When Gustavo Trejo’s mother visited Estéban for the first time, the chef admits to a few nervous tremors. Maybe more than a few – Trejo turned over kitchen duties for her table to a sous chef so he could escape blame if anything met with disapproval.
That’s how much the grilled octopus means to Estéban’s chef. “It’s a part of me and the way I grew up,” he explains.
Trejo spent summers in Europe with his Portuguese mother. She showed him how to prepare octopus at an early age. So when he took over as executive chef at the Spanish-themed kitchen in Monterey’s Casa Munras hotel last year, Trejo yearned to add his version to the menu. It wasn’t something that happened right away. The veteran chef sampled octopus from different sources and oceans, finally settling on a purveyor in – ta da! – Spain. And he took quite a bit of time training his team.
“I needed it to taste the way it did when I was 6,” Trejo says.
Dressed simply in olive oil and salt before a turn on the grill, the dish evokes images of surf and turf at some Old World beachside pub as dusk descends over the sea. The charred veneer carries an intense smoky and bittersweet savor reminiscent of a flame-seared steak. This gives way to plush, tender meat that whispers of mellow ocean breezes.
Trejo is at his best when he has a connection with the ingredients – and it comes pretty easily. “I get excited about saffron and peppercorns,” he observes.
So it doesn’t take much to make the chef smile, just good ingredients treated with respect. Vegetables arrive daily from local farms because he doesn’t want them to travel or wither in a walk-in. The peppery bite of fresh arugula and the nip of shaved fennel are enough to season a salad of fresh peach and stoic heirloom beets. No vinaigrette needed.
The arancini is flush with rustic Monterey Jack from Schoch Family Farmstead, offering an earthy counterpoint to the delicate, nutty shell. The saffron – well, that’s from Kashmir. But its enigmatic perfume and adobe hue are as necessary for the paella as is Trejo’s trust in time-honored technique. There are no timers in his kitchen. “Listen to it,” Trejo tells his line cooks. The rice will start to sputter and crackle as it develops the prized crust known as socarrat. “Use all your senses when cooking.”
Much of the menu is devoted to shared plates. Petite lamb chops almost melt away on the palate. The cataplana – another dish named after its pan – allows shellfish to complement the hearty tomato broth. Clams pick up on the sweetness, mussels counter with a musty trace.
All of it shares something from Trejo’s roots, even sausage sourced from Napa County. It’s grainy, with a dulcet hum and herbal flair. “It reminds me of the blood sausage my aunt makes,” the chef says, explaining that he appreciates the chunkier grind. “You are biting into something.”
There are occasional hitches. The empanadas one evening were sodden, for example. But these are moments lost in some otherwise remarkable cooking. And, yes, mother approved.
ESTÉBAN 700 Munras Ave., Monterey. Sun-Thu 5-10pm, Fri-Sat 5-10:30pm. 375-0176, hotelcasamunras.com