Element Tasting Bar&Bistro
Inside a tucked-away discovery on River Road in Salinas wine country.
Thursday, June 24, 2010
The essential elements in life are air, water and a good novel. Oh, and food. Which brings us to another element. This Element is a restaurant on River Road 3.2 miles east of Route 68. I mention that distance because people not familiar with the area won’t see any large signs; it’s right next to the Shell station, but don’t let that off-the-beaten-path locale deter.
Once you find Element, it is the food (and wine) that’s really important, and what makes it worth the drive from Monterey and other distant points. The food is good. The wine is good. The portions are large. The prices are decent. Details in a moment.
Element is the first restaurant that Missy Rimassa has run on her own. She’s been in the biz for decades but this, her first solo shot, has just celebrated its first anniversary. That’s a major milestone in the restaurant industry, and judging from the crowd one recent Thursday evening, it’s one she’s likely to repeat.
Element Tasting Bar and Bistro is the full name of the place. Element is a wine label owned by Rimassa’s sister’s family; they have the Addamo Estate vineyards in Santa Maria. The “Tasting Bar and Bistro” part provides a clue to the unique nature of the restaurant itself. There are a half-dozen tables surrounded by wrought iron chairs with pads on the seats, and several booths with comfortable banquette seating and table tops of clear laminate over wine labels. There’s also outdoor seating with a firepit. The art on the wall is miscellaneous dogs-playing-poker Americana stuff, but all of it is friendly.
That same smile is reflected in the satisfying repasts that range from a wide array of salads to six pizzas, plus soft tacos, lasagna, prime rib and calzones. Put a label on that selection? There may not be a name for such, yet, but Element offers a variety of popular choices that match the appetite of hungry workers and wine-road locals who want to unwind in a place “where everybody knows your name.”
I started with a side Caesar salad ($4.50), always an important barometer of the cuisine. Like the salads that came with the entrees, it was huge; a whole head of lettuce, at least, with a good dressing – rich without being heavy – and the unusual but not objectionable addition of real bacon bits. All of the “side” salads were close to a full meal, and they were fresh, as they should be in the Salad Bowl of the Universe.
Among the dishes we enjoyed were the lasagna ($11.95), a purposeful dish with sausage and several different cheeses complemented by homemade marinara sauce. The chicken piccata ($13.95) was one of the specials that evening (they were characteristically out of the super-popular – and massive – prime rib at 7pm). It was a substantial breast with artichokes and capers and a very good lemon butter sauce of which we wished there was more. It was served over twice-baked mashed potatoes. Also there was some broccoslaw: colorful, crunchy and much better than it sounded.
I had a 9-inch pepperoni-and-bacon pizza ($8.95) which was quite enough for one person, and more than enough after the side salad. A larger person or a group would have been required to consume the 12-inch number ($13.95). It was not the typical pizza offered at so many places – that produces that pool of orange oil of a viscosity that BP would opt for in a New Orleans minute – and the crust was pleasantly light and airy.
The lasagna disappeared into a friend with a linebacker-size meatbolism, but a quarter of the pizza and much of the chicken were packed to go. Perhaps this is a throwback to my college days, but I think an important test of a good pizza is how it tastes for breakfast. You know, the next morning, after it’s been in the refrigerator and not left overnight in the car. The Element pizza did very well. The flavors were still fresh and it wasn’t at all greasy. Kudos.
There were four desserts offered up, and even though none of us are dessert people – mostly ’cause we’d eaten our fill already – the waitress graciously allowed us to try two, a Kahlua chocolate cake and a bread pudding with coconut. They met the need for something sweet to close the meal, but weren’t exceptional. We probably should have tried the peanut butter offering or the mud pie. All of the desserts are under $6.
The Element has an wine tasting bar in the entryway, but for those dining, there is a good selection of wines by the bottle and the glass; the top price for a glass was a can’t-turn-down $8. We opted for the Element Cabernet and Pinot Noir. They were generously poured. The comments around the table were that the Cab was a little thin, but the Pinot was worth recommending. The reviews on the wine might have been more enthusiastic, but when you eat what we did, it makes it tough for the wines to show their true colors, so to speak.
The Element isn’t the ultimate epicure destination, but it certainly suits the tastes of wine country folks who know good wines and better values, and people who enjoy comfort food and eat well. The mood is so congenial it’s as contagious as the flavor. Bring an appetite.