Monterey County is renowned as one of California's premier wine-producing regions. But the climate and soil conditions that make the area so well-suited for viticulture are also ideal for growing a baffling array of foods both common and exotic. Often called "America's Salad Bowl," the county's Salinas Valley churns out a wide variety of organic and fresh produce, and it's home to widespread beekeeping, olive pressing, cattle ranching and chicken raising, while Monterey Bay offers up a bounty of seafood.
In other words, it's not just anywhere that you'll find such a wide variety of food as fresh as it comes in the kitchens of Monterey County.
It's little wonder, then, that Monterey County is dotted with innovative gourmet restaurants, from traditional to fusion and beyond. Each offers patrons a bold, one-of-a-kind menu featuring farm-to-table dishes made with locally sourced ingredients and paired with excellent wines.
Serving up menu items with local ingredients ranging from bee pollen and pork belly to squid ink and sea urchin sauce, these eight restaurants should be on the to-do list of foodies and casual eaters alike.
Passionfish in Pacific Grove is the brainchild of Ted and Cindy Walter, who select their ingredients daily from nearby farms, farmers' markets and sustainable fisheries. Famed for its highly creative dishes, Passionfish's menu currently includes choices such as ricotta-bee pollen gnocchi with tomato brown butter or smoked trout ceviche tostaditas with cashew pesto for starters, and then on to duck confit with a honey reduction, smoked chile-potato cake and charred broccolini as an entree. Among the delectable desserts is organic mint and espresso mud pie featuring ice cream from the Straus Family Creamery in Petaluma.
Cindy Pawlcyn, who earned her culinary repute as an executive chef in the Napa Valley, is both the namesake and the genius behind the James Beard Award-nominated Cindy's Waterfront at Monterey Bay Aquarium. Sourcing ingredients from local farmers, ranchers and fisherfolk, the restaurant is fully cognizant of its unique location, boasting membership in the aquarium's Seafood Watch program, which requires all seafood ingredients be caught or farmed in ways that do not harm the oceans. The menu's rather large plates include Green List fish of the day and daily menu additions that take advantage of what's extra fresh from local suppliers.
Farm-fresh-to-table cuisine is also the emphasis at Porter's in the Forest, an eatery at Poppy's Hill Golf Course near Pebble Beach that revolves around California artisanal dishes made with local ingredients and regional products. Executive chef Johnny De Vivo and his crew smoke their own whole pork bellies for bacon, churn heavy cream into butter, make all their own breads and pastas, and create most of the condiments, including kimchi, ketchup and pickles. Among their signature dishes are a Korean Philly cheesesteak that features shaved tri-tip, kimchi and sriracha aioli and a "FALL-ow the Seasons" salad with roasted turnips, curried cauliflower and pomelos in a pear vinaigrette.
Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley has been a bastion of gourmet dining for decades, a tradition that carries on at Lucia Restaurant. Chef Cal Stamenov masterfully creates decadent California-regional cuisine from local organic, seasonal produce, sustainable regional seafood and artisan-farmed meats. Stamenov selects many of his ingredients from organic herb and vegetable gardens, vineyards and fruit orchards on the 28-acre estate. Lucia's menu is spangled with intriguing dishes like Monterey Bay abalone carbonara, alder-smoked Sonoma duck cassoulet with foie gras, and chocolate hazelnut mousse with vanilla sea-salt caramel, chocolate wafers and honeycomb ice cream.
In the heart of Carmel village, the award-winning Aubergine features an eight-course tasting menu that always features the season's best ingredients, the dishes enhanced by a 2,500-bottle wine cellar with a strong focus on local vintages. Executive chef Justin Cogley is credited with inspiring a foraging ethos in the Monterey area and can be seen several times a week scouting the coastline for seaweed, beach mustard, wild radishes, sea lettuce, edible flowers and other ingredients. One food critic described Aubergine's menu as "hyperlocal," and at the time of writing included dishes like oysters with seawater and caviar, abalone with lettuce and white tea, and rib-eye steak with celery root and black trumpet.
Restaurant 1833 in historic downtown Monterey is named for the year the first structure was erected on the site — a one-room cabin. Its eclectic eating environments range from the elegant Governor's Room, with its plush wing-back chairs and antique memorabilia, to the bustling Sun Room and the Founders' Balcony perched above the bar. Chef Jason Franey works with local suppliers and foragers to incorporate wild ingredients on the menu whenever possible. Restaurant 1833's most spectacular concoction is the Gallatin's Throwbacks that are specially prepared for parties of six or more and require a week's notice. These feasts include a whole suckling pig, whole roasted king salmon or whole wood-fired kid goats served with a host of imaginative sides.
American Country cuisine is the specialty at Tarpy's Roadhouse, a Monterey favorite since 1992. With both indoor and al fresco dining, the restaurant spreads over five acres of lush gardens. Executive chef Todd Fisher was a pioneer of local farm-to-table dining and is considered somewhat of a hero with area farmers because he builds his menu around prime foodstuffs from local farmer's markets. Among the flavorsome items on the current menu are a warm Napa cabbage salad with chili-crusted chicken, bacon, gorgonzola and spicy peanuts; a Snake River Farms kobe burger with brie, bacon, Maine lobster, truffle aioli, brioche and fries; and a Maple Leaf Farms half duck with spiced butternut squash farrotto and cherry-port compote.
Down the coast, the Esalen Institute in Big Sur offers locavore-focused menus. For example, from May 29 to June 3, the retreat center is hosting an "Experiencing the Esalen Farm and Garden" week that promises to immerse participants in its own farm and gardens. Visitors will explore working the land as a physical, emotional and spiritual experience that culminates in meals that literally go straight from field to table.
—Joe Yogerst, Tribune Content Solutions