La Balena Cucina Toscana
Whale of a Spot: La Balena quickly gains a loyal following with Italian authenticity and strict sourcing
Thursday, January 10, 2013
I am a food voyeur. I get hot seeing what other people order. So much desire, so little table space.
At 10-week-old La Balena, I coveted every dish I saw. Each could have been delivered to a food stylist for photography. Like the osso buco ($26) and the pesce del giorno, on this day a whole rock cod lightly fried with clams ($23). Or the stinging nettle soup with cannellini beans and a farm egg ($9).
La Balena’s owners, Anna and Emanuele Bartolini, are never far from any worthy description of the place – or the actual place itself – which is a good thing. Emanuele, a native of Florence, keeps everything authentic to his region and his childhood. Hopefully, albeit unrealistically, this casual but elegant cucina Toscana can be a nail in the coffin that one day kills The Olive Garden.
They met in Italy when she was studying art and design abroad. Emanuele followed Anna back to New York City, working in many well-established New York destinations including Mario Batali’s famed Del Posto, where he was a manager.
Another thing to envy besides the plates passing by: the sourcing. Emanuele knows where every leaf of lettuce and every cut of cow comes from (Serendipity Farms and various genuine free-range small farms like Niman Ranch and SunFed, respectively). Impressive, eviable… and almost annoying, like the Jeopardy contestant who knows all the answers.
Earth-friendly is an overused term these days, but with La Balena you see the sincerity in everything from the napkins and soaps to the style in which used cooking oils are recycled. On their Facebook page, they recently shared Rep. Sam Farr’s status on the passage of the Marine Debris Act.
With only about 10 tables inside, La Balena feels appropriately scaled. Ceilings aren’t too high; the mood is cozy. There are three outside tables, six more tables in the back and lunch service is coming later this month.
The heavily tattooed and equally skilled Chef Brad Briske is another guy who annoys me because I’m not him. (At press time, the other chef, Salvatore Panzuto, was in Italy seeking old-world spices in famous Rome markets; he’s back now.) Briske is a marvel to watch. His precision betrays stints at the vegetarian mainstay Millenium in San Francisco and Gabriella Cafe in Santa Cruz County, as well as his most recent gig as head of the charcuterie program at Carmel’s Casanova. The results range from house-ground beef meatballs with braised tomato and ricotta salad ($10) to tuna crudo with ruby streak mustard greens, chanterelles and black truffle oil ($13).
He makes all the pasta in house for dishes like the tagliatelle alla menta (fresh mint pasta with lamb ragout, $19).The sparkling house water is bubbled on-site too.
All wines are either from Italy (Luiano, for example) or Monterey County (like Silvestri), and all are from small wineries (most glasses $6-$8, bottles $20 and up). The reds are especially notable, with wide selections across the board. Check La Balena’s Facebook page for wine tasting events. Beer ranges from the organic by Uncommon Brewers in Santa Cruz to Moretti out of Italy ($6-$8).
Organic unsalted bread at every table comes from Kelly’s of Santa Cruz. Emanuele says that unsalted bread is authentic to his region, preferred because it balances the higher salt content of traditional meals that might include salumi and cheeses.
On my first visit, I left my vegetarian tendencies aside and had the papardelle al ragu ($18), a delicate pasta with beef, veal and pork braised in white wine and tomatoes. It is something of a house specialty and came recommended by not only my solid server, but by the manager of a nearby hotel. Both were right: A most satisfying dish on a cool Carmel night. Wanting to connect with my Southern coastal roots, I had the parsnip polenta (grits to me, $6). Creamy, comforting and soulful, it is a very satisfying side dish for early winter.
On a second visit, I stuck vegetarian, enjoying the tender ricotta gnocchi ($18) tremendously. The pillowy, fresh gnocchi came with broccolini, kale, pine nuts, currants, Bloomsdale spinach, chili and lemon in a whisper of tomato base, many of the harmonious inputs from Serendipity, and the chili providing the kick that completed the complex but familiar dish. It evoked some of my finest fresh ricotta experiences – see also the ricotta fig ice cream at Mission Hill Creamery in Santa Cruz.
Preferring a lighter finish, and with a nod to the TV show Dexter, I chose blood orange gelato ($6), which proved a nice tart counternote to a hearty meal.
Both nights, La Balena stayed full – reservations recommended – but never felt noisy. There were couples, small parties, bigger eight tops, tourists and locals. I know that because I’m not only a food voyeur. I also eavesdrop.
But you don’t have to be either to enjoy La Balena. As it flourishes, you should try it yourself, if only because then I might get to ogle what you order.
LA BALENA CUCINA TOSCANA Junipero between Fifth and Sixth, Carmel. • 5pm-9pm Tue-Sun. • 250-6295, www.labalenacarmel.com