Fancy Affordable: Parsing Casanova’s menu for $100 with help from new chef Johnny De Vivo.
Thursday, January 17, 2013
An unrestrained meal at many a fine restaurant can easily command hundreds of dollars, especially at a place like Casanova in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Entrees average $32, the selection of antipasto and hor d’oeuvres are nearly impossible to forego and the 30,000-bottle library of a wine cellar tops out at $13,000 for a 750-milliliter pop.
But if you’re tactical you can get the goods at this storied Carmel restaurant without breaking the bank, which is exactly we sought to accomplish: Two people, $100 including wine and tip.
A wise play is to set aside about half of the budget on an antipasto tasting ($47), as it provides bites of nearly all the choices on the antipasto menu and highlights a lot of different flavors. You’ll get plenty of food: grilled octopus, butternut squash ravioli, tuna tartare, cured duck, oysters and a marinated sea bass over a brandade cake.
Complement this with a small order of the house gnocchi ($12), and there’s plenty for two to eat. You can also fortify yourself with the complimentary – and outright amazing – sun-dried tomato pesto tapenade and the baskets of rosemary bread rolls and bread sticks, which the server constantly refills.
Some thoughts on the tasting: Grilled octopus amounts to only a couple bites each, which is unfortunate because the octopus is so nicely cooked we wanted more, and the accompanying salad of fennel and chick pea puree is a runaway winner. Hearty, distinct butternut squash taste and texture makes an inspired ravioli, balanced well by the goat cheese and enoki mushroom stuffing. Tuna tartare, the centerpiece and perhaps the highlight of the spread, is done with deliciously fresh maguro and has a balanced tanginess from pickled mustard seeds and a puree made from lemon rinds.
The cured duck is also a surprise. Topped with shaved duck egg, the duck meat is reminiscent of ham, perhaps because the bird is wrapped in a duck prosciutto that’s cured in-house for two months.
Mollusks aren’t my thing, but these Pacific coast oysters prove somewhat revelatory on their bed of sea salt with a topping of superb white foam mignonette, a welcome re-entry into a food neighborhood I normally don’t want to hang out in.
When a fish tastes fishy it’s usually a bad omen, but for the marinated sea bass and brandade cake, the fishiness feels intentional and enhances the dish. My dinner date disagrees, saying it leaves a bad taste in her mouth.
Casanova’s spinach gnocchi has a reputation. Yelpers fawn over it. Our server emphatically recommends it. But I can’t get onboard. I wanted perfectly boiled spinach and potato pasta, but this signature dish is a Parisian-style gnocchi, which to my estimation amounts to potatoless spinach gratin. The flavor is rich and creamy, but it lacks texture where I anticipated soaring success. Expectations, as they say, are a mother.
Generous pours of wine by the glass are served in miniature decanters at $8.50-$13.50. If one of you opts for a glass of house red or white at $8.50, the other can order any glass and still be on target.
Our subtotal is $78, tax about $6, and tipping almost 20 percent makes the meal an even $100.
Executive Chef Johnny De Vivo says his culinary palate is broad, and that he has the experience and training to cook Thai or Chinese, then easily switch to something distant like Moroccan. But he jokes that it’s his last name that keeps him hired at Italian restaurants.
De Vivo took the helm of the kitchens at Casanova and sister restaurant La Bicyclette six months ago and says he couldn’t be happier. When he went in to prepare the tasting that earned him his job, he walked into the kitchen, found heaps of fresh morel and chanterelle mushrooms, and threw his original game plan out the window.
De Vivo, who for 15 years owned a restaurant in southern Utah, says Casanova’s owners – brothers and storied Carmel tastemakers Walter and Gaston Georis – don’t sacrifice quality to boost margins. “They want the best products the chefs can get their hands on,” he says.
De Vivo has been keeping Casanova’s decades-old tradition of Californian-inspired rustic Italian and French cuisine, but has also followed preceding exec chef John Cox’s experimental tendencies, striving to slow down the pace and fine-tune details in presentation. “We’re trying to push the envelope, be more creative in what we’re plating,” De Vivo says.
For the budget brigade, skipping on the wine at Casanova would be a shame, like going to a Mexican restaurant and not having salsa, but it’s one way to keep costs low. De Vivo also offers dinnertime “plates for two” that look promising. Local catch of the day ($35 per person) is served with braised clams, harissa, fennel and marble potatoes. Two orders of the fish will allow enough room in the budget to share a dessert ($7.50-$9.50), adequately tip the waiter and be out of the door for $100 or less. The other plate for two, classic Tuscan bistecca ($39 per person) with glazed veggies, potato puree and porcini beef jus, would barely fit into the budget.
Lunchtime prices are significantly lower (the average entree is $17), and provided you’re cool forking over $100 on lunch, two people can feast and drink like Casanova royalty between the hours 11:30am and 3pm.
When asked what he’d do with $100 at Casanova, De Vivo offers comforting counsel: “I would have done the exact same thing you did.”
CASANOVA 11:30am-3pm; 5-10pm daily. • Fifth between Mission Street and San Carlos Street, Carmel. • 625-0501, www.casanovarestaurant.com