Hidden Heaven: Phoebe’s Café helps make picturesque Asilomar a nice getaway for everyone.
Thursday, February 9, 2012
Even for locals, a trip to the new Phoebe’s Café at the Asilomar Conference Grounds can feel like a mini vacation. Tucked into a nook of the spacious Phoebe Hearst Social Hall – where visitors can relax in front of a large fireplace or even shoot pool at one of two billiards tables – the small eatery opened this December.
A part of the California State Parks, Asilomar initially opened in 1913 as a retreat for young ladies run by the YWCA. It is now one of the most affordable spots for lodging on the Monterey Peninsula.
On an unseasonably warm January afternoon, my buddy, a canine and I retire to the wooden deck behind the café to sample Phoebe’s small menu of sandwiches, salads and soups. In the distance, waves crashing at nearby Asilomar Beach provide some relaxing white noise as small packs of conference attendees roam between the twisty Monterey cypress trees like herds of deer. Nearby another table of diners mentions that the serene location evokes natural treasures like Yellowstone.
Taken care of by the café’s attentive Omar and Ashley – who give people a choice between ordering from the counter inside or waiting a little longer for table attention – my pal and I order up the caramelized onion and goat cheese tart ($10) and the local harvest vegetable panini ($10). We also tacked on a couple local beers, a Monk’s Brown Ale from Marina’s English Ales and a Carmel Wheat (each $6). Phoebe’s offers a small selection of local wines including the Heller Estate Organic Cabernet Sauvignon ($11/glass; $42/bottle) and the Chalone Chardonnay ($9; $34).
The tart is an tasty creation with a tangle of onions topped by daubs of goat cheese, and almost sweet enough to qualify as a desert item. It comes with a small mound of greens in a creamy Meyer lemon salad dressing. The main problem with ours: It is not fully warmed. Still, this is café fare that is better than fair.
As a couple of pressed triangles of cheese, basil and tomato, the local harvest vegetable panini arrives more like a grilled cheese than a hearty veggie-filled creation. More basil could add a flush of flavor, and it’s hard to imagine what local farmer is harvesting tomatoes at the moment. Luckily, the side quinoa salad, which comes with the panini in a little tear-drop porcelain vessel, is healthy, light and tasty with slivers of almonds, golden raisins, dried cranberries, lemon juice and olive oil.
The pooch was loving the big patio and a paper bowl of water from Ashley, and, like us, thinking this place is perfect for a post-beach bite. Not wanting to vacate the sunny patio anytime soon, we decide to continue with the organic vegetable quiche ($10) and a cup of the Asilomar chili ($5).
The slab of quiche is rich and filled with ribbons of butternut squash and zucchini, though the crust is a bit wimpy.
The one flat-out disappointment on the menu is the chili. It looks promising enough with hearty chunks of ground beef and kidney beans topped by cheese and diced tomato, but it fails to deliver noticeable spice or flavor.
When I return the next day with another friend, the sky is covered with a blanket of fog and a chill fills the air. The afternoon is so dark, in fact, that the facilities’ outside lamps are already on even though it is still a couple of hours until sunset – a good time to check out Phoebe’s limited indoor seating, which is just three small tables overlooking the grounds. Fortunately it turns out that customers are allowed to take their food and drinks into the adjoining room with the fireplace and pool tables.
My friend seems to have some plummeting blood sugar, because he immediately gravitates towards dessert items like the cinnamon bun ($3), which comes covered in frosting and ground pistachios. We also set out to try Chef Danny’s Asilomar cookie ($3), which is hyped up on the café’s website and includes double chocolate chips, cranberries and almonds. Unfortunately, after ordering it, we receive a standard-issue, pancake-sized chocolate chip cookie ($3) instead.
As a constant stream of conference goers comes and goes into the small room, we split a house roasted turkey-and-brie panini ($10). The combo proves tasty, and more interesting thanks to a sweet tasting red spread that turns out to be a cranberry-spiked mayonnaise.
The café also offers Peet’s coffee ($2.35/12 ounces) as well as to-go items including a pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwich ($4) for those who want to picnic on Asilomar Beach, just 100 yards or so away.
All told, while some of Phoebe’s better dishes surpass the items offered at other local cafes, it’s clear after my second visit that this new eatery’s best draw is its location. Whether you want to sip a beer and walk around in the homey Phoebe Hearst Social Hall, which was designed by famed architect Julia Morgan, or nibble on a cheese plate while taking in the serpentine trunks of the nearby cypress trees, Phoebe’s can take you away from everyday life within minutes. I’ll be back to try Chef Danny’s Asilomar cookie on another day when the sun heats up that back deck.
PHOEBE’S CAFÉ 800 Asilomar Blvd., Pacific Grove • 6:30am-9pm Sun-Thu; 6:30am-10pm Fri-Sat. • 372-8016.