Seafood Four Ways at Carmel's Charming New La Balena
December 17, 2012
Everything about Carmel’s new La Balena Cucina Toscana (250-6295) is understated, from the decor to the menu, in a way that left our table collectively murmuring in thoughtful delight throughout a two-hour dinner Sunday night—instead of punctuated by the “Oh wow” kinds of flavors you might expect from a meal this good.
But in a five-course “pop-up” dinner featuring local ingredients, Chef Brad Briske went for subtlety. His creations were original but simple. (A note about pop-ups, which take place in non-traditional venues: This place didn't just pop up; it was a guest menu in an established, albeit newly established, bricks-and-mortar spot.)
That is less surprising considering owners Emanuele and Anna Bartolini’s culinary vision for the place: “We try, in every dish, not to manipulate it, because it’s just quality ingredients,” Emanuele says.
For Sunday night’s two $75 seatings, that meant local fish supplied by Local Catch Monterey Bay, a Community Supported Fishery, and produce from Carmel’s Burst and Bloom and Watsonville’s Mariquita Farm, and mushrooms from Country Flat Farm in Palo Colorado.
Organized by Colleen Logan of Savor the Local, the menu was a day-of creation, based on what was available.
“Part of the fun of a fish dinner is you don’t really know what you’re going to get until the day of,” Briske said.
We started with white seabass sausages over persimmon slaw with a mustard base dressing, a combination of sweet and salty. The mild sausages at first tasted like they could’ve been chicken brats, the only fish preparation of the evening that didn’t perfectly resemble unadulterated fish—this might’ve been a trick of the eye more than the gentle seasoning.
The second course, a “decomposed soup,” was the standout of the evening (though, thankfully, its components were deconstructed, and fresh—rather the opposite of decomposing). There were separate piles of salted cod (aka rockfish) puree, spicy pepper puree (though the allegedly super-spicy peppers from Mariquita Farm in Watsonville had little heat), and butter crab with capers, interspersed with barely softened radishes and Dungeness crab legs. It was hard to decide whether to keep the “soup” composed as it was, biting from just one subtle, ocean-scented pile at a time, or combining them all on the fork.
A palate-cleansing serving of gelato—a bright, fruity combination of Meyer lemon, blood orange and lime—followed the crab/cod. It would’ve been an adequate place to end the meal, with four mild seafood species already down, but Briske had his Italian take on miso-coated sablefish to come as the main.
The aromatic fish, also called “butterfish,” was prepared in cream and prosecco, Briske’s Italian version of a more typical miso. In keeping with the mildness of the preceding courses, the sablefish was served with varied textures, but gentle, earthy flavors: potatoes roasted and crisped, and a few pungent bites of chanterelles.
The dessert, a scoop of armagnac ice cream over crumbled pistachios alongside a freshly made biscotti, still warm and soft (“It’s not a toothbreaker,” as one dining companion put it) topped of the menu of subtlety with a gentle finish. For final bites, we sampled dark, butter chocolates made by Bernardus pastry chef Ben Spungin.
Throughout, Cima Collina’s Jane Beery poured up California pairings for the Italian menu, with the most exotic, refreshing flavor coming alongside the buttery “soup” in a Pinot Blanc, made from a rare white grape mutation.
The simple menu pairs well with the simple decor: plain white walls and an elegant dining room make La Balena feel at once down-home and classy. The floors come from recycled material, and the simple square tables are refurbished pallets.
The service was attentive, sometimes almost to a fault—sometimes unfinished bites of food or sips of wine were whisked away before we could speak up.
The menu changes daily, depending on what’s fresh (last week’s mains, $19-26, were classics: pork chop, steak and chicken breast) and available at the MPC and Alvarado Street farmers markets.
Since opening less than a month ago, business has been good, the Bartolinis say. It’s mostly locals so far, a proportion that will probably only increase once they add a lunch menu, featuring housemade salamis currently in the works. One chef is in Tuscany, tracking authentic spices.
Those spices are likely to be in keeping with the authentic and rustic Italian flavor of La Balena that makes it feel so understated and comfortable.
Photo credit: Alan Lovewell