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.
Who would have ever imagined kiwi and ricotta would make such a magical dish?
How do you follow-up a smash-hit restaurant that proved a game-changer in the dining world?
If you’re Chef-Owners Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski of the red-hot, James Beard Award-winning State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, you do it with The Progress, which opened next door in December.
The Progress was originally going to be the couple’s first restaurant. But when they realized the extensive renovations the former movie house and century-old building would require, they wisely decided to open the smaller State Bird Provisions first in 2012.
That restaurant brought to bear the age-old concept of dim sum-style service to an eclectic array of global small plates — a concept now copied by others on the heels of State Bird’s success.
An overhead view from the mezzanine.
The open kitchen at the back of The Progress.
Whereas State Bird grabs hold of your attention by parading the majority of its dishes out into the dining room on carts or trays for you to see before you choose what to eat, The Progress is wrapped in a little more mystery and requires a peaceful consensus among your table mates.
Lobster with Champagne sabayon, pickled seaweed and beach rose hips puree by Francis Wolf of Le Hatley Restaurant at Manor Hovey, as presented at GourmetFest.
Tranquil Carmel-by-the-Sea was abuzz over the weekend, as some of the most extraordinary chefs in the world descended upon this little hamlet for the second annual CarmelFest.
They included Oliver Roellinger of Breton, who unceremoniously gave back his three Michelin stars at his Maisons de Bricort, because he said he could not physically cook at that demanding level any more; and the legendary Michel Bras, whose Restaurant Bras in Laguiole has famously held three Michelin stars since 1999.
The intimate affair spanned three days and included cooking demos, exclusive wine tastings and gala dinners at LaPlaya Carmel, L’Auberge Carmel and a new private events space downtown.
The incomparable Chef Michel Bras (left) is assisted in plating a dish for the “Taste of France” lunch.
Bras with Chef Olivier Roellinger (right).
I was fortunate to be invited as a guest. You can tell how special this event was if even Chef David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos and Chef Guillaume Bienaimie of Zola in Palo Alto were lured away from their restaurants just to be guests at the “Taste of France” lunch that Bras cooked with Roellinger.
Blistered green beans at Hawker Fare in San Francisco.
With Chef Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok blazing a trail coast to coast, and San Francisco restaurateur Pim Techamuanvivit acquiring ever growing praise for her Kin Khao, Thai is just about the hottest cuisine around right now.
Now comes James Syhabout, Oakland’s only Michelin-starred chef, to add his stamp with Hawker Fare in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Syhabout’s original Hawker Fare has been going strong in Oakland, along with his more ambitious Commis. But this outpost, which opened about a month ago, is his first foray across the bridge.
When I asked him if he felt he was competing with the other celebrated Thai restaurants that have come to the forefront lately, he replied, “I’m competing with myself. I’m cooking a lot of dishes that I’ve never made before, based on things my family cooked in Thailand.”
Colorful mats as wall art.
Posters set the mood.
The dining room abuzz at night.
Recently, I had a chance to taste some of those dishes when I was invited to a media dinner.
The restaurant is done up as if you were eating at a night market in Thailand. Walls are decorated with bright-colored floor mats tables covered with slick oil-cloths printed with flowers and fruit, and the ceiling strung with strands of lights. All that’s missing is the humidity and the torrent of scooters.