Time to Eat
If Carmel’s current, major food moves take you into a time warp, you’re not alone.
Thursday, May 31, 2012
I keep waiting for Marty McFly to blow past me on Carmel’s Ocean Avenue in his DeLorean, or for Bill and Ted’s excellent phonebooth to come crashing into the Bernardus lavender gardens. “Who knows?” I hear myself thinking between bites of gourmet burger, “maybe Will Smith’s Agent J will warp into the booth next to me at Carmel Plaza’s 400 Degrees, and mistake the skinny silver salt-shakers for Men in Black memory erasers.
Seems unlikely, I know, but Carmel’s three biggest food storylines each enjoy so many elements of the past, present and future that it would make sense. Tastebud time travel is happening right here and now.
First to the past: Marinus (658-3595), as you know it, is history. Part of the inspiration for the update, even though it’s just about a decade old, is that the spot’s come to enjoy much stately prominence so quickly that it can feel intimidatingly fancy and stiff, and not exactly young-and-happening.
But now: out go the heavy drapes, dark room and massive table of cordials and whoah-checkbook wines as you walk in, in come patterns and textures that draw from the surrounding trees, more natural light and a mouthwatering spread of stuff like locally foraged mushrooms and cured meats on that big table. “Approachable” is a big word around Marinusland at the moment.
“We want to break the formalness down, to provide a more relaxing environment,” Wine Director Mark Buzan told me as members of the team passed Bernardus wines, jackhammer cocktails, sweet and sour carrot soup and mango ham among preview peekers.
Chef Cal Stamenov’s new menu – black chanterelle risotto ($16/$30), crispy veal sweetbreads with braised Swiss chard ($16), “Monterey salad” with local abalone, artichoke, anchovy, cured bay salmon belly, fennel and seaweed ($20) – has me thinking fresh, of the moment, very much present, particularly the “Spring” and “Farmed & Foraged” sections. Fittingly, then, the remade Marinus opens today. But then there’s this nugget from the future: Stamenov’s cheffing the uniquely fulfilling Dinner in the Vineyard (www.mearth.info, 624-1032), a farm-to-family-style feast benefit for MEarth school gardens Saturday June 9 – and says MEarth and its eco-literate leaders of the future are schooling him on how to pull off a waste-less event, with key help from Offset Project.
“I love proteins,” he says. “They’re just hard to zero waste.” (Full disclosure: In the past I’ve served as a prep cook for Stamenov at the event, and as a volunteer in the MEarth garden and for Offset. All are a big-hearted operations, and a fun, educational adventure to help out with, too.)
More futuristicness from the same place: Marinus pastry wiz Ben Spungin now offers several masterworks based on things he’s done at food festivals like Coastal Luxury Management’s L.A. Food & Wine. They include a chocolate “terrarium” with clever mousse, cake and sorbet constructions worthy of the $32-for-two tag; chocolate “stashes and eyeglasses” with caramels and petit cookies ($24 for two) and “illicit sweets” for the inner rock star foodie in you, a hazelnut-feuilletine “8-ball,” cannibis-scented marshmallow, vanilla yogurt powder and a sassafrass doobie ($24 for two). Nothing too old-world about that.
Now to the present: The 400 Degrees Gourmet Burgers and Fries (244-0040) concept – thanks to a blend of back-then (cast-iron-seared burgers, griddled hot dogs) and the next-gen (the sleek, high-ceiling space and those trippy salt-and-pepper shakers) – is generating more buzz in this minute than Carmel has heard since Vesuvio (626-7373) raised its roof into a starlight lounge.
Opening night at 400 netted mixed dividends, as opening nights do (which is why the Weekly waits three months for a full critique). A small cone of duck-fat fries didn’t taste too ducky ($3.95) but the housemade raspberry-lemon soda ($3.95) cut the grease with zing. The flagship 400 burger ($9.95) was average, but the white cheddar and olive oil bun were above par. The spinach, bean and grilled veggie burger ($8.95) was a lil’ mushy but the Firestone DBA ($6.95) was just one representative from a beer-and-wine menu you don’t see at burger places of the past, with drafts like North Coast Red Seal Ale ($5.95) and half bottles of wine like the 2007 Ramey Cabernet ($55). Though it didn’t sound as sexy, the chocolate chip ice cream sandwich ($4.95) trumped the sea salt caramel shake ($5.95).
The most-important observation: Mirabel Group Food and Beverage Director Bill Harris and owner David Fink were circulating with appetites for feedback. I gave ’em mine: Fix the fat fries, make the menu more visible, prominently post the fact that all 6-ounce, Angus-ground-chuck-and-skirt-steak-blended patties are cooked medium, throw more onion rings on the plate than six ($3.95), and add sauces to the lonely condiment island. Bet you a half bottle of their Stags Leap ($75) the place is noticeably improved in the near future.
Speaking of the future: Carmel, the place where erstwhile mayoral candidate Rich Pepe (who owns Vesuvio) declared in an interview, “How can we get an [open-air market] when we can barely change a lightbulb?” has real momentum behind the idea that at least one local columnist has advocated for ad annoyum.
Jason Burnett, who along with Pepe campaigned for mayor on a pro-market platform (but successfully), appointed a committee to plan it, with City Councilmembers Victoria Beach and Paula Hazdovac, city staffer Heidi Burch and chamber chief Monta Potter. The remaining appointees include Eric Schlosser, author of bestseller Fast Food Nation and co-producer of Food Inc., the aforementioned Fink… and Pepe.
Much was bandied about – local jams! cheeses! – but Pepe cuts to the quick. “In a nutshell, we are all in agreement that [it’ll be held] on a city street, in the center of town, on a Thursday afternoon/evening, year round, and as local as possible,” he says. “It’s not going to be a street fair with [vendors selling] rotisserie chicken. We don’t want to compete with ourselves.” In other words, pushing the restaurants outside – “dining using the city sidewalks,” he says.
Another meeting happens around press time, with a start aimed at Sept. 13.
“It will not be in full-fledge[d] or fully formed on the first go,” Beach says. “My approach is to get something off the ground and let it ‘evolve.’”
Despite all the distracting anticipation I still sense a familiar time-twisting sensation: something past tense – walkable community-friendly markets, produce from a neighboring farms, smart citizens and businesspeople demanding a say in government – masquerading as one that’s current, popular, even progressive. Doesn’t feel quite right, but I’ll take it. If chefs like Stamenov keep backing vanguard organic/eco education like MEarth’s, maybe it won’t feel that way some day back in the future.
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Time travel will be handy June 9, primarily as a way to live the day several times. Groundhog Day, after all, is The Best Time Travel Movie of Ever, McFly.
On that fateful next-week summer Saturday alone, the Monterey Beer Festival ($40, www.nightthatneverends.com) foams folks with 80 breweries’ multiple pours; the Monterey Wine Festival ($35 and up, www.montereywine.com) hosts both a tasting with people pouring – dozens like Carmel Road, La Crema Winery, Le Mistral and De Tierra Vineyard – and a West Coast Clam Chowder Cook-off in Custom House Plaza that’s vastly superior to last week’s Great Calamari and Clam Chowder Festival. Stamenov is the engine of the Rolls Royce of the day’s events with the Dinner in the Vineyard in the redolent fields of Bernardus ($150/$100 tax deductible, www.mearth.info). Carmel Valley Art & Wine (free admission, $25 for five-winery tasting), is also just down Carmel Valley Road, where the distance (more travel talk) from westside Heller to inland Dawn’s Dream is 1,000 steps, a tidy trip, though it’s increasingly populated with wine spot-stops that demand time (and appreciation): between them lie another 13 – or is it 14 already? The latest: Cima Collina (620-0645), which makes sense, since its Hilltop Vineyard is a mile off, and its old-fashioned family-run approach clicks with the style of the former Del Monte Milk Barn they’re moving into. And next to Dawn’s Dream, there’s something smokin’ in the former Volcano Grill. Here’s how music promoter/spokesperson Kiki Wow puts it (it being Plaza Linda’s relocation): “I feel like we won a game show and we get a new dream kitchen! Maybe it won’t be confusing if we combine both names (sorta) and call it The Lava Linda! Or at least a drink called that!” That’s a Wow who lives in the Now. Fortunately the future looks good too.
Editorial intern Kathleen Seccombe contributed to this story.
• Downtown milestone: The Mucky Duck (655-3031) celebrates 60 years in business 6-10pm Wednesday, June 6, with no cover, drink and food specials and live music from the Rod Band. More cause to celebrate: The Puritans at Monterey City Council have OK’d the long-promised later hours for drinks and music, and happy hour continues daily 4-7pm, with military and student deals always on.
•Diagnosed a local symptom of a glorious, continent-wide rebirth in whiskey nerd-dom, which is itself a byproduct of our newfound obsession with craft cocktails. No fewer than 32 superb whiskeys and bourbons now splash on a new menu at locally owned sister spots Lallapalooza (645-9036) and Lalla Grill (324-4632). That means Bulleit ($7) and Hudson Baby ($16), Basil Hayden ($10) and 94-proof Jefferson’s Presidential 18 Year ($19), plus some cocktails like the Manhattan martini with Maker’s 46, sweet vermouth and bitters ($10).
• Foodie newsflash: “Kobe” beef, like that in 400 Degrees’ “Kobe burger” ($13.95) is impossible (see story, this page). Importing Kobe beef from Japan is illegal. And there’s no such thing as domestic Kobe beef – there’s just no protections around the term. The stuff marketed as Wagyu – which translates to “Japanese cattle” – describes any number of Japanese breeds raised here.
•The last time you had a Korean adventure for lunch? I know the answer to this one: Yen-nahl. (That’s Korean for “long time ago”). Nara Korean (333-0800) has survived the Alvarado fire adventure. So has the rest of the mini United Nations of Food affected by the blaze, including Koko’s Cafe-style Middle Eastern (375-3777) and very vegetarian friendly Sushi Moto (235-3455).
• Seaside City Council wouldn’t do Post No Bills Craft Brewhouse in the struggling City Center Shopping Center at Fremont and Broadway, but appears they’ll let Buffalo Wild Wings Restaurant fly.
• “You’re late,” Dr. Emmett Brown tells Marty McFly. “Do you have no concept of time?”