It’s good to be a local. The list of reasons runs long: Top-notch cuisine. Pine trees and sea otters. Endless parks and trails. That patient, sparkling Pacific.
Add another to the list: two bucks.
A bountiful salad bar ($10) is two dollars less for locals at Jacks, the new restaurant in the Portola Plaza Hotel which successfully translates local bounty into refined ambiance and taste.
A new brick patio, complete with a round firepit, now overlooks the Portola Plaza itself. On separate lunch visits, my colleagues and I were the only ones enjoying the view past the fountain into the harbor beyond. The sunny serenity only amplified a pleasant feeling of place.
Mesmeric lunch specials at next-door Jacks Lounge almost sidetracked our salad-bar missions. One of three dishes—a steak sandwich with fries, a low-carb turkey wrap and Caesar salad, or a Cobb salad—paired with a glass of Château Julien wine or a domestic draft, goes for $10. That’s a deal.
But the soup and salad bar beckoned, offering the opportunity to make even the chubbiest Cobb look anemic. Onto spinach and/or iceberg go cubes of ham, turkey or chunks of grilled chicken. Then there’s real bacon and avocado to pile on strategically enough to leave room for stuff like cherry tomatoes, artichokes, olives, and feta cheese. Two rotating soups (a cheesy potato, a respectable clam chowder, and a sturdy vegetable among them), three cold salads (the last visit found a decent pasta, a mediocre bean, and an interesting Asian water chestnut), and fresh fruit salad offer variety.
Meanwhile, the service, often second-tier for self-service eats, was excellent, our plates cleared promptly and our waters never dipping too low.
It bears mentioning that Jacks’ lunch menu is itself stacked with reasonably-priced fare like calzones, burgers and sandwiches, including four grilled paninis—like El Montereño ($9.95), a melty triumph of procuitto, roast pork, jack cheese and “mojo.” (Similarly, the breakfast menu hits all the classics and also adds a dash of inventive cuisine.)
As idyllic as the patio is, the posh ambiance of the vast dining room offers its own Eden. Extensive polished-wood paneling and speak-easy-style lamps exude warm invitation. Exceptionally long, comfortable booths draw groups like the small birthday party I celebrated with on another visit.
Unsurprisingly, the spendy dinner menus play to local strengths, from produce and seafood to pastas and wines.
Our table tabbed the Lobster Spring Rolls ($12) to start, a pesto-y take on the Asian dish as unique as its presentation, a metal cone shaped like a lobster with dual sweet-plum and hot-mustard dippers doubling as claws. (The six half-rolls sit on a bed of dry crispy rice noodles on top.) Their chewy texture was also different, but the flavor, especially with the sauces, carried the dish.
The wine list is as swanky—and local-leaning—as the setting. Thirteen California Chardonnays include a strong showing from county wineries; the 11 Pinots are all of the region. But I was thinking Cabernet—not the $225 Caymus but a well-balanced J. Lohr ($25).
A split Carmel Valley Greens salad ($8) on the recommendation of our smooth server, Tony, impressed us—the best bites balanced the rich feta with the sweet vinaigrette and refreshing beet.
Kathleen the birthday girl showed the wisdom of her years by eschewing convention with a dinner combo: Wilted Spinach Salad ($8) and the Monterey Bay Chowder ($8). The tricky sauté of spinach was successful, the sweet-and-sour bacon vinaigrette light, creative and tasty.
The chowder—arriving visibly chunky in a half-cantaloupe sized bowl—was the true coup. Eschewing convention itself, this smoky-flavored dish was enough to inspire a campaign to include crab, artichoke and roasted corn in all clam chowders.
Meanwhile, local educator Alex’s classic shrimp scampi ($22) was straight-forward and spot-on. Saffron farfalle doesn’t come much better than white wine and butter wet with chunks of garlic and tender prawns.
The Filet Mignon topped with Dungeness Crab and Bernaise Sauce (5oz./$30; 10 oz./$50) looked a touch overindulgent, so it was local salmon fillet ($25) or cannelloni for me. Tony insisted I go for the veal and mushroom-stuffed pasta ($16). Its chunky marinara mixed nicely with a second cream sauce and the rolled pasta was the right texture, but the ground veal and mushrooms were rather bland.
Tony treated us to a slice of birthday Flourless Chocolate Cake (normally $6) that looked as rich as it tasted. Later, three fat-happy locals trickled out into the mild night, crossing the peaceful plaza, listening to the sea lions bark their tribute to the indigenous blessings of the bay.
2 Portola Plaza, Monterey | 649-2698
Mon-Fri: 6am-10:30am; 11:30am-2pm, 5:30-10pm. Sat-Sun: 6am-5pm; 5:30-10:30pm.