Carmel Food Company succeeds with tastes, underwhelms on value.
Thursday, December 8, 2011
When we heard Carmel Food Company’s Chef Sven Hoffman hailed from the famed Auberge du Soleil in Napa and trained further in Germany, we were eager to taste his food. That eagerness would grow, as it took a few attempts to finally dine there.
The first try we were turned away, even though it was early evening and the tiny, European style-bistro on Junipero Street in Carmel had only one other couple dining. We were first asked if we had a reservation, then told the chef had walked out and they weren’t taking any more tables. The second time we realized why our reservation call two days earlier hadn’t been returned: They were closed almost half the week, though they’ve since expanded their hours.
Fortunately the third visit to the eight-month-old spot was a charm. Our table of four was happily seated by a very gracious and smiling waiter in what reminded us of a room in Alice in Wonderland – after Alice drinks the magic potion to fit through the tiny door. Fat gray and cream colored stripes thinned as they moved up the walls and continued onto the ceiling and a point at its zenith. An oversize vase of silk flowers sat on a tall pedestal under the point of the stripes, making the already small dining room feel like it was shrinking. Or were we?
Right away a large, square bottle of cold water arrived at our table, as did cold French bread with butter and a tasty onion jam. Three of us ordered the soup of the day, a cream-based apple cauliflower with a drizzle of hazelnut oil on top ($7 a bowl), a delicious mix of fall flavors with sweet, mushroomy undertones. We wished the bread was warm to dunk in our soup, but the caramelized onion jam made up for it. We also ordered the arancini appetizer ($7) to share – the three bread crumb-coated fried rice balls floated in a pool of marinara sauce and proved a superlative pre-dinner snack.
My friend ordered the seasonal mixed greens salad ($12) with beets, Point Reyes blue cheese, candied walnuts, mandarin oranges, pomegranate seeds and halved cherry tomatoes in a light orange-sesame vinaigrette. The toppings were abundant and she happily ate every last morsel.
As our waiter described the main courses, he was gushing – his genuine enthusiasm was sweet and his service excellent, connecting with us and romantically talking up the food.
The fish specials of the day were wild Alaskan halibut and salmon in a basil butter sauce with seasonal vegetables. I chose the halibut. No price was listed on the menu or mentioned, but I figured it would be in line with the other main options. The dish arrived on a large, white plate and my first thought was reflexive: “I am going to still be hungry after this.”
The fish piece was literally six bites and the side of vegetables contained two haricot verts (French green beans), a tiny piece of carrot, a piece of cauliflower the diameter of a quarter and one asparagus spear. For $34, I felt there should’ve been some kind of starch accompaniment like rice or mashed potatoes – and a larger piece of fish. I also wondered where in the world asparagus is seasonal in November. Although the portion was small, the fish was flaky, cooked just right and mighty tasty.
My boyfriend opted for the chicken “fricassee” ($21) containing mushrooms, asparagus, carrots and pearl rice, which our ebullient waiter described as the inside of a chicken pot pie. It was very good, although the presentation felt uninspired. I immediately made plans to recreate it in a crock pot at home.
I moved on to taste my friend’s meal, a Hungarian-style beef goulash ($25) containing lemon fettuccine noodles and crème fraiche. (Interesting goulash aside: The meat used for this dish comes from heavily exercised beef cattle muscle meat containing collagen, which converts to gelatin thickening the stew.) The chunks of meat were accented by paprika, garlic and a hint of red wine served atop thick noodles and garnished with crème fraiche. My friend left a good amount on the plate, saying he couldn’t eat it all because it was too rich. I thought it was great but it wouldn’t be my first choice.
Mr. Goulash’s partner ordered and enjoyed the hanger steak and frites. The steak was cooked perfectly in a Madeira sauce (shallots, mushrooms, thyme and red wine) accompanied by vegetables and “frites” in a cone shaped cup with a mayonnaise aioli. The fries were crisp, hot and looked to be cut in house.
We ended our dinner by sharing two desserts: The waiter’s personal favorite, the warm Danish bread pudding with a Bourbon vanilla sauce ($7), and the chocolate mousse cake ($7). Both were delightful – the pudding had lots of walnuts and the sauce pooled warm lusciousness over the steaming bread. The mousse cake was not overly sweet, which we all liked. Both desserts disappeared rapidly.
Towards the end the owner stopped by our table to ask how our meal was. My friend asked where they source the produce. Before answering, he asked who she was, then proceeded to tell us the chef sources local produce and visits the farmers market. Somehow we weren’t convinced.
Finally, just like the Alice in Wonderland décor and my halibut, when the bill came I felt the wad in my wallet shrinking. The food tastes good going in, but you might not leave without shrinking first. Fortunately CFC’s added a three-course prix fixe menu since ($29), which might prove worthy of a return trip.
CARMEL FOOD COMPANY Junipero between Fifth and Sixth, Carmel. • 5pm-close Wed-Mon. •624-0300, www.carmelfoodcompany.com