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We live in the SF Bay Area and now that we are both finally retired, are taking the opportunity to travel a bit. Recently we made a trip to Monterey and Carmel in early March, well before tourist season hits. This was our first trip here in over two decades so it was well past time to go again.
It was still rainy off and on, but occasionally cleared up enough to keep up cheered up with brilliant sunshine. One thing many out of state tourists don’t realize is that if you wish to see the rolling hills of California at their greatest beauty, you don’t come in July or August – you come March through May when everything is green and lush!
We’ve done the missions and the expensive shops before/elsewhere. Our trip was for gourmet dining, to eat and enjoy fine dining in the area.
Giving ourselves 3 days – this is only 1-1/2 hrs from where we live – we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express at the outer end of Wharf St, which has good parking and reasonable room rates. It’s less than 1/2 mile to the Aquarium and more importantly, the Monterey Coastal Walk, which is highly recommended and an easy paved trail that goes all the way around through Pacific Grove.
Most of what we found in the area was excellent, one was good, and only one was terrible. All in all, we had some great meals and are looking forward to returning (we never did get to Passionfish, after all!).
3 locations in Monterey: 539 Hartnell St., 731 Munras Ave., Ryan Ranch @40 Ragsdale Drive. www.parker-lusseaupastries.com
Yummy, yummy, yummy.......We now have this bakery on our absolutely must-stop-by-whenever-within-40-miles list. Walking into Parker-Lusseau presents you with masterpieces of absolutely fresh, delicate, delicious pastries. Not just butter-rich croissants, but eclairs that melt in your mouth. A chocolate-glazed cake whose Bing cherries carry the unexpected kick of real brandy. Fruit pastries with a light glossy glaze over hand-cut fruit that was chosen for actual ripeness and not just appearance. And the magnificent individual quiches...good enough to restore your faith in this stereotyped bakery item!
414 Calle Principal, Monterey. www.montrio.com
Just walking in lifted our spirits - a beautiful brick-walled, lofty interior with two pairs of huge wooden double doors. We forgot to ask the staff, but it might perhaps have been an old firestation. Montrio's kitchen understands the modern interpretation of Americanized French bistro. There was a skillful balance of flavors without falling victim to the "let's throw in the kitchen sink along with everything else" trend. How many tourists find Montrio I have no idea, but that the locals are and should be grateful this place exists is undoubtedly true.
We loved several of the small plates we tried, and the seafood paella made risotto style was magnificent. The “dessert bites” idea is inspired and more restaurants should do this. If we lived in the area we would eat here at least twice a month. This is the Boulevard (our favorite SF bistro) of Monterey, and higher praise than that we can't give. I did splurge on a glass of the 1985 Dow port, always one of my favorites. That ($22 a glass) plus 7 small plates and 1 half-plate of paella, plus three beverages, cost with tip $133.
867 Wave St. , Monterey . www.bistromoulin.com
Looking for a non-tourist restaurant with excellent French food one block from the Monterey Aquarium? Look no further than this tiny modest bistro with six tables in one small room and five more in a second room equally small next door.
This is NOT where you take little children. This is where you and your spouse come to splurge on amazing French bistro fare and a glass (or two) of excellent wine. Even a tourist will feel like a local here. The fact that you'll feel this way in the midst of the tawdry souvenir shops along Cannery Row makes this place even sweeter. Very French, lovely menu, but note that the entrée plates are really large, so adjust your ordering accordingly.
Andre’s Bouchée Bistro and Wine Bar
Mission & 7th, Carmel-by-the-Sea. http://www.andresbouchee.com
Bouchee is considered expensive even by Monterey/Carmel standards, so be warned. The service is not up to the food, although friendly and well-meaning. But the restaurant is lovely, the wine list superb, and chef/owner Andre Lemaire’s sweetbreads are quite literally, to die for! We are sweetbread lovers, and Lemaire even beats Hubert Keller’s version at Fleur de Lys in SF. C’est magnifique!
Culinary Center of Monterey625 Cannery Row, Monterey. www.culinarycenterofmonterey.com/">www.culinarycenterofmonterey.com
We had no idea there was a cooking school in Monterey. Bet you didn’t either, did you? They have a lovely restaurant on Cannery Row where they serve lunch on Thursdays and Fridays. It’s across the street from the Spindrift Inn, with a magnificent view across the bay, and a wonderful open-air patio with several tables if the weather’s good.
We came on ‘soup day’ – 11 different soups, bottomless bowl and basket of breads, for a measly $10 each! Hard to go wrong and the students (who not only cooked your meal but are serving it) love to get feedback. You'll never know in advance what's being planned, but for imaginative and fun food in a beautiful, casual restaurant worlds away from Cannery Row tourist traps, it's worth stopping by to find out what they're serving that day. Call to see if they are serving dinner; it depends on if they have enough students to work an evening shift. Although their address is on Cannery Row, you’ll be accessing the restaurant from the back entrance off Hoffman Street.
The Chart House444 Cannery Row, Monterey. www.chart-house.com
Chart House isn’t great, but if you choose carefully, it’s actually decent. It’s just not great, being a corporate-run restaurant. Similar to Palomino in San Francisco, this is the Monterey location of an upscale chain nationwide. A very comfortable restaurant (I loathe bistro chairs), it has a spectacular view of Santa Cruz across the bay.
The food fits the surroundings, being recognizable and tasty without excitement. CH bakes its own bread, and we liked it a lot. The Crab-Mango stack was superb, and the chopped spinach salad easily big enough for 3 people to share, with an over-abundance of bacon. The prime rib was good but the baked shrimp stuffed with crab were indifferent – either entrée could have come from a kitchen in Kansas or St. Louis and no one could tell the difference. Dinner cost the same as Montrio (above) but was nowhere near the same quality or creativity.
Skip entirely, except for a drink on that dynamite patio:
Forge in the ForestJunipero Street & Junipero Ave., Carmel. www.forgeintheforest.com
Pro: Great old building (actually young from 1944, but built to look like a 19th century saloon). Fabulous outdoor patio with multiple fireplaces (and there’s one inside, too). Friendly waitresses.
Con: So-so green salad and onion soup with too much fresh thyme. A tasteless Reuben sandwich that lost its sauerkraut and didn't know where to find it. Coleslaw with an over-abundance of mustard-yellow sour cream. Buffalo chicken strips with enough vinegar to satisfy George Morrone, then deep-fried until so dead the steak knife could barely cut through it.
This was all tourist comfort food, but for tourists with no taste buds.