People flock to the Carmel/Monterey region seeking farm fresh foods (Monterey County is referred to as America’s ‘salad bowl’ because of its extensive agriculture) as well as its well regarded wine region, expressed best by the Chardonnay’s and Pinot Noir’s of the Santa Lucia Highlands. A weekend spent here and you’ll have terrific food and wine.
Fandango, located in Pacific Grove, is that mix of a festive, energetic restaurant and great food well worth the price. The over arching theme is Italian, but there are plenty of terrific dishes. Known for their rack of lamb, it’s one of the best I’ve ever had with seasonings that allow the fresh tender lamb to best express itself. But their specialties also include Duck a L’Orange and Sandabs as well and a very lightly breaded sweetbread picatta. They are also known for their soufflés, feather-light creations which take about 20 minutes to prepare, and if you’re a fan of these delicate desserts, they are worth the wait as they are deftly prepared. Opening their doors in 1983, Fangango has consistently drawn in locals and visitors.
In Carmel consider Mundaka, a tapas restaurant styled in the Spanish motif: shared small plates of food served at intervals in a casual environment. Chef Brandon Miller has full reign to create pretty much what ever he wants, from the Galleta (fried quail eggs on top of a biscuit with iberico ham gravy) to the terrific Coliflor; blanched cauliflower topped with a gratin of pureed cauliflower, horseradish, and Gruyere cheese and baked. This results in crowns that are soft but with an al dente crispness to them, not to mention a hint of spice from the horseradish and nutmeg. But my favorite, and much to my surprise, was the Hamburguesa; a lamb slider with a slice of pickled cauliflower, served with killer string-thin French fries. The gaminess of the lamb is delicately counterbalanced with the slightly tart cauliflower, creating an immediate earthy, tang. To wrap up the Pan Chocolate is, in essence, a fudge-like bar of chocolate with an immense amount of pure cocoa, topped with sea salt and drizzled with a wee bit of olive oil. It’s decadent, but not overpoweringly sweet. You can have all this and Spanish wines to boot, a kickback fun space veering off the more formal dining options.
At Em Le’s the breakfasts are the most popular. One of the oldest restaurants in Carmel this hole-in-the-wall first opened in 1955. The space is small but the large omelets will ensure that you’re full for a long time since their omelets are densely packed with ingredients, more so than I’ve ever seen. It is mainly a locals place and that’s really half the fun. You won’t get fancy coffee drinks or tiny portions for expensive prices; you’ll get dependable food the way the locals like it.
Wine & More
Monterey County is a bastion of winegrowing and in fact, aside from the Mission grape plantings, the first commercial grapes were planted in 1919 in Chalone. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay reign here along the Santa Lucia Highlands, but there are small patches of Rhone varieties and even smaller patches of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In downtown Carmel, tasting rooms are popping up like corks and an example of the diversity is Cima Collina and Wrath. At Cima Collina you’ll find Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Meritage blends, all grown within the county. Their Pinots are loaded with bright raspberry fruit, but are restrained and elegant. Also worthwhile is their Howling Good Red, a kitchen-sink blend of whatever red grapes might be available, for about $16. A beautiful curved wooden bar takes up most of the small tasting room, but it’s a convivial spot and winemaker Annette Hoff has a deft touch with her wines crafting delicate but full bodied wines.
Wrath Wines too has a tasting room in downtown Carmel, though their production facility and other tasting room is on River Road in the Santa Lucia Highlands. They pour mainly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in an amber lit small space with lots of cherry wood and a quartz bar. It’s a little formal here; however, the wines are very good, though not cheap; Their Standard tasting is $10 for just 3 wines. There are five iterations of Pinot’s, which are balanced and display classic raspberry and earthy characteristics. But it’s not just wine.
Fine H2O really is the ideal stop after wine tasting as it’s a bottled water bar, with waters from Norway, Switzerland, England and the Americans. Sampling the water is free and you can taste water from the world over, which is most definitely different from place to place since water has its own terrior just like wine. It’s located next door to Cima Collina and they have chocolates for sale there as well, a perfect tasting ending to a weekend of terrific food and wine.
By Michael Cervin, www.CervinsCentralCoast.blogspot.com