The last thing I needed was to find another possible choice for a dinner in Monterey. I already had too many choices for too few opportunities. Still, after I spotted Norma Jeans almost hiding at 2339 N Fremont and picked up a menu, I was hooked and had to try the place. A few days later, Steve, Helen, and I showed up for dinner. Norma Jeans has no relationship to Marilyn Monroe (born Norma Jean Baker) but is named after the co-owner who is the chefs wife. In fact, the whole place seems to be a family affair as the chefs brother was waiting the tables, and I believe Norma herself waits tables during lunch. In any case, the room is tastefully decorated, with four-tops along each side and larger round tables in the middle. Italian music plays on the sound system. White tablecloths (covered with white paper on the side tables) give the room a nice feel also.
We started with Roasted Corn and Crab Chowder ($3.25), Baby Greens with balsamic vinaigrette ($4.25), and a Tapas Plata served with arugula and greens ($7.25). All the starters were fine. The chowder was very thick and rich with the roasted corn flavor more pronounced than the crab. I thought the portion of the greens was a bit skimpy, but the balsamic dressing on both the salad and the greens with the tapas was excellent and creamy. The greens on both dishes were pristine, as one would expect in Monterey at this time of year. The three tapas were a duck ravioli (a bit dry and not very ducky imho), two small polenta wedges (really outstanding with a crisp outer skin and a moist smooth interior) covered with a standard tomato sauce, and a salmon cake cut into three pieces (very tasty with a pronounced salmon flavor and excellent texture).
But the main courses were the stars of the meal. Helen had lobster ravioli in a cream sauce with scallops and shrimp ($14.95). While the lobster flavor in the ravioli was not very noticeable, the cream sauce with the seafood provided plenty of seafood flavors and carried the dish. The whole was more than the sum of the parts. Steve opted for the Paella Valencia ($18.95), which was served in a traditional iron paella pan. The bright yellow rice came with clams and mussels, a couple prawns, chicken, and sausage. I thought the mussels a bit overcooked, but in general the dish was a success and very tasty and attractive. A purist might raise a couple issues. The rice was Arborio and in fact, the menu terms the rice a risotto and the sausage was chorizo, not as subtle and European as I would have expected (but then, I have never had paella in Valencia). Nonetheless, I would say the dish overall was as tasty as the paellas I used to get at Fandango.
I think my main course was the best of the three. I chose the lamb shank (called lamb osso buco on the menu, $17.25), which came with asparagus and risotto Milanese. All three parts of the meal were exceptional. The lamb shank was wonderfully tender and covered with a thick tomato butter sauce that enhanced the lambs flavor. The reddish color of the sauce was in stark contrast to the bright saffron yellow of the risotto. The flavors of the risotto also offered a strong contrast. The slight sourness of the perfectly cooked, creamy toothsome rice caused by the flavors of the wine and Reggiano Parmesan was very different from the tomato and savory lamb flavors of the shank. But still they went together. Across the top of the dish, three large spears of asparagus, their stems split for even cooking, added another flavor and an additional color contrast. Everything on my plate was good by itself and all three items worked together to make a beautiful and satisfying, if rich, main course.
The wine list is fairly small (for example, only four cabs were available by the bottle), and vintage years are not listed, but the St. Supery Cab ($38 the most expensive cab on the list) was a fine tasting 2000. There are also a fair number of wines available by the glass. The service was professional and friendly. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my meal and would recommend the restaurant to anyone.
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