There’s a puzzling ease in the way Chef Benoit Petel adapts. He was born in Paris and trained in Versailles. He has helmed some of the finest and most respected kitchens on the Monterey Peninsula. But when he turns to fried chicken – well, if he took it to a Southern potluck, grandmas would pester him for the secret recipe. The pepperoni pizza almost begs for a red-and-white checker cloth and candle wax dripping down an old Chianti bottle.
It’s reminiscent of Woody Allen’s “human chameleon” character from the film Zelig. When someone orders mac and cheese, he assumes the equivalent of a parent making lunch for finicky kids. If asked to prepare a curry, Petel takes up the skills of a vendor in Goa or Gujarat. Who knows what happens when the pan-seared cauliflower “steak” comes up.
Unlike Leonard Zelig in the film, however, Petel is not desperate to fit in. There’s an impishness in the way he subverts traditional preparation, while sticking to time-honored technique. What he labels as flatbread is rolled into a round – essentially a pizza – and the pepperoni fired by Calabrian chili oil for a smoldering, fruity edge. The dough rivals the finest pizza joints, with a nutty sweetness countered by acrid outbursts where flame scorched the crust. Replacing garlic in an otherwise classic gremolata topping a line of pan-seared scallops, the chef uses golden raisins. The burnished pallor of the fruit complements a dressing of balsamic and browned butter, as well as the crispy, bittersweet score from the pan.
The fried chicken and curry? They go together – not as a fusion dish, but as a collision that resounds and resonates. The golden-brown chicken is every bit as juicy and comforting as grandma’s – but the nuanced layers of the butternut squash curry stir memories of an autumn afternoon, of falling leaves and smoke drifting from distant chimneys. Petel even takes cubes of roasted squash through a sous vide process with lemongrass and earthy, aromatic spices to add a dusky glow to the coming night.
Fire-roasted beets show the kitchen’s commitment to simple yet clever and technically-skilled preparation. They are just beets, roasted, halved and tossed over a wood fire. But there are ebony-hued beets with a stoney minerality, almost like a dense blood pudding, ruddy beets with an earthy sweetness and those with grassy tones – beets of many colors that teeter back and forth between rustic and funky to bright and floral, with wafts of smoked honey weaving in between. Pricks of pickled mustard and dots of goat cheese throw punches that land and reverberate through the dish. The clever bit is in rationing the smoke, the tang and sweetness of the seasoning so they gather force without overwhelming the rooted savor of the beets themselves.
There are little secrets throughout the menu. The fried chicken, for instance, was on the menu when Petel took over as Chef de Cuisine in the fall of 2019. One of the first changes he made was to cut the dredge with rice flour for a lighter yet still satisfyingly crisp finish. For the curry – well, they won’t reveal all.
THE BENCH 1700 17 Mile Drive, Pebble Beach. 11am-10pm daily. 298-5896, pebblebeach.com