Culinary Kung Fu
Three familiar-but-pioneering agents brighten the local flavorscape.
Thursday, September 13, 2012
This was a celebrity chef pop-up concept, only flipped like an over-easy farm egg – or maybe scrambled. Local celebrity photographer Kim Weston, heir to the storied tradition of his grandfather, father and uncle, was in the kitchen, not the dark room, conjuring a daring tribute to the Monterey Italian recipes his father-in-law taught him. Guests gathered around the modest-but-beautifully-appointed lobby and dining room at Hotel 1110 (formerly Inn at Del Monte, 655-0515), many of them photographers and artists themselves, slurping Morro Bay Oyster Company gems and sipping Kovacs wines.
His five-course work on the plate was a pleasantly artful surprise, especially for those who balked at the presence of so much squid: marinated calamari salad with fig and cabbage, breaded and pan-seared calamari filets, succulent calamari tubes stuffed with Italian sausage over Sicilian meatballs and spaghetti, artichoke frittata, and lemon-basil sorbet with his own limoncello.
Then, as the salon buzzed with inspired conversation and the effects of big bottles of rare reserve Kovacs 2004 Syrah, the evening entered another artistic phase as Weston peers and friends Ryuijie and Jim Kasson, pioneering photogs both, presented head-shaking, how-did-they-do-that images. Ryuijie displayed both underwater black and whites on rare metal – jellies and kelp portraits made timeless, figuratively and literally – and ethereal pictures of sweet peas and poppies frozen in ice and shot with stunningly vivid detail (showing at Weston Gallery through Oct. 28). Kasson’s method of shooting 20 frames a second of colorful urban corners and shops, then somehow isolating a focal point to clarify, was every bit as arresting, though totally different, then Weston brought us full circle with iconic-but-atypical shots of nudes layered with shadow and ripe fruit. Cigars and delish detritus wines followed on the roof.
The next installment hits next weekend, and stars a robust wild boar cooked underground, wild Big Sur coast mussels, Salinas greens, an “outdoor special dessert” and wine from another friend-of-the-arts at – get this – Cole Weston’s house in Garrapata Saturday, Sept. 22. The hotel’s booked up, but the dynamic dinner ($75) is not.
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Some things leap right out at anyone seated at one of the 16 tables at brand new Alvarado Fish & Steakhouse (717-4468) in downtown Monterey.
One: It doesn’t feel like a brand new restaurant, largely because the family in the kitchen and between the tables seems to already know a formidable fraction of those eating. Two: The team isn’t picking up its first frying pans.
Turns out they do know most of the folks and they’re not strangers to the game: Owner-operator John DiGirolamo Jr. and his partner/pops “Big” John gathered a following working at Monterey Fish House (John Jr.’s uncle owns the spot where Jr., now 25, started working at 12). Their mostly friends-and-family soft-opening did a whopping 90-plus covers, and they topped that Saturday. Chef Steve Roysten, meanwhile, launched much-loved-but-now-defunct Village Fish House in Carmel Valley with Jr.’s aunt.
Third thing to jump out: $11 is a sweet sauté of a song for three long sand dab filets in a beautiful white wine-butter-caper picatta sauce backed by a side of house penne pasta and vegetables. The bargain’s made bigger by its contrast with the rack of lamb special, an undercooked doosie at an unannounced $30.
There are other attractive things, including the diablo mussel pasta with a spicy sake marinara ($14), the grilled crab sandwich ($14 with fries, soup or salad) and 50/50 burger and fries ($11), made with half smoked bacon, half steak smushed into a patty and piled with sautéed onions, mushrooms and peppers.
There are steaks (filet wrapped in smoked bacon for $19, and a New York and a rib eye with choice of grilled, blackened or red wine garlic reduction sauces for $17 and $19, respectively), pastas (we dug the porcini-Italian sausage ravioli appetizer, $10) and fish (including the captain’s platter with seasonal fish, clam, mussels, prawns, calamari and octopus, $17), all simple, sturdy and affordable but done with the nuance and liveliness afforded by a veteran chef. It gets better washed down with the Bernardus Griva Vineyard Sauv Blanc ($7.50/glass), and Querceto Italian Chianti ($6.50) or a Coppola Monterey Pinot ($8).
Tastiest of all: The Friday night crowd out front indicates this will be a damn appetizing antidote to a seemingly snakebitten spot next to The Mucky Duck in the heart of Old Monterey. They are open for lunch and dinner Thursday through Sunday, 11:30am-10pm; Monday and Tuesday are dinner only 4-9:30pm. “We’ve been having so many locals coming,” John Jr. says, “and leaving happy.”
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Look hard enough and you can find the leather lederhosen, Alp horns, happy oompah tunes and monster beer steins you need for an authentically equipped Oktoberfest. Same goes for the giant pretzels, Bavarian chicken and Spaten Oktoberfest that will be swimming around the Barnyard’s event space this Saturday and Sunday (Sept. 15-16) for the second annual installment of Oktoberfest Monterey Bay.
But you cannot find a charismatic crazyman like local restaurateur Andre Lengacher anywhere. He’s the one who envisioned a local cousin of the legendary German bacchanalia, just as he envisioned transforming a hellhole and $20 grand into what’s now 16-year-old Lugano Swiss Bistro (626-3779), along with his (far) better half and constant collaborator Nargis.
He’s the showman with a silver mullet and huge glowing grin who once managed all of Hyatt’s restaurants – more than 30 at a time – once requiring a golf cart to cover the 2-acre kitchen at the Anaheim Hilton by itself. Today he manages to say things like “you book it, I cook it” and “come in a customer, leave a friend” without sounding remotely insincere. And just like he wants to dip everything on the planet into a bubbling vat of cheese, as he does nightly at Lugano – no multicultural cuisine trip through Carmel is complete without wading into his Swiss raclette cheese, tempting his air-dried Swiss beef, sniffing his schnitzel and slaying his sauerkraut – he wants to slosh everyone in German beer, accordion music and dirndl dancing all weekend long. He’s so into Oktoberfest he falls asleep watching feeds from Eastern Europe on his iPad.
“It’s just fun,” he says, smiling wide.
He figured 150 imported kegs of Stielgl, Spaten and Spaten Oktoberfest, to be sold in giant steins for $6, wouldn’t be quite enough fun for normally wine-centric Carmel, so he just ordered another 30. Having successfully gone from illegal immigrant cook told “chef is not a profession” by customs agents to working the White House kitchen, he believes his every undertaking will be a smash – and already anticipates ordering 800 kegs next year to fuel year three and a new San Luis Obispo event a week earlier.
It’s like one industry insider told me: “Andre wills his love of food, wine, beer – and people – into the world.”
While the Internationals (see story, p. 44) and Flying Dutchmen play, Oktoberfest runs noon-6pm Saturday and Sunday at The Barnyard in Carmel; tickets are $17 or $65 for VIPs, who get a big lunch, two beers, a glass stein, a giant pretzel, St. Pauli girls service and $10 at Lugano’s. Call Lengacher at 277-3779 or visit www.oktoberfestmontereybay.com for more. Bet you a goat-hair gamsbart hat he’ll be happy to hear from you.
•Tarpy’s Roadhouse (647-1444) is doing a remodel of its bar and menu in concert with its upcoming 20th anniversary. Hit the blog for a taste of the new dishes and drinks.
•The Harvest 101 vineyards tours at McIntyre Vineyards are a tasty and illuminating odyssey – Steve McIntyre and company lead guests through the vines, sampling grapes, analyzing acidity, testing pH levels and swirling sustainable wines. This Saturday’s, though, on Sept. 15, ups the ante, as it celebrates 25 years of pioneering organic growing and sets lunch by Vintage Catering against the striking Santa Lucia Highlands McIntyre has helped define. Swing by or call the tasting room (649-WINE) for 20 percent off the $65 tik – or join the wine club for $70 and come free. A final route: post a pic with McIntyre wine – on a trail, at dinner or at the beach – on its Facebook page and have a shot at winning two memberships.
•il vecchio (324-4282) could’ve won our readers vote for Best New Restaurant in the county – and almost did (1833 edged ’em). Such a spectacular rookie year of authentic-but-affordable Italian in a vibrant recycled-material setting is worth celebrating… with a dance party. Saturday, Sept. 15, the anniversary shindig starts at 9pm with live music and pasta for $10; rehab happens the next day with a second celebration – brunch – from 9-11:30am with sheets of pasta frittata and bread pudding for $5.
• San Fran-native author Gina Hyams has a serious scam going. Her last book was Pie Contest in a Box; now she’s onto The Chili Cook-Off in a Box Handbook. Sorry Hyams, but I’ll put my $14.99 toward the $27 ticket to Great Bowls of Fire Carmel Valley Chili Cook-off Wednesday, Sept. 19, now at the Barnyard, with the likes of Los Laureles Lodge, Carmel Valley Ranch, Paradise Catering, Plaza Linda, Bernardus and Baja Cantina repping both chili and margaritas. Look for the OMG Chili from God and music from Stormin’ Norman and the Cyclones. 659-4000, www.carmelvalleychamber.com.
• Monterey Jazz Festival says North Coast Brewing will be the Official Beer of Monterey Jazz Festival through 2014. Brother Thelonious Belgian Style Abbey Ale is good in more ways than one: NCB donates to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz with every case sold.
• Thomas Snyder of Esteban (375-0176) approaches food with a clarity and simplicity that makes his stews, fish treatments and tapas as accessible as they are inviting. The Weekly foodie team learned that filming an installment of our In Your Dish chef profiles; you can learn it 1-3pm Saturday, Sept. 15, with his second paella party ($75), stocked with sangria, wine, beer, cave, pintxos and a gift at the end for all attendees, plus lots of learning.
• A party with pedigree cometh: Holman Ranch’s 84th Fiesta de los Amigos – blending its history and swank ranch aesthetics with spicy stuff like food truck grub, live music and estate wines – happens Thursday, Sept. 27, and doubles as a benefit for Alzheimer’s Association. RSVP by Sept. 20 (659-2640) for $35 (club members) or $50 (general).
• The second annual Pinotfest hits Del Monte Beach House 6-10pm Saturday, Sept. 29: More than 20 vintners draw from the area’s 7,500 acres of the finicky grape. $50 for Monterey wine clubbers, $55 in advance, www.pinotfest.com.
• “If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night,” said Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame, “I’ll bet they’d live a lot differently.”
back up chef, front personality.