Given oak trees all around, a big patio, quaint wine tasting rooms and other well-established restaurants nearby, in the heart of picturesque Carmel Valley, I figured the former Vineyard Bistro had great potential – if someone came along and captured its essence.
Chef-owner Fabrice Roux, native of Laon, France, with his quarter century of experience working in Michelin-starred spots in Paris, the Grand Café in San Francisco and the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas, has done so. As exec chef at Joya Restaurant and Lounge in Palo Alto, the mild-mannered chef earned a Michelin recommendation in 2013 for clever Latin-leaning dishes like prawns with chorizo and saffron-Spanish rice balls.
Roux leans heavily on Spanish cooking concepts, so we were off to a good start. I lived in Spain for over a decade and brought back the girl to prove it (my wife). I easily learned to love the food in a country where the only passion that rivals futbol is eating and drinking.
Our first visit to Roux was on a cool, drizzly, Saturday at lunch time. No weather for outdoor dining, so we were seated inside next to a window that looked out upon the neatly landscaped garden with a wrought iron gazebo and outdoor furnishings. We immediately melted into the warm, elegantly rustic ambiance enhanced by pine flooring, dark, solid walnut table tops, high ceilings, ample windows and a mix of modern and shabby-chic décor. Those artistic touches are thanks to soon-to-be-wife and business partner Jennifer who, along with Roux, has been putting her heart and soul into the place since its opening in November.
We started with two of the petites assiettes (small plates). First choice: sautéed gambas with brandy ($12) – eight succulent, medium, tail-on grilled shrimp in a delicious and buttery garlic brandy sauce that had us asking for more bread even after the shrimp were gone. Ahhh, mojar con pan (sopping up the sauce with bread) is a ritual all Spanish people understand. Our other small plate was Mary’s organic chicken skewer a l’orange ($9). Very generously portioned, each skewer had three thick, juicy and tender chunks of grilled chicken breast drizzled with a sweet and spicy reduction of orange marmalade, sherry vinegar, chili paste and Dijon mustard. Excellent, but a bit overshadowed by the shrimp dish.
Both dishes were so generously portioned and satisfying, especially with the housemade bread, we could have stopped right there. We, however, decided to share the Dungeness crabbeignedic ($21) – two poached eggs over a house made beignet and crab cakes, topped with hollandaise with bacon and Yukon gold potatoes on the side. Twenty-plus dollars might seem like a somewhat stratospheric price tag for eggs Benedict but this version was well worth it because of the uncommonly generous amount of crab versus filler. The hollandaise is a much thinner version than I’m used to – mostly butter and lemon. Breaking the yolk adds enough of the third ingredient to complete the sauce.
A slightly citrusy Kim Crawford 2015 Sauvignon Blanc ($10) from New Zealand complemented all three dishes very well. The wife, who only drinks tea, was happy with the high-quality selection.
Our second visit, on an unseasonably balmy Saturday evening at dinner time, we showed up without reservations. Chef Roux was working the dining room, multitasking along with the bussers and servers, a role his fiancé usual plays. He squeezed us into one of the 18 moveable two-tops in the center of the bustling dining room, amid the soothing buzz of voices.
Although Chef Roux runs the gamut on California-Mediterranean style cuisine, our choices were decisively Spanish. We started with the warmed Spanish morcilla ($10) – blood sausage over caramelized red onions, goat cheese and toasted almonds slivers. Top all that with the lightly toasted bread slices and you get an extremely satisfying combo of sweet and savory flavors. I would rather the blood sausage come in one piece, however, rather than the already sliced eighth-inch rounds so I could do the honors of cutting into it myself, even at the risk of having the juice spurt onto my stylish shirt. After a good night out of eating and drinking, Spanish people wear their wine or sauce stained garments like a badge of honor.
From an extensive wine list that ranges from $30 to $650 and beyond, I paired the sausage with the Marquez de Riscal Tempranillo reserve 2009 ($48/bottle; $14/6 ounces). That same Spanish red went very well with the classic Spanish paella surf and turf ($43 serves two). Besides the saffron-infused rice, this one featured gambas, calamari, chicken, chorizo, mussels, bay scallops and pequillo peppers. My wife and I both agreed we’d order it again.
The bottom line: the food and service were excellent, portions generous, prices fair, the ambiance warm and inviting. True to the name, it starts with Roux – an experienced, dedicated chef who loves his work and knows fine dining.
ROUX 6 Pilot Road, Carmel Valley. 11:30am-10pm daily. 659-5020. www.rouxcarmel.com
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