TusCA’s new chef builds upon a beautiful thing.
Thursday, August 12, 2010
Most travelers know that hotel restaurants don’t always set the finest tables in town. Some hoteliers believe that they will fill enough seats with business folks who have spent too much time in the air or on the road and who don’t want to get into a cab and cast their fate to the culinary winds in a city they don’t know. They just want to plunk themselves down for a decent meal and then go to bed.
That’s one reason why hotel restaurants often cater primarily to their overnight guests. This is not to say that they can’t provide a decent meal. Indeed they make an effort to satisfy their customers so that they will return, but they don’t go the extra mile to attract locals.
But then there are those classy establishments that go for the gastronomical gold. On the Monterey Peninsula, the Hyatt has taken up the challenge, and their TusCA restaurant is preparing meals that would disappoint few epicures. Former Executive Chef Mark Ayers set resident standards high as founding chef; new executive Russell Young, late of Hyatt Regency Tech Center Denver, has met them, delivering his own local, fresh and seasonal style after Ayers’ departure for Coastal Luxury Management and Cannery Row Brewing Company. TusCA – TusCAny and California, of course – certainly deserves a taste test from everyone who places a premium on aristology.
First, the setting. Because the Hyatt is sorta outta town, perched as it is on a plateau on the other side of Highway 1, some people tend not to think of it when considering where they might dine. Think again. The restaurant overlooks the Del Monte Golf Course, the oldest west of the Mississippi. It really is a lovely backdrop, even if you don’t care for the game.
Speaking of sports, across the hall from TusCA is Knuckles, the also-historic and top-rated sports bar. It’s currently being renovated but is still open at the adjacent Pebble room. Signs on the doors say Pardon Our Dust, and judging from the sizeable crowd in the construction-limited space, the dust wasn’t a problem. Please excuse the short shrift. The Knuckles makeover is scheduled to be completed the end of September.
TusCA is a much different world, with a quiet and comfortable elegance – the big space is open and airy, with solid wood tables and chairs comfortable enough for a long evening of pleasure and there is also seating on the patio – but sonorous with the conversations and laughter of people enjoying themselves.
We started with roasted baby beets in truffle sherry vinaigrette and goat cheese mousse ($10), Caesar salads with some of the best “traditional” creamy dressing I’ve tasted in more than four decades ($8), and a hearty-but-not-heavy TusCAn white bean soup with vegetables and sausage ($8). We also shared plates of fried calamari with lemon caper aioli ($9) and the risotto of the day entree as an appetizer – wild mushroom served with enormous and perfectly cooked sea scallops ($26).
For our entrées, the roasted duck breast with the wild mushroom risotto and garnished with fresh blackberries ($26) was very tender but firm, a sign that it was both carefully selected and cooked. The house-made potato gnocchi with pesto, smoked chicken, sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese ($22) across the table disappeared in a trice. The roasted lamb chop was done in a red wine reduction that made it much more than a lamb chop – and served with truffle potatoes gratinato and toy box carrots ($32). The pork tenderloin medallions were not the flat and thin variety but two mesa-like structures with a creamy, herb-infused polenta, wilted spinach and stone fruits ($26).
We all cleaned our plates.
Other items on the menu for next time include white asparagus soup with roasted pear ($9), linguine with little neck clams and smoked artichokes in a roasted garlic tomato sauce ($22) – I’m salivating as I write this – and ahi tuna garbanzo ($23) and wild salmon caponata ($21).
The wine list is being tweaked by Hyatt veteran Joel Giachetti, who’s shifting the selection to more than 60 percent from local vineyards. The 2006 Scheid Cabernet ($44) recommended for our meals is an excellent wine.
You’d think after all that food we’d be able to skip dessert, but we not only delighted in our meals but also our conversation, thus stretching the evening and having time to dispatch our dinners and, yes please, perhaps we should take a look at the dessert menu. We looked, we selected, we enjoyed. The baked apple tart, a house specialty with reason, was served with caramel gelato ($7). The chocolate pot de crème ($6) and “affagato,” which is vanilla gelato and espresso ($5), were also meticulously appreciated.
Serving the guests from out of town, TusCA is a seven-day operation and begins their breakfast at 6:30am, attracting many local business people as well. So, especially, does their midday repast. The atmosphere, food and service all make TusCA a good place for a business lunch, and not just because you don’t have meter maids waiting for the 60th minute to expire. The lunch menu is extensive, with a considered selection of sandwiches and salads as well as full entrées that are found on the dinner cart. They also offer nine varieties of pizza in the $13 range, and I’m not talkin’ the orange oil soaking through the cardboard box variety.
Kudos to Young for making this hotel restaurant much more than it needed to be. He more than exceeded already serious expectations, putting TusCA on a list of dining establishments worth traveling to, for visitors and locals alike.