Star Turn: Bernardus Lodge builds upon an esteemed reputation with a refreshed look and seasonal food that merits more from Michelin.
Thursday, October 25, 2012
Marinus at Bernardus Lodge is Carmel Valley’s throwdown answer to the French Laundry, a hotel restaurant that should be known as so much more, a place surrounded by grapevines and lush grounds meant for strolling, but also, at its essence, a place that wants to be liked as well as loved. They want to be celebrated, sure, but they also want to be a go-to place for locals. In the past year, that helped inspire Marinus to undertake a retooling that had Chef Cal Stamenov looking at everything from the style of his dining room to the direction of his menu.
The thinking went something like this: While many fine dining restaurants are focusing intensely on multi-course, prix fixe tasting menus, Stamenov was working toward opening his menu up, creating a way for the tasting menu/four-figure bottle of wine set to get what they want while also making it a no-brainer for locals to walk in and order an appetizer, a main and a good glass of wine without totally breaking the bank.
It’s still expensive, and for the uninitiated, maybe a little intimidating. But what Stamenov and his team have created is great bordering on greater, pairing reverence for ingredients and technique with top-notch service that also shows respect for the customer. It’s an experience worth the cost of admission.
On a recent trip, there was lengthy debate over the menu. Should we do the appetizer-sized portions of smoked eggplant agnolotti at $18 (or the full at $30)? The mushroom soup with goat milk foam and foie gras (! – more about that later) or succumb to the prime filet with fondant potato and bearnaise ($44)? In the end, my dining partner and I went with the tasting menu ($125, $95 if you want to add wine pairings) which, because of the way the meal is timed, has to be ordered by the entire table. With seven courses overall, five of them featuring fish, fowl or beef, it also allows the kitchen to show off a little bit of everything it does.
It was was the smart choice, too, because what followed was two hours of surprise after sublime surprise.
First came an opening salvo of an amuse bouche – a miniature cocktail glass with a cold and vibrantly green cucumber soup, highlighted by shreds of fresh mint and tasting like summer. Then came the first of the seven courses, a kampachi sashimi that paired delicate, thin slices of fresh fish with sweet, salty blobs of Mendocino uni that melted on contact with the tongue. Monterey Bay spot prawns, up third, got a kick from pickled sweet banana peppers from the Marinus garden, mellowed by ripe baby heirloom avocado and clear, cool tomato water. My partner spooned that water up.
Slices of juicy, tender Sonoma duck, served just rare enough and with a neat smear of herb polenta, Black Mission fig, beautifully brown chanterelles and a crispy, salty, wondrous little lardon of pork, had me wondering, Is it wrong to lick a plate at such a nice place? But so did the American Wagyu, more juicy and tender meat, this with a shallot sauce, roasted carrots and slow-braised greens. Like the uni, the rare and perfectly seasoned beef almost dissolved on contact.
Did I mention the foie gras, available both with the aforementioned portobello soup or as a separate item with roasted grapes, frisee, duck jus and housemade toasted brioche? About that…
Yes, it’s been outlawed in California, or at least its manufacturing has been. Bernardus President Mike Oprish says it’s the view of the lodge, and of Stamenov, that the law is vague and unclear. But, he adds, nobody is trying to make a political statement; it’s on the menu intermittently and there to order for those who want it.
The tasting menu finished up in palate clearing/savory-sweet succession. First the palate clearing, a dish of housemade Greek yogurt with a dusting of pistachio and an accent of licorice mint. Then a wedge of raw-milk Hudson Red, a semisoft cheese from Twin Maple Farm in New York, served with crunchy hazelnuts, black truffle, pear puree and a deck of housemade, fruit-and-nut crostini. Some people (OK, this person) – dream of cheese; I will dream of this one for awhile.
Pastry Chef Ben Spungin, a seven-year veteran of the Marinus kitchen, clearly likes to play with his food. The featured dessert, a pistachio-themed plate highlighted by heirloom apple and wild huckleberry sauces, posed sharply drawn lines of sweet fruit purees and a perfectly shaped pistachio ice cream quenelle against a rough torn chunk of mineral-green pistachio sponge cake. A clever, pretty presentation and a smart pairing of fruit and nut.
Spungin’s creativity really shines in what he calls “the petit-four program.” At the end of the meal (and right before the server delivers the not insubstantial bill – $300-plus for the tasting menu and two glasses of wine chosen from the 1,500-label strong wine list), the diner receives a sweet little plate of art. Spungin and his team create mini treats that on this night included a peanut butter truffle, Spungin’s riff on a Butterfinger candy bar (he sprays the thin layer of chocolate on the crispy center with a Wagner paint gun) and three chocolate salted caramels hand-painted in blue and white waves as an homage to the coast.
More than the menu has changed in the past year. The interior redo took the dining room from an almost gothically dark space to an earth-toned, French country room. (It reminded me, unironically, of a page from the Restoration Hardware catalog.) The fireplace is still there, so large that the servers feeding it wood can nearly fit inside. But the room is highlighted by a casual farmhouse table used for service and laden with flowers and produce. It, along with the heavy, mushroom-colored linens on the tables, the hand-polished silver eating utensils and distinct little touches like petite-four plates made of recycled glass, serve to make what could be austere both soothing and welcoming.
Marinus has remained solidly near the top of the Zagat Guide’s San Francisco Bay Area rankings for more than 10 years, this time coming in at No. 8 and scoring just a point behind French Laundry and Restaurant Gary Danko, but a point ahead of the two Michelin-starred Manresa and this year’s James Beard top honoree, San Francisco’s Boulevard. Stamenov has been nominated for a Beard award once. Are the accolades nice? Sure. Should Michelin throw a few stars their way, or Beard finally anoint Marinus and its chefs? Definitely.
But one gets the sense that Stamenov and crew aren’t doing it for that kind of glory. They’re doing it for the love of the local farmers and foragers who show up at the kitchen door with tomatoes or mushrooms or greens in hand. Stamenov, Oprish says, has handshake-and-a-wink deals with a number of local foragers to augment the six acres of vegetable and fruit gardens at the lodge and Bernardus’ vineyards near Cachagua.
They’re also doing it for the cowboy-casual guy at the next table who just wanted a really good piece of beef, and for anyone else smart enough to put aside preconceived notions of fancy and walk through Bernardus’ doors to discover how one of the state’s top chefs interprets fine dining, Carmel Valley-style.
MARINUS • 415 Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley • 6-9pm, closed Monday and Tuesday • 658-3595, www.bernardus.com/lodge/restaurants