Eating alligator in Salinas and introducing Restaurant 1833’s new star.
Thursday, April 14, 2011
Last week a man in an apron handed me something I never thought I’d see in a liquor-convenience store in East Salinas: kangaroo meat.
“You’ll never eat tri-tip again,” Gary Nana said, smiling.
Tri-tip, it bears mentioning, goes for less than $49.99 a pound, the asking price at Quality Market Liquor & BBQ Grill (424-1045) for the goods from Aussie Game Meats in Wulkuraka.
A wider look at the exotic meats list is nothing less than arresting: There’s ostrich ($12.99/pound) and antelope ($19.99), deer ($19.99) and duck ($16), elk and alligator (both $19.99), llama ($12.99) and buffalo ($19.99), shark ($19.99) and turtle ($38.99). Topping the price chart is iguana, at a cool $150 per.
The stash is kept in a small freezer front and center at the shop, next to the check-out stand where he uses the computer monitor to show me the sources.
“People tend to react, but they don’t realize they’re all farm-raised,” Nana says. “That’s why it’s legal to sell.”
The exotic end point began from a simple spot: The Filice family, which just entered its fourth generation of running the place (and the neighboring liquor store), started grilling meats in a little Weber for employees on weekends, often tossing on the deer they hunted. When customers started asking for plates, Nana says, the family acquired a pit and really started smoking.
When customers eyeing the buck’s heads on the walls sought a cut of venison, Nana went in search of game.
“Everyone kept asking if we could get deer,” he says. “You have to make sure you get a source that’s USDA-backed because you are so scrutinized. It took me six months to find sources that would work with me.”
While I wasn’t into eating the farm-raised lion he’s promising or snacking on any shark, I couldn’t leave without a pound of kangaroo, a big bag of breaded alligator nuggets ($39.99) and a pack of Cajun gator-pork sausages ($12.99).
Now, a word for those picturing me chewing on Winnie the Pooh’s lil’ homie Roo: While kangaroo food mileage isn’t remotely ideal, ecologists support its harvest over sheep and cows.
The kangameat’s super lean and dark brown. I marinated the marsupial in a little red wine, jalapeño and garlic and gave it a medium-rare grilling.
“I love that meat,” Nana says. “I just ordered 10 more pounds of it.”
The resulting taste was moist, rich and gamey, but a little tough for my taste and definitely not worth half a Ben Franklin, though other rustic ’cue-goers dug its density. The smoked alligator out of Louisiana was a zesty Cajun sensation, as long as I dodged the tough cubes of cartilage. It was the nuggets, though, that were the favorite, with an almost chicken-halibut hybrid taste and a surprisingly substantive weight.
Next for Nana: Eastern rattlesnake.
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I might’ve hired Levi Mezick after a niblet of his lobster “bratwurst” – on a melted Belgian endive with fennel apple sauce and caviar – or the venison loin with cheese souffle, truffled Brussels sprouts and pomegranate glaze.
Mezick, though, was one of more than a dozen up-and-coming stars who entered Coastal Luxury Management’s orbit for tastings that often stretched nine courses. The CLM team was more selective than usual because their last two chefs for Restaurant 1833 took off.
“We’re looking to find out, ‘Is he passionate and can I work with him?’” 1833 GM Tobias Peach says. “Can he train, can he inspire? That’s just as important as a bad-ass hamachi dish.”
Not that the tuna tartare with horseradish sorbet didn’t stun, as did a pork belly dish Peach says “will be right at home on the 1833 menu.”
Mezick, 35, fits the CLM formula like an oven mitt: Pedigreed yet young, experienced but hungry, obsessive yet compatible with the company culture. His resume includes Daniel Boulud’s Cafe Boulud in New York and sous chef at Daniel; before that, he was chef de partie at Thomas Keller’s Per Se. He’s also worked with Michel Richard.
“The first thing that stands out is the pedigree,” Peach says. “The second is when those guys have glowing reviews.”
Read more – including Mezick’s biggest fear coming to Monterey from D.C. and N.Y. – on the blog.
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In the county with more coastline than any other in the most coastlinin’ state, there is no better seaview sunset than Hyatt Carmel Highlands (620-1234). And that spot will get better, at least every third Thursday of the month starting April 21, with Hello Sunshine Thursdays: 5-7pm it’s half pricing on all handcrafted cocktails (think cucumber martinis), new small plates (littleneck clams with chorizo), and a free appetizer offered with the purchase of two. April 21 is also a jaw dropper wine dinner there with the wines of David Ramey… Speaking of absurd wine dinners, the Veuve Clicquot & Moet Chandon Dinner is Tuesday, April 26, at The C restaurant & bar (375-4800)… Chipotle Mexican Grill opening in Sand City on Thursday, April 21. Brace yourself Papa Chano’s (393-9133), I’ll still stick with you… “Promise me you’ll never forget me,” Winnie the Pooh says, “because if I thought you would I’d never leave.”