Monterey Cookhouse does big meats with big flavor and lots of heart.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
The first thing owner Linda Cantrell did when Monterey Cookhouse opened on Fremont Street in late July was to install a Traeger smoker.
The elephant-sized device behind the restaurant is representative of the Carmel Valley entrepreneur’s overall approach: warm, welcoming and big on comfort food. Case in point: Though the restaurant just opened this summer, Cantrell already seems to know most of her customers, greeting them with a hug. She’s a Cookhouse fixture seven days a week.
After she seats me and a friend, she indulges us with the trade secrets of her wood choices. She explains that her natural meats, like beef brisket and pork, are slow-cooked in the smoker with oak, apple or cherry wood. Pizzas, burgers and steaks are cooked with oak or black walnut on a wood-fired grill in the open kitchen that lines the long green marble bar, inherited from the property’s days as Monterey Joe’s and Point Joe’s.
A quick glance at the menu reveals value as welcoming as Cantrell’s vibe, and a large wine list with 40-plus bottles (ranging $20 to $125) and 12 wines by the glass that include deals like $5 glasses of Hey Mambo Sultry Red and $6 Downhill Pinot from the Santa Cruz Mountains. My friend and I start with a bottle of a 2007 Villa San Juliette Fat Monk Merlot ($20).
For starters, we decide to go with the grilled oysters ($9.95 for five) from a list that includes Cookhouse brisket and smoked salmon dips ($7.95 each). The sizeable shellfish are cooked with garlic butter on the wood-fired grill, with a lid to trap the smoke flavor. That smoldering taste harmonizes with the richness of the butter, providing all the flavor these tender slippery soldiers need – Tabasco would only interfere.
For the entreé, I go with the smoked beef brisket with housemade barbecue sauce and a side of onion rings and broccoli ($10.95). The brisket surrenders tenderly to the fork and the barbecue sauce’s spicy tang perfectly complements the mellow smokiness of the meat.
At Cantrell’s suggestion, my friend orders the beef short ribs ($14.95), browned and braised in red wine and cola sauce with a twice-baked potato. No part of this dish disappointed: The meat glides from the bone with ease and the sauce proves a lively, unexpected marriage. And the potato is so lavishly rich – stuffed with a creamy celebration of butter, sour cream, cheddar cheese and bacon – it’s close to criminal.
If you’re in the mood for seafood, you’re limited to fish and chips ($12.95) – fried in homemade beer batter – because the meat of the menu is, well, meat.
For dessert, Cantrell says she always recommends the chocolate silk tart ($4.95), which she calls “sex on a fork.” Its dark chocolate and Chambord raspberry liqueur character – combined with its cheesecake-like texture – might create a new subpopulation of chocolate lovers.
That first meal and the modest price points made a second trip mandatory.
Round two: I start with the cream of smoked turkey and wild rice soup ($6.95/bowl; $3.95/cup) – which brings enough homemade heartiness that a bowl is plenty. (If you plan on having something else, go with a cup.) The recipe was conceived by Bill Susalla of the now-closed Deli Treasures in Carmel Valley; every bite is full of earthy rice and smoked turkey – ideal on a rainy day.
Next, I opt for the carbonara pizza ($10.95) from a selection of five specialty wood-fired pies. With Alfredo sauce, Parmesan cheese, bacon and green onions, it’s like the twice-baked potato: an innovation as rich as it is irresistible.
Another notable dish is the grilled skirt steak ($15.95) that comes in a killer veal stock reduction sauce with shallots. Head chef Hugo Barragan, formerly of Gardiner’s Resort in Carmel Valley – where Cantrell was a member and pulled almost all of the staff, eliminating most new-restaurant continuity hiccups – doesn’t skimp on his sauces; he uses real veal bones and plenty of patience to construct this reduction. Cookhouse’s newest addition, prime rib smoked for two hours on low heat ($19.95), is available on Fridays and Saturdays.
As for drinks, Cookhouse does it all, plus some originals. Bartender K.C. Lynch whips up an organic margarita ($8.50) with Partido Blanco tequila, organic agave nectar and fresh lime juice. It’s not as sweet as the traditional margarita, which makes it much more refreshing and drinkable. Another Cookhouse original is the whimsical white Oaxacan ($7): a jubilee of jalapeño, cilantro, tequila, lime juice, agave syrup and club soda. In addition to the wines, they pour local brews including Big Sur Golden ($4.50) and Carmel Valley Pale Ale ($4.50).
From 4-6pm, a predictably meat-heavy happy hour is quickly becoming a local favorite. The Cookhouse offersbeef brisket, Kobe beef with chipotle sauce and pulled pork sliders for $3 a piece. These aren’t your everyday sliders; they’re about 50 percent bigger than the average-sized baby burger. During Monday Night Football, happy hour prices stay in effect until the end of the game; also offered are half orders of calamari ($3.95), small homemade nachos ($3.50), and quarter-pound beef hotdogs ($2.95). All beer, wine and well-drinks are $1 off.
Keeping with the welcoming theme, the Cookhouse is big on festivies like Thursday and Friday nights’ clam bake ($21.95 for a heaping platter of clams, prawns, smoked sausage, crab, corn and more). Cantrell’s already scheming her Superbowl strategy: slow smoking a whole hog and distributing it with sides of coleslaw, baked beans and garlic bread. That gameplan, like this restaurant, looks like a winner.
MONTEREY COOKHOUSE WOOD FIRED CUISINE 2149 Fremont St., Monterey. • 11am-3pm, 5pm-close daily. • 642-9900, www.montereycookhouse.com