Scott Domnie’s last venture, Shnarley’s Pizzeria, had something few pizza parlors can claim: a 3,000-bottle wine cellar. That was a bold idea, combining pizza pies with a wine list the size of the Bible. But if Domnie’s goal is to spread the gospel of wine—and I believe love of the grape motivates this man—The Cellar Door is a better idea. It’s also, I was pleased to discover on a recent visit, a good restaurant.
Steakhouses are in short supply these days, nowhere more so than on the Peninsula, which has been colonized by salmon-eaters. Any restaurant specializing in grilled meats had better do them very well and furnish good lighter fare besides. The Cellar Door does both and does them with style.
Michael and I arrived on a busy August evening and were lucky enough to snag the best table in the house (corner, by the window). This is a cozy dining room with brick walls and winey accents—barrels, wineboxes and the like—and the snug feeling of being in a room that’s slightly below ground level, perfect for PG’s foggy weather.
Eager servers brought us menus, water and bread. Domnie himself came by to explain that some 30 wines were available by the glass (almost all at $8.50). There was no wine menu, since the list changed daily; however, he informed us, if we told him what we were in the mood for, red or white, he would bring us samples until we tasted something just right. He would not, we learned, actually tell us what was available, preferring to pour and let us be amazed.
I did not like this arrangement. It might be nice for the wine-unsure, but I know what I like in wine, and I even enjoy dithering over unfamiliar options. Here, I felt like a hostage to Domnie’s good intentions. Did he want to wow us by whipping out some underappreciated gem that we wouldn’t have had the sense to order? Were we unwitting props in a sommelier fantasy?
It was also uncomfortable for me, on such a busy night, to reject Domnie’s first selection. I urge him to go to the trouble of making up daily menus or writing up a chalkboard—something. In any event, I wound up with a nice glass of Australian Sauvignon Blanc, and Michael had a tasty Sebastiani Pinot Noir.
Our calamari appetizer ($8.95) followed soon after the wine. This dish is a coup. A tangle of light-as-air, crispy calamari perches on a little pool of creamy, smoky black beans, an unlikely partnership that is lighter and zestier than it sounds. We ate it all up, finishing off the homemade tartar sauce for good measure.
The salad course also held some pleasant surprises. If there is such a thing as steak in lettuce’s clothing, I had it that night at The Cellar Door, and it was a treat. The grilled hearts of romaine ($8.95) took up fantastic charbroiled flavor from the meat grill. Only the tender green ends of the romaine wilted a little from the heat; the rest remained nice and crunchy. It was garnished with blue cheese and bacon bits. Even my veggie-averse father would have finished this salad.
I couldn’t manage such a feat and hoped to do justice to the main course, but I did share it with Michael, who had ordered the side salad ($2.95) with his entrée. Now that’s an idea I’d like to see come back—the small, simple, inexpensive dinner salad. It was good and fresh, with plenty of sweet shredded carrots and tangy Italian dressing. It recalled the good old days before salads became a real investment of appetite and treasure.
I was getting full by this point, but I had come for the Wildflower Honey and Orange Chipotle-Glazed Rotisserie Half Chicken ($17.95), having spied it on the posted menu some months back. Once here I’d been tempted to go for the aged New York with Telli Cherry Peppercorn Sauce ($27.95), but the chicken had won that contest, and once it was set in front of me it won me over.
This is basically a fancy barbecued chicken, with crisp, tangy skin that packs a piquant spicy-sweet punch. But the real miracle here is the juiciness of the meat. Even the breast meat was tender. A hearty helping of homemade mashed potatoes and a couple of grilled asparagus spears rounded out the outstanding dish.
Michael’s rib-eye ($24.95) was a huge portion of grilled Angus beef, unadorned and perfect that way. A fatty and flavorful steak like this one doesn’t need dressing up. It gave easily to the knife, too. We took a third of it home for lunch the next day.
Dessert was espresso ($2.95) and raspberry sorbet ($5.95), which, while not homemade, made a refreshing endnote to a chapter of pleasant indulgence. And that fairly sums up The Cellar Door: a light, updated take on the classic steakhouse formula, done with skill and care.
THE CELLAR DOOR CHOP SHOPPE AND FINE WINE EMPORIUM
663 Lighthouse Ave., Pacific Grove • Tue-Sun 5pm-closing • 372-3930.