Chef Christopher Vacca’s menu has to live up to the view from California Market at Pacific’s Edge. That’s not an easy task. The restaurant is part of the Hyatt Carmel Highlands grounds, perched over the coast as it blends from the Peninsula into the iconic scenery of Big Sur. From the dining room, guests gaze upon an endless Pacific.
So how does Vacca try to measure up? One would imagine leather-bound pages studded with words like quenelle, purslane, langoustine or millefeuille. Instead, he plates shanks of lamb, salt cod and fundamental stews like bourguignon – hearty dishes, many drawn from peasant stock.
“The direction we’re going is more accessible,” he explains. “Everyone loves to enjoy a dining experience.”
Yes, there are diver scallops and Maine lobster on the current menu. But order the lamb shank and you’re confronted by a hunk of meat with country-style polenta and what looks to be a brooding reduction. And then you take a bite.
The meat is rich and gamey, collapsing at the touch of a fork. From the broth comes a bittersweet savor. And then suddenly dense candied orange zest bolts from the sauce. It’s an unexpected touch that pops at first, then eases into the earthy dun of the lamb, lending an almost spicy, caramelized tinge while snapping the broth awake. Just that little addition transforms the dish from a heavy hard-days-work meal into a lively and intriguing creation that yanks your attention away from the windows.
While the lamb is clever, the bourguignon is more practical – with one important difference. Instead of braising a common cut of beef, the chef selected short rib. The switch may not seem like much, but the short rib oozes a rugged swagger that strides through the intense red wine reduction.
There’s no trick to Vacca’s cooking other than ingredients and technique. Well, except maybe some under-the-radar edginess. Roasted bone marrow comes with a broth that eludes superlatives – even though it’s merely a take on French onion soup, albeit one that requires a couple days to prepare. Grassy and sweet one moment, growling with earthiness another, with bitterness on the fringes, it is paired to marrow with a stoney minerality. And yet there’s more.
Ditching the usual onion soup adornment of Gruyere, Vacca turned to Epoisses, a cheese prized – or perhaps loathed, depending upon one’s tastes – for its meaty, barnyard aromas and mild taste. Here the Epoisses provides greater depth and richness. “I really have to give Benoit credit for that dish,” Vacca says, recalling that sous chef Benoit Petel steered him from the original plan of a more understated presentation.
There’s nothing formidable here, just familiar dishes taken to a level that suits the setting. Even the brandade, an Old World salt cod staple, in this case rolled into fritters. “That’s a riff on a [Thomas] Keller dish,” Vacca says. “When I had those, I was eating heaven.”
That’s how you live up to the view.
California Market at Pacific’s Edge, 120 Highlands Drive, Carmel. 5:30-8:30pm Mon-Thu; 5:30-9pm Fri-Sun (also open breakfast and lunch). 622-5450, hyatt.com