New Do

The lounge now spills into the arboreal atrium of a lobby that’s more Euro-style patio, with a longer stone-and-tile bar, swanky banked seating and a dozen-plus casual-dining tables.

For some it will be appetizing enough that Jacks Monterey (649-2698), which reopened April 26, has reimagined the layout of its underrated bar and lounge in a major way.

For many, a list of affordable new lunch and dinner offerings like sustainable swordfish BLTs ($14) and mama’s eggplant Parmesan ($12) will be ample inspiration to reconsider a “hotel restaurant” as a legit locals’ hangout.

For others it will be a chance to mingle beneath a soaring ceiling over one of seven new house martinis ($11-$14), or to adjourn to the previously forgotten firepit overlooking historic Portola Plaza. (Jacks’ updated hours are 11:30am-11pm daily.)

For me, it’s a little bit of all of the above, and then some, including the forthcoming Jack-n-cheese bake ($8-$14) with gourmet Schoch Jack. But more than anything, it’s the big smile on Executive Chef Danny Abbruzzese.

The new space is a major upgrade. It was cool before, albeit overlooked, with off-the-radar deals on barrel-aged cocktails served with superlative hospitality and barkeep talent from Tuyet Vitacca.

•••View "PHOTOS: A look at reborn Jacks Monterey as it opens (and menus)."

The taps have multiplied like anaerobic yeast, with a bunch of new draft wines (six), ciders (two) and beers (eight), with lines linked to Peter B’s Brewpub to flow its ever-evolving craft selection. There’s a new inviting entrance from the Conference Center side, and Vitacca’s conceived things like a turmeric-infused carrot-juice “Asian persuasion” ($13) and an “elixir,” an uncanny mix of Elyyx vodka, hibiscus bitters, mint honey, pineapple puree and soda water. It’s offered in heavy brass pineapples big enough to serve two ($20) or four-plus ($40).

The overall re-do of the AAA Four Diamond hotel ran a cool $6 million, and Abbruzzese’s menu does nothing to recoup that cost with mark-ups. Instead, items are priced to cultivate a customer base arriving without conference expense accounts. The spendiest thing on the menu is a $40 serving of fresh diver scallops three ways – with seasonal morel mushrooms, in a romesco sauce or with an Eastern-leaning yuzu emulsion – and that’s designed for two.

On that note, one of the more progressive elements on the menu is the format. Almost every item is scaled to work as a “solo” or “share.” There’s a price break for the larger plate.

I’d also order every single “solo.” Chef too. He says his mama made him that way.

She also made him whatever they had on hand in the South, whether that was eggplant for lunch (which earned him weird looks at school) or whole plates of liver (clean the plate or face the consequences). She and the South are two major influences on him, in that order. The menu dips from his Alabama days (shrimp and grits, $15, $27) to Pacific Rim-Monterey-style tempura calamari ($12), but never strays from goods he can get dropped off day-of from longtime local partners like fishmonger Jerry Wetle or nearby CokeFarms. The menu started with no fewer than 250 items by Abbruzzese – albeit with a bunch of seasonal permutations – but has simmered down to a digestible range of two dozen.

That’s part of what makes him smile so widely: a chance to create, surprise and enchant. There are other reasons. Like the Pajaro Pastures goat moussaka ($19, $28), a comforter of cheese, eggplant and bechamel sauce giving life to an ingredient that will win over those previously sheepish about goat meat (“I like inspiring people to try new things with comfort food,” he says). The bites I had on a press visit – Japanese-inspired hamachi crudo with crunchy snap peas ($11 at lunch), rolls baked and served in cast iron with rich artichoke-pecorino cheese dip ($7), a silly-good seared ahi tuna sandwich (a bargain at $13) and silky sustainable salmon on a bed of shiitake mushrooms and vermicelli noodles (another steal at $14 for lunch), provide further evidence.

He’s also smiling about his shiny new domed-and-tiled oven, hand-built to custom specs and worth more than the cars I’ve ever owned, combined. It can do pizzas like the seasonal asparagus-pesto-burrata ($15) in 90 seconds, and bread for sandwiches like the filet mignon sandwich ($18) to order. (I repeat: They don’t cook the bread for your sandwich until you say you want the sandwich.)

He’s just as happy he’ll soon have his own on-premises bakery, which means added quality control and savings on food miles and food waste.

That gets at what has him most happy, and a little mad. Those efficiency measures build upon a tradition Portola has kept humming for years, as they have used their 83,000-square-foot, seven-floor platform to go LEED-certified with recycled carpets, organic cotton mattresses, biodegradable soap and carbon offsets. They talk the fair-trade and local-ingredient talk, and walk the Seafood Watch walk.

While Abbruzzese is easygoing and approachable – saying, “you can see how it’s casual and unpretentious, because that’s me” – he stops short of being welcoming to everyone. A former pioneer of conscious cuisine at eco-powerhouse Asilomar Conference Grounds, he has his limits. “There’s a lot of thought behind this,” he says. “You can afford organic produce in these kinds of operations, you can do the composting and go green. We’re doing it. It’s proven. You can’t say you can’t.

“So c’mon. Step up. Effort, not ignorance. It all makes a difference.”

~ QUICKBITES ~

  • Well, shoot. A favorite of yours and mine, Turtle Bay Taqueria in Monterey (not Seaside), is shutting down its Monterey spot. But there’s good news. More on the blog, mcweekly.com/edible.
  • A few months after Oldtown Salinas institution Yangste Taste of Thai (754-2223) closed when Chef Freddy Ramirez suffered a major health scare, it returns to life Friday, April 28.
  • El Mercado Popular introduced its weekly Outdoor Market at the Rodeo ($2/adult; free/kids) 4-8pm Wednesday at Salinas Sports Complex with a produce section, merchandise, kids’ activities and food vendors. It goes for at least six months, pending response.
  • One of the parties of the year has tickets on sale. The historic 25th Monterey Winemakers’ Celebration lineup goes BIG 1-4pm Sunday, May 7, on Dolores and Seventh in Carmel-by-the-Sea.
  • As of this week, the fire pits at Joyce Vineyards’ new multifaceted tasting room in Carmel Valley (659-2885) are operational.
  • The second annual Central Coast Cider Festival, complete with craft tastings, live music and pig roast, is returning to the Atascadero Pavilion on the Lake, Saturday, May 13, less than an hour south of Monterey County ($65, centralcoastciderfestival.com).
  • No corkage at Abalonetti Bar and Grill (373-1851) and Big Fish Grill (372-7562) every Wednesday.
  • On Thursday, May 10, Carmel High School hosts the fourth annual “Empty Bowls” soup-and-bread supper from 5-7pm, with student-made ceramic bowls, to benefit the Food Bank for Monterey County, with soup donated by local favorites like From Scratch and Old Fisherman’s Grotto ($20, 624-1821).
  • Mundaka has ended its run of Spanish tapas, stylish drinks and hard-to-find wines. Expect much of the same, drawn through a new coastal Mexican cuisine filter, via its new reincarnation Pescadero (624-7400). That opens with a new look and menu come Cinco de Mayo.
  • Anonymous: “Promise me you will not spend so much time treading water and trying to keep your head above the waves that you forget, truly forget, how much you have always loved to swim.

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