Last week, we took a relaxing four-day jaunt down the California coast to celebrate our tenth anniversary, and ate pretty well.
Fresh Cream (100C Heritage Harbor, 99 Pacific; 831-375-9798; www.freshcream.com): The choice of this place for a celebration dinner was an entirely nostalgic one, as we had gone there on our first weekend together in Monterey and had driven down for many birthday and anniversary dinners when we lived in Santa Cruz. So it was a gamble to return eight years later. The menu is California/French in a quite traditional waynothing adventuresome, which is not to say not worthwhile. We stuck with some of their classics that we had always liked. We skipped appetizers, as entrees here come with a salad, which was a pleasant pile of mesclun with a well-balanced balsamic vinaigrette, crumbled goat cheese, and roasted pecans. We both had the crispy roasted half duck with blackcurrant sauce, which tasted as we remembered. The skin is quite crisp, the meat well done and tender. The sauce is a bit sweet, but not supersweet, as some fruit sauces paired with duck are. Where Fresh Cream falls down is sides; they serve (on a separate plate) the same thing with each dish, and its strictly what I think of as country clubpotato baskets filled with potatoes dauphinoise (upscale tater tots) and sautéed baby carrots and sugar snaps. The half duck is plenty, though, so we ignored the boring sides. Desserts here are also classics and not adventurous, but very well executed. We split our old favorites, an airy Grand Marnier soufflé with rum (used to also be Grand Marnier, which was better) crème anglaise and a baked-to-order tart tatin with more crème anglaise and vanilla ice cream, and both were excellent. (Their most talked-about dessert is the dark-chocolate sack, shaped like a paper bag and filled with a mocha milkshake.) The wine list isnt particularly interesting, but seems fairly priced, and my one glass was a generous pour. When I made the reservation, I was asked if it was a special occasion; this netted us a window table (the better to watch the pelicans and sea otters playing in the harbor) and, with our desserts, a dish of strawberries and whipped cream and glasses of ruby port on the house. Someone asked us later if the restaurant is still as good as it was when we went there regularly, and Mike said, its hard to say, because our tastes have maturedan apt comment. Our bill was $105 before tip.
Trattoria Paradiso (654 Cannery Row; 831-667-2345): Despite the Italian name, this place has the airy, slightly stale looks of any waterfront restaurant in a tourist town. Many tables front the bay, which is nice. A blackened mahi-mahi (despite the Hawaiian name, a locally-caught fish) sandwich was served on a nicely crusty roll with roasted pepper and sun dried tomatoes, and came with mesclun salad and a pastina salad with olive dressing. It was pretty good, although the spice rub overwhelmed the other flavors in the sandwich. A crisp, thin-crust pizza with sausage and garlic was good enough but not great, according to Mike. There was a special of spot prawns caught that morning in the bay, but the scampi-style preparation with pasta didnt appeal to me (especially with the need to peel your own). The sandwich and pizza, from the lunch menu, with an iced tea and a Coke (with free refills) were $29 before tip, and plenty of food.
My idea of a great pick-me-up after visiting the aquarium or Cannery Row is a Lapperts kona coffee cone at Kalisas, across from the aquarium. Mike also swears he had his lifetime-best chocolate malt (very chocolate, very malty) at the Ghirardelli shop nearby on Cannery Row.
Nepenthe (Highway 1; 831-667-2345; www.nepenthebigsur.com): This place is all about the setting, which is indeed fairly breathtaking. The restaurant is perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, with patio seating and also plenty of inside tables facing picture windows with a through-the-trees-to-the-ocean view. Its an attractive setting in a woodsy, casual way. The food is pricey and fine, but nothing special. At dinner, burgers (beef and veggie), served with a miniscule salad of chopped romaine that was unfortunately drowned in dressing, are $12. A huge half-basket of fries (enough for three or four) is $5, and tasty homemade lemonade is $3.75 (no offer of refills). Steak and broiled fish entrees were $25-30. Theres a casual, outdoor café that serves breakfast and lunch only.
Big Sur Lodge (Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Highway 1; 800-424-4787): We stayed at Big Sur Lodge, in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, and found its restaurant, where we had a breakfast and a lunch, to be goodquite a surprise for a park lodge. If youre hiking in the park or stopping on the inland portion of the Hwy 1 drive to eat, its a worthwhile choice. Lunch was tasty Chinese chicken salads, made with mixed greens rather than Chinese cabbage, and served with a non-sweet sesame dressing. Breakfast egg dishes were cooked well; the only flaw was slightly underdone seasoned potatoes, which otherwise would be quite tasty. We had been excited to see that they serve homemade biscuits with breakfast, but unfortunately they were out by the time we had our late-morning meal. The salads and breakfast plates were each around $9 and generously sized.
Cielo (Ventana Inn, Highway 1; 831-667-2331): Another woodsy, fairly casual and attractive setting (hope they never have a fire, as everything was wood); here the ocean view is distant, but the view is splendid whether youre facing the water or the mountains. I started with carrot-ginger soup, which despite having cream had the intense carrot flavor and nice ginger edge I prize (this is one of my very favorite things, but I usually prefer creamless versions for their cleaner, more intense flavors). Mike had Serrano ham with grilled pears and frisee (there was also a cheese, but I dont remember what since he skipped it), and enjoyed it, though wished for a higher pear-to-ham ratio. He had a main course of roasted (I think) chicken over a ragout of corn, peppers, haricots verte, and white beans, which I didnt taste, but which he also seemed to enjoy. Foregoing an entrée, I had for a second course an appetizer serving of grilled large shrimp over barley and wild mushroom risotto. The barley and mushroom mixture had good flavor, but was very rich and buttery. For dessert, Mike had fresh mint ice cream sandwiches (made with brownies instead of cookies) served with fudge sauce, which looked great and which he gobbled up, but which I was too full to try. I had sorbet, which was the disappointment of the evening. The pear was excellent and extremely flavorless, but the strawberry was flavorless and the kumquat one-dimensionally bitter. After an afternoon in the hot sun, I didnt even open the wine list. Our dinner was around $80 before tip, I think.