A trio of outstanding pastas at La Balena.
There are many reasons to adore Carmel-by-the-Sea. It’s as picturesque as it gets, full of romance, and boasts a white sand beach that just begs you to doff your sandals and relax a long while.
Now, I have another reason to love it: La Balena.
The three-year-old restaurant is owned by Emanuele Bartolini, who used to work front-of-the-house for Mario Batali in New York. After vacationing here regularly with his wife, Anna, the couple finally decided to make the leap to this West Coast hamlet.
Bartonlini named his restaurant La Balena (“The Whale”) after those magnificent sea creatures he used to view when he served aboard ships in the military in Italy. It’s also a nod to the giant whale in his favorite story of “Pinocchio,” which was written by Carlo Collodi, a children’s writer who grew up in Florence, near where from Bartolini hails. In fact, his second restaurant, set to open in April just steps away, will be named Il Grillo (“The Cricket”), in reference to Jiminy Cricket.
La Balena’s namesake.
The pretty back patio.
This is Italian food with true soul wrapped around an abundance of fresh, local ingredients. Executive Chef Brad Briske describes it as “Monterey Bay Tuscan” food. He buys whole and half pigs, and butchers them, no easy feat in such a compact kitchen. All the salumi is made in-house, as well as almost all the pastas, with the lone exception being the spaghetti. But that may change in the future, as the restaurant just purchased a pasta extruder.
A selection of Manresa Bread specialties: levain (back), kale scone (front left), and chocolate croissant (front right).
The South Bay’s most anticipated bakery, Manresa Bread, finally opened a week ago, in downtown Los Gatos.
If you think that means bypassing those long, long lines at its stands at the Palo Alto and Campbell farmers markets on Sundays, guess again.
The queue may be shorter at the new bakery, just around the corner from Michelin two-starred Manresa restaurant, but there likely will be one no matter what time you go.
When I got there at 11 a.m. last Friday, there were already half a dozen people in front of me. And the baguettes were already gone.
If you think that was bad, on opening day on Feb. 21, the bakery sold out in just five hours.
Inside the bakery.
All of that speaks to the quality of the artisan products being turned out by Manresa head baker Avery Ruzicka, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute who also trained with master baker Ben Hershberger of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery and Per Se restaurant.
Grilled cheese and tomato soup perfection at The Fremont Diner.
Sure, I have an appreciation for pull-out-all-the-stops tasting menus in which chefs maneuver and manipulate food into high art.
But it takes a place like The Fremont Diner to remind us all how wonderful the simple, the bare bones and the pared down can be.
I’m talking the perfect crumbly buttermilk biscuit you can’t wait to tear into, and a thick, spicy tomato soup served in a heavy coffee mug with a spoon — all enjoyed on a picnic table underneath a tented patio.
Surrounded by rolling hills and vineyards on the Sonoma side of the Carneros wine region, The Fremont Diner evokes nostalgia from the get-go with its rusty pick-up truck parked outside and its wood-slatted building with its swinging front-porch door.
Like stepping into the past.
The tented patio.
My husband and I dropped by a few weeks ago, paying our tab at the end of a most soul-satisfying meal.
As we near the end of one year and ready for the start of a brand new one, allow me to toast my favorite dishes of 2014.
It’s never easy to narrow the list to just 10. But these are the tastes that lingered the most; the ones I’d want to eat all over again in a heartbeat.
Here’s my Top 10, listed in no particular order. I raise a glass from a lovely sample bottle of Sokol Blosser Evolution Sparkling, a blend of nine white wines, which give this method champenoise bubbly the complex flavor of apple, pear, peach and lemon. Here’s to all the chefs and restaurants that made 2014 so delicious and delightful.
Southern ham done in the style of Iberico jamon — magically appears during a hiking tour of Post Ranch Inn.
When you get a group of esteemed Master Sommeliers together, you know there’s going to be an abundance of fine wines uncorked.
When you get them together at Big Sur’s gorgeous Post Ranch Inn as a prelude to next spring’s Pebble Beach Food & Wine extravaganza, the drinking and dining are of the highest order and pretty much go on non-stop.
That’s what I was lucky enough to be privy to when I was invited as a guest to the soiree and to Post Ranch Inn a few weeks ago.
A room with a view at Post Ranch Inn.
The Nest — a sculpture that you can cocoon away in.
Sierra Mar restaurant.
Among the other guests at the two-night affair were: David Bernahl, founder of the Pebble Beach event; Lara Sailor Long, executive wine director for the event; Kim Beto of Southern Wine & Spirits; Shayn Bjornholm, education director for the Court of Master Sommeliers; Ian Cauble of SommSelect; Dominque DaCruz, wine director of Post Ranch Inn; Christie Dufault, former wine director at Restaurant Gary Danko; Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines; Jordan MacKay, wine and spirits writer; Carlton McCoy, wine director for The Little Nell in Aspen; and Larry Stone, estate director of Huneeus Vintners in Rutherford.