Primal-ish in Carmel/Monterey, California

October 29, 2013

Carmel Belle

Carmel is one of my favourite places. And I’ve only been there twice. That white sand beach is absolutely gorgeous and I love the quaint little shopping village, with the best cheese shop ever (The Cheese Shop). Monterey is pretty sweet too, with an absolute must see aquarium, and as I quickly found out, a terrific bakery (Parker-Lusseau) and fantastic restaurant (Passionfish). Between the scenery, including the famous 17-Mile drive,  and all the great food, it’s no wonder I can’t wait to go back. Read on to find out about what to eat if you’re in the area, or planning a trip (or just curious to see how I primally ate my way through town)…

Monterey Aquarium Jellyfish

Parker-Lusseau Pastries & Café (Monterey)

Parker-Lusseau display case

I’m always on the hunt for great bakeries, but I typically  either end up leaving empty handed, or disappointed. Still, I can’t help but keep hunting. And once in a while, my efforts are rewarded. Which is what happened with Parker-Lusseau.

As a team or on their own, husband and wife business owners Anne Parker Johnson and Yann Lusseau have worked as pastry chefs and pastry cooks at some of the best restaurants, patisseries, and hotels throughout the United States and Europe, including Gotham Bar and Grill, Tavern on the Green, and Sarabeths’s Kitchen in New York City; in Belgium; and, most recently, The Highlands Inn and Casanova Restaurant in Carmel, California.

Parker-Lusseau display case 2

I was instantly impressed when I walked in and saw the selection. But what really blew me away was the number of gluten-free desserts available. There were a few to choose from, in addition to the macarons. And, more importantly, the desserts were delicious and not overly sweet.

Parker-Lusseau Hazelnut Symphony

I tried the triple chocolate cake and the hazelnut symphony. I loved the espresso flavour in the hazelnut one, and the chocolate cake was rich, but not too much so.

Parker-Lusseau triple chocolate cake

I also tried the passion fruit and pistachio macarons. They had a good texture – light yet crispy. But the flavours were a little muted and the macarons were a little on the sweet side.

Parker-Lusseau Passion Fruit Macaron Parker-Lusseau pistachio macaron

And my friend enjoyed an almond croissant.

Parker-Lusseau croissant

The shop itself was cute, and service was friendly and helpful. They were quite busy – and for good reason. Parker-Lusseau is a must if you’re in Monterey.

Parker-Lusseau exteriorParker-Lusseau Pastries on Urbanspoon

Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar (Monterey)

Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar Patio

Schooner’s occupies some prime real estate on the main drag of Monterey. Their patio is second to none in the area, on stilts overlooking the water. However, they seem to be coasting on that view rather than the food itself. Service was alright, but food was mediocre.

Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar Short Rib Tacos

My friend had the Braised Short Rib Tacos (Korean BBQ Asian Slaw, Almonds, Sriracha Aïoli), and thought they were pretty tasty, although the portion size was on the small side.

Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar Caesar Salad with Grilled Chicken

I wasn’t impressed with the Caesar Romaine Hearts with Grilled Chicken Breast (olive oil garlic dressing, parmesan). The chicken was a little rubbery and lacked flavour, and the salad was pretty standard.

I’d still say it’s worth a stop for the patio alone, just make sure to manage your expectations, and you’ll likely have a pleasant experience.

Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon

The Terrace Lounge at Pebble Beach

The Terrace Lounge Pebble Beach

Quick stop at Pebble Beach Golf Course along 17-Mile Drive (must do scenic drive if you’re in the area). The Terrace Lounge was a nice spot to linger, overlooking the golf course and of course the ocean. I had a yummy Spiked Chai Latte (Captain Morgan Rum, vanilla chai & whole milk, steamed & topped with whipped cream).

We also stopped by the Pebble Beach Market which sells wine, deli stuff, and other snacks. It’s great that they have that shop there, so you can grab a snack along the drive, or even eat there if you’d like. Interesting selection of products, too. I grabbed some  Krave Turkey Jerky, which other than the cane syrup had paleo friendly ingredients and was tasty (Turkey breast, evaporated cane syrup, water, apple juice, lemon juice, sea salt, honey, spices, lemon pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, celery juice powder.)

Krave JerkyThe Terrace Lounge on UrbanspoonPebble Beach Market on Urbanspoon

A Taste of Monterey (Wine Visitors’ Center)

Taste of Monterey

This was a great place to taste some local wine – and definitely the best wine tasting views I’ve ever seen. Friendly, knowledgeable staff – the woman pouring for us was a sommelier. If you buy a bottle from here, ask for the list of restaurants that will waive the corkage fee for you (although you may want to read the related experience at Montrio below, first).

Montrio Bistro

We kind of got suckered into coming here. I wasn’t excited about any of the potential places I had chosen for dinner, so I was open to just going wherever (unusual for me, and this experience makes me even less likely to do so in the future). We were wine tasting at A Taste of Monterey (see above). The sommelier was super nice and helpful. She told us that there a bunch of restaurants in town that don’t charge a corkage fee if you bring a bottle from this tasting store. She circled a few places from the list for us. And then she gave us a voucher for a free appetizer in case we end up at Montrio (one of the spots she circled). I should’ve known better…

So let’s get this out of the way first. Right off the bat, our server told us that if we choose to have the corkage fee waived, she can’t honor the appetizer voucher, that it’s one or the other. She wasn’t all that nice about it either. That of course makes no sense. Because why would the lady at Taste of Monterey tell us to go there to get the corkage waived AND give us the voucher. It’s just not a good start to the evening when you feel swindled. And it’s not even that big of a deal, I mean it’s just an appetizer. But it just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Because, after all, it IS just an appetizer, so why would they decide to deny customers that? But with the hopes of still having a nice meal, I let it go and didn’t argue the point (after inquiring about it further, saying that’s not what we were told).

Montrio Artichoke

For an appetizer, we shared a Fire-Roasted “Ocean Mist Farms” Artichoke (with Mediterranean relish). It was just okay. There wasn’t enough relish, and the artichoke wasn’t very “meaty”.

Montrio Roasted Brick Chicken

For the main, my friend had Mary’s Wood Oven Roasted Brick Chicken (with Indian-spiced green beans and pan jus). It was alright. The skin was crispy, and the potatoes were nicely cooked.

Montrio Burger

I had the Niman Burger (bunless, with back bacon, garlic Cheddar and remoulade with frites). The potatoes were the best part. The burger was okay, but could’ve been more flavorful.

So overall, service was mediocre, as I mentioned, our server wasn’t very nice. And sadly, the food was nothing to write home about. This is why I almost always research in advance where I’m going to eat, and don’t leave things to chance.

Montrio Bistro on Urbanspoon

Passionfish (Pacific Grove)

In all honesty, I wasn’t expecting to find a knockout restaurant in Monterey or Carmel. The reviews on Passionfish were a little scattered. But it kept coming up as the place to check out. Well, not only am I happy to say that Passionfish exceeded my expectations – it actually blew me away.

The by the glass wine list was short, but very well curated. The server helped us choose a terrific glass to go with each of our meals.

Passionfish Burrata

As an appetizer, I had the Burrata (roast heirloom tomato / basil dressed arugula / toast). It was phenomenal – a sack of soft, ooey gooey cheese, as it should be. Very fresh, it paired incredibly well with the heirloom tomatoes and arugula. I could eat that dish every day and never get tired of it.

Passionfish Smoked trout ceviche tostaditas

My friend started with the Smoked trout ceviche tostaditas (cashew pesto / spicy salsa brava). The beet topping was very spicy, maybe a little too much so. But overall, they were tasty bites.

Passionfish Lamb

For my entrée, I couldn’t resist the sound of Spoonable 12 hour lamb breast (Meyer lemon tajine / goat cheese). It was the best non-rack lamb I’ve ever had. It really was spoonable – shockingly tender, it fell apart in my mouth, or even just on the spoon on the way to my mouth. I’ve had Moroccan style lamb many times before, and what I had at Passionfish is what many restaurants attempt, but fail to achieve. The flavours were sublime – so much going on, yet it was all in complete harmony. I absolutely loved this dish.

Passionfish Scallops

My friend’s entrée was the sea scallops (tomato-truffle butter / savory rice custard). The scallops were cooked well, with a great sear (crispy on the outside, and very tender on the inside). The scallops were huge, and the tower of rice was also tasty. The truffle flavour could’ve been more pronounced.

Passionfish flourless chocolate cake

For dessert, we shared the chocolate truffle torte with passion fruit syrup. It was a gluten-free, flourless cake, with whipped cream. I’ve had many flourless chocolate cakes before, and none of them even came close to being this good. It was warm, gooey, almost spongy. The whipped cream was texturally more solid than you’d expected, and tasted delicious. And I loved how the acidity of the passion fruit cut through the richness of the dessert.   

The food was fantastic. The service was very helpful and knowledgeable. And the prices were reasonable. In fact, the price points were where I think more restaurants should be at (half the starters were below $10, half the entrees were below $20, and the desserts were $6) – very good value for this level of quality and execution. Highly recommended.

Passionfish utensils
Passionfish on Urbanspoon

Carmel Belle (Carmel)

Carmel Belle interior

Carmel Belle is a bit of a hidden gem. It’s in a small indoor courtyard among various shops. They’re known for their reasonably priced, high quality food. Their chicken, for example, is “Mary’s air-chilled, all-natural, free range chicken” and their pork is all-natural Durham Ranch Berkshire pork. Their eggs are local and organic, from Glaum Ranch.

“We are passionate about sourcing the absolute best American ingredients.”

They sell a variety of breakfast options, salads, snacks, drinks, cheese, and charcuterie. You can eat there, but the draw for me was that they have everything you could want for the perfect picnic. Grab a bottle of wine from across the street, and you’re all set.

Carmel Belle salad with Chicken

I had a petite salad: candied walnuts, blue cheese & apple plus free range chicken… for $9! And it was plenty of food for lunch.

Carmel Belle Chicken Sandwich

My friend really enjoyed the free range rotisserie chicken & brie sandwich (braeburn apple on ciabatta) for $9.50.

In a town where seemingly everything is priced at a premium, Carmel Belle is an especially great find. Fresh, quality ingredients, reasonable prices, tasty food, and good service – what more could you ask for? I’d go back daily if I was there longer. Highly recommended.

Carmel Belle on Urbanspoon

The Cheese Shop (Carmel)

The Cheese Shop Carmel Cheese

We stumbled across this cheese shop, not knowing anything about it. And before we knew it, half an hour had passed, we had tried a dozen different cheeses, and we were cursing Canadian customs for not being able to bring it all back home with us.

I don’t know what it is about this place, but every single cheese we tasted was exceptional. And the guy helping us, Kyle, was awesome. He was funny, helpful, knowledgeable, friendly. Between the fantastic cheese and the outstanding customer service, I didn’t want to leave!

We ended up buying only what we could eat for the next couple of days. The two we chose were the Honey Bee (Netherlands) and Moliterno Tarufo (Italy) – both terrific. They have a pamphlet of some of the cheeses they sell, listed by country, which makes a great reference, and helps you remember what you have tried. If you are in Carmel, you simply must visit them.

The Cheese Shop on Urbanspoon

What do you think? Have you visited the above spots? Is there any I should add to my list for next time? Let me know in the comments below…

Monterey Aquarium Fish

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