets and glass lanterns. Take time for a leisurely visit.
In fact, Carmel Belle’s motto is “Slow down… say no to fast food!” Fortunately, this doesn’t apply to the service. And if you have trouble slowing down, there are seven beer selections ($4.50) and nine wines by the glass ($6-$9) ready to assist.
Kristin said, twice, that Carmel Belle is a “work in progress.” From my perspective, they’ve made considerable progress already – and I can’t wait for Version 2.0. This is a wonderful new place frompeople who truly care about food, from seed to table.