Intrigued by PattyC’s post on La Balena, I’d tried a handful of times to get a dinner reservation on short notice with no success.
Then two months ago, I tried to buy some black grapes at the Carmel farmers market from a man loading produce into the back of a van at the end of the market. Turns out he was a buyer, not a seller, and said these were going to his restaurant, La Balena. He offered me a taste of the grapes and said he didn’t know yet what he would do with them. He gestured at the case of bruised tomatoes and said they would become sauce. I expressed my frustration at trying to secure a dinner res. He suggested that I come for lunch (Thursday thru Sunday) when it would be far less crowded.
So, fast forward . . . a couple weeks ago Mom and I headed to Carmel and were the first ones in the door at 11:30am on a sunny Thursday, easily scoring a table inside. Once I saw how small the place is inside, I understood the reservation back up. Some good ciabatta bread and deep green olive oil came to the table quickly along with filtered tap water and the daily menu.
Seeing Insalata Caprino e Farro, $12, a grain salad with chianti vinaigrette, grapes and pumpkin-goat cheese truffles on the menu made me smile. Plenty to share, this featured the same seeded slip-skin grapes I’d tried to buy. Good texture on the farro with a bit of resistance and no gumminess, the wine-y notes of the dressing pulled together the colorful bits of heirloom tomato, shavings of red onion, and sweet grapes. The “truffles” were made of fresh chevre blended with rosemary then rolled in toasted pumpkin seeds. The salad was composed on a bed of dewy fresh red oak leaf lettuce. I’m borrowing this idea for my own dinner parties.
Mom had the Zuppa Stagionale, $8, a thick soup made with butter beans, dry farmed tomatoes and butternut squash. Most of the big bowl went home with her for lunch the next day.
For me, Trippa Toscana, $10, tripe braised with tomato, chile and topped with shaving of pecorino. This was less successful. The tripe was quite clean with a minimum of funk and cooked on point. Oddly, the diced carrots and celery were hard and crunchy, as if thrown into the bowl raw. The tomato sauce was very bright and barely cooked. The elements seemed as though they’d not been introduced to each other until the last moment as none of the flavors had married. And if not for the salt of the pecorino, this dish would have been seriously underseasoned.
With a full house and only one server and one busser, service was scattered and barely staying afloat. For the noon meal, customers typically want the pace to move faster than we experienced. Still, our salad was stellar and the freshness of the cooking will bring me back.
Junipero St between 5th and 6th
Carmel, CA 93923