Call From a Hero
Taking a timeout to weigh mortality and meaning.
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
The strange last days of the election season earlier this month can feel distant, but something that happened the morning of Nov. 3 has been staying close to my thoughts, especially as the holidays have us simultaneously feeling rushed and thinking about what matters most.
A call came to my cell phone, and because we were in the closing minutes of an election push that synced with the 92-page Monterey Gives! issue (see p. 17) – which were together narrowing already tight final deadlines – I should’ve ignored the call. I didn’t. Maybe it was fatigue from marathon hours logged, but I prefer to think something else told me to pick up.
The guy on the other end is someone I’m hesitant to name beyond Jack because he’s a humble type. He’s my best friend’s dad, the kind of guy who knows great jokes, greater old-school storytelling and how to get good things done – he’s been commissioner of state parks and on a ton of boards like the Thunder Road Adolescent Treatment Centers board he now chairs – but a guy who might not know how much his advice from over the years echoes in my head.
Not long ago he found out he had cancer that looked terminal. As we caught up Wednesday morning, he told me radiation had rendered the rebelling cells beaten, or at least retreating, and scrubbed stem cells are on the way, as is more treatment that will keep him away from home through Christmas.
Suddenly politics was given perspective, and a hurried time slowed down. I was reminded true friendships are never over, nor their value overstated. His incredible family’s legacy and the lives he’s affected already afford him some immortality, but he’s not going anywhere soon. That gives me a gratitude I can feel far more than I can hope to really articulate.
But I would like to articulate a simpler one: Thanks for the chance to share stories with you, with a voice that’s been forged with help from my heroes, including Jack.
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There are few sea cucumber-centric discoveries that rival the fact you can squirt one out of your hand underwater (yes, it’s better to leave them alone, but try telling my mullet-rocking Hondureño master diver). Here’s one: Chef Justin Cogley of Aubergine (624-8578) now stocks live cucumbers, which are far more ocean snail than garden vegetable, along with spot prawns and abalone, in a 55-gallon sea-water tank in his kitchen. That means more maximized freshness on his insanely inventive tasting menus, the only one I’ve seen star a foie-gras stuffed turnip, which was revelatory; his subtle use of things like sea urchin and micro squid bode well for sea cucumber creation.
More fresh effects await at the 12-table restaurant that Zagat rated number five among all restaurants in the Bay Area-Napa region earlier this year: As the attached L’Auberge’s guest rooms receive refreshed furnishings, fabrics, carpeting, paint, artwork and finishes – plus fancier bedding, showers and bathrooms – my appetite will be tracking what they’re calling a “chic contemporary sophistication” upgrade in the petite dining room with new carpet, fab fabrics, lighting, chairs and a massive wave photograph. Cogley’s also giddy about a new custom-built cheese cave and an herb garden on the concurrently upgraded patio. Renovations start Sunday with the reopening Saturday, Dec. 8. (While we’re here, they have a $99 Thanksgiving indulgence 2-9pm for those looking to really splurge.)
With Marinus (658-3595) coming off a worthy update to its setting and menus (check out www.mcweekly.com/restaurants), two of Monterey County’s top few restaurants are as fresh as they’ve ever been.
Meanwhile, Cogley’s partner in pastry, Ron Mendoza – along with some of the sweetest chefs around – is staging a creme fraiche rebellion.
Four superlative pastry chefs are flipping the dinner script with Dessert First, a pop-up at December’s Independent Marketplace. Mendoza joins Ben Spungin of aforementioned Marinus, Yulana Santos of Sierra Mar and Stephanie Prida of Manresa to form a regional Mount Rushmore of sorts, albeit one made of hazelnut feuilletine. They’ll chef four courses of stuff like savory canapes and mignardises (still not sure what any of those things are, besides delicious) for $70, which includes wine pairing and benefits MEarth student gardens. Hit wedemanddessertfirst.com.
Mendoza also schemes desserts for Aubergine’s sister Cantinetta Luca, which has its most inspired special dinners of the year (sorry, heirloom tomato) around the corner, Dec. 6-7, with the fifth La Maialata (dinner of the pig) with creative swine composer Jason Balesteri gives the whole hog of a menu a curly tail. Things like baked pork tortes ($26.95), housemade cotechino sausage ($8.95), breaded pig’s head ($9.95) and pork liver spread ($8.95) run wild.
Another Independent note: When laundering money and/or clothes, it’s not normally that exciting to discover a penny in the belly of the ol’ washing machine. But the penny that turned up in my appliance was a green one, which actually is pretty exciting. Here’s why: the coin isn’t as much one cent as it is one token… of appreciation. At least that’s the Independent market organizers’ way of thinking as they give them to guests who come through with the new $5 cover to redeem for flavor.
The first time they distributed the penny (in November), it was good for Happy Girl lemonade, or Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Company joe or even a sandwich at Bruno’s Market (624-3821), which sold out its whole birds for Thanksgiving but has prodigious turkey-and-sides plates for $10.99. So many vendors dug the idea of the little currency for all sorts of tastes and/or discounts. Now the challenge will be electing who gets priority on the redeemable deals.
More discovery: Trusted tastebuddies tell me family-owned-and-operated El Zarape (655-1902) is doing some tasty things six months into its existence at the 13-table spot on Lighthouse next to Carbone’s (see story, p. 52) where Mexi Cali used to set up. Co-owner/Chef Nelson Reyes prioritizes family recipe sauces – like the complimentary salsa that accompanies the homemade tortilla chips, 12-dried pepper mole sauce, red enchilada sauce, chile verde tomatillo sauce and garlic-lime-chipotle sauce (on Nelson’s camarones en chipotle, $14.95) – and says enchiladas are a hit ($10.95).
A final discovery: Rocky Point Restaurant (624-2933) is in a place that could be called rocky – and renewing.
It has long enjoyed one of the most storied settings the county knows, and a massive enough surf-and-turf ($95 for two) to be a splurge spot. Over the last few years, though, foodies have driven past more and more – or stopped by just for a drink – because the food has trended towards formulaic and forgettable.
That’s partly because it’s been on the market for so long – a decade and a half by some estimates – so it’s good news that new potential owner Dr. Peter Wang hopes to restore the roadside destination to its former gourmand glory. The property is currently in the process of closing escrow, which could finalize as soon as early December.
Wang is president and CEO of the Wang Foundation, a nonprofit that uses international bridge-building and service learning to fight poverty. According to longtime local real estate broker Peter Kenny, who’s repping Wang in the sale, his priorities are redeeming the place’s rep and taking care of the people who work there, who will all be asked to reapply, as is required with the sale.
Bill Lee has been brought on to help evaluate how to deal with outdated infrastructure that the county will likely flag for repair. “I’ve opened enough spots that I’m the guy to come to to talk costs and building plans,” he says.
Dr. Wang is going to need all the pieces of the puzzle. The signature cheesy bread ($7) is good, but my 8-year-old niece could make it. Then again, she is pretty talented. Cute, too.
• Gluten-free-friendly Le Saint Tropez (624-8977) on Dolores in Carmel is 3, and the food-of-the-sun spot is celebrating with new menu yum: braised rabbit with Dijon sauce ($30), frogs legs Provencál ($11 app, $23 entrée) and salmon on shaved fennel and Meyer lemon salad ($25).
• Cue the happy hallucinations. Big Sur native Anne Louis Marquis, now national brand ambassador for Pernod Absinthe outta NYC, hits Restaurant 1833 (643-1833) Sunday, Nov. 25, to unleash cocktail specials and concoctions starting at 5pm.
• Speaking of hitting 1833, its Exec Chef Levi Mezick hit a tasting panel with 22 types of sauces, various cornbreads and slaw, on the tail feathers of the 75-types-of-fried-chicken madness. Looks like the beautiful buttermilk-soaked Sunday chicken nights, starting by Christmas, are looking pretty good.
• Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association is reporting an all-around relieving 2012. “Overall, it was a nice moderate year,” says Jason Smith, MCVGA’s grower chair. “Mother Nature cooperated, the growing season was long, and the grapes matured well. We were able to have a nice average crop with great quality – a nice change after the challenges of 2011.”
• Seems like Cima Collina Winery and Wild Thyme Deli & Café always have something going on, and increasingly, it’s a team sport, as is the to-go Tuesdays wine-and-dinner package for two deal: $32 for a two-person dinner and a bottle of Cima Collina wine. Chef Terry Teplitzky’s menus include cornmeal-crusted fried chicken with macaroni & cheese and stuffed shells with grilled Italian sausages; pick up spots include Collina, Thyme and D’Vine Market at the mouth of Salinas. Pick from four choices, which come with salad and fresh bread and butter, at 884-2414 or www.wildthymedeli.com.
• Al Einstein, take us home: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”