Monterey County, a culinary kingdom where ingredients rule
On the cool, western edge of Salinas Valley, under the marine layer blanketing San Bernabe Vineyard, Alex Krause and John Locke embarked on the esoteric.
Using vines brought from Calabria by a colleague’s grandfather in the 1920s, the micro-winemakers of Birichino (birichino.com) took on little-known Malvasia Bianca. Instead of dessert wine (the ancient Greek grape typically blends into Madeira), the viticulture experts made it dry. Their success with the inaugural 2008 vintage has encouraged further experimentation—with Cinsault, Grenache, and last month’s release of Vin Gris (literally, “gray wine”).
Unpredictable creativity thrives in Monterey, bordered by mountainous Santa Cruz to the north, San Luis Obispo to the south, the rocky coast beyond Carmel and Big Sur to the west, and a length of agricultural heartland to the east. Epicures are drawn to the bounty—visible at upcoming Pebble Beach Food & Wine (Apr. 4-7; pebblebeachfoodandwine.com) festival, a veritable Sundance for the gourmet set and gastronomic boffo (Grant Achatz and Thomas Keller among them). The patchwork terrain invites a perspective where nature—not ego—dictates the menu, and unexpected culinary discoveries emerge at every turn. Many are obvious, like convening with ceramicists and hikers over coffee and breakfast pizza at roadside Big Sur Bakery (47540 California 1, Big Sur, 831-667-0520). Others are tucked away, perhaps in a Carmel Valley country plaza, at now-open Lokal (13750 Center St., Carmel Valley, 831-659-5886), lingering over Marsanne on tap and duck-fat fries by a chef who did a stint at Mugaritz. And some are rare—like tasting the harvest of flaky crystals at Carmel Valley Ranch’s new Salt House (One Old Ranch Rd., Carmel Valley Village, 831-625-9500).
Built on the memory of Old Monterey canneries, select area restaurants predate the Gold Rush. Home to one of CA’s first kilns for artisanal baking, haunted residence Stokes Adobe is now 1833 (500 Hartnell St., Monterey, 831-643-1833), the haunt of well-heeled locals. (Request a banquette on the second floor, order a barrel-aged negroni, the biscuits with maple-chili butter, and a charred octopus cooked sous-vide until it’s nothing like a chewy eraser.) Here, a pyrotechnic Russian-style flambé, a sugar-cube drip or dilution method highlights an absinthe bar to rival any in the country. The deep list ranges local St. George Spirits to humbly named L’Ordinaire—a French bottle promising the strongest thujone content.
Any hallucinatory threat, however, would most readily be stumbled upon during mushroom foraging. A veteran champion of the movement is toque Cal Stamenov. At his Bernardus Lodge eatery Marinus (415 W. Carmel Valley Rd., Carmel Valley, 831-658-3595), wild dinners utilize natural maple syrup-scented candy caps, chanterelles and porcinis plucked off the decaying bramble of nearby forests. Curious? Retired 30-year Point Lobos ranger Chuck Bancroft arranges in-season expeditions where guests can also venture into the field.
Foraging skews equally fancy at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar (47900 California 1, Big Sur, 831-667-2800), a glassed-in dining room like the Big Sur rendition of Lautner’s Chemosphere, teetering on an oceanfront cliff. Newly appointed Executive Chef John Cox pays elegant tribute to his surroundings with a marathon of tastes such as rose-geranium quail; venison jerky balanced with pickled yucca flower; and an oak-smoked crémeux perched on a still-smoldering redwood log. A most unusual intermezzo: Of a glass vase filled with dollhouse-size yerba buena and anise hyssop, aromatized with a zingy vinaigrette, one soon learns that the chef has been moved by the indigenous Ohlone practice of seasoning foods with ground-up ants.
At once recherché and playful, Sierra Mar is not alone. Charlie Trotter alum Justin Cogley presides over 12-table gem Aubergine, at the extensively remodeled—and impossibly charming—Relais & Châteaux property L’Auberge Carmel (Monte Verde at 7th, Carmel, 831-624-8578). His menu consists of a long, illustrated ingredients list (think dulse and hijiki seaweeds, abalone, exotic tonka bean, young coconut). Spontaneous courses could be persimmon-oolong tea sparklers, liquid nitrogen-ed chestnuts, or petite fried mussels dotted with rare, caviar-like finger limes.
Former Sona pastry whiz Ron Mendoza also shines with his desserts presentations. When five or so river stones are set along a platter, one discovers two tangerine sherbet treats enrobed in an ashen cookie coating, frosty and indistinguishable from the real thing. Indeed, surprises abound with no stone left unturned.
Written and edited by Alison Clare Steingold