There is absolutely no reason for Restaurant 1833 in Monterey to be as good as it is. In the first place, well, it's in Monterey, a lovely town that is swamped by short-term tourists – the kinds of diners who will eat at a restaurant once and never go back again.
Then there's the setting. Restaurant 1833 is housed in one of the oldest homes in Monterey, for many years the home of the town's leading doctor James Stokes – at least until his misdiagnosis killed California governor Jose Figueroa and an investigation revealed that he had never had a medical license in the first place. And yes, the building is included in many guides to famous haunted houses.
In more recent history, it had been a restaurant called Stokes Adobe, which may have been as much appreciated for its thick mud walls and high beamed ceilings as it was for its menu.
Restaurant 1833 opened about two years ago after extensive renovations and has quickly become one of the hottest dining rooms in the area. The original setting is, if anything, improved. There's lots of dark wood, a marble-topped bar and deep leather booths. The silverware is old and heavy and maybe mismatched, as if you were eating at the home of a wealthy eccentric.
And it's got all the new cuisine bells and whistles you could want, including re-imagined American comfort food and an extensive mixology program. But it's the thoroughness with which these are pursued and the attention to detail that makes all the difference.
Levi Mezick is the chef and has worked with Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller and Michel Richard. His food reflects the polish of his mentors, but is also ample and comfortable. It's the kind of stuff that will make equally happy the dedicated eater and somebody straight off the links dragged by their partner.
It's only when you pay attention that you realize how good the cooking really is. Think rich, crumbly bacon cheddar biscuits, suave deviled eggs with smoked paprika, gnocchi with ramps, and perfectly cooked fat spears of asparagus garnished with crisp chicken skin.
Drinks are managed by Ted Glennon, who has sought out not only the predictable big name international stars (at appropriate prices), but also some of the coolest young dudes from the Central Coast – names like Brewer-Clifton and Sandhi.
Every modern drinks program needs a hook, and besides wine, Restaurant 1833 specializes in absinthe, serving more than a dozen brands. You can go the whole route and have the drink prepared tableside, an elaborate ritual that involves flaming the glasses and trapping the pungent fumes to be inhaled through a straw. Think anise-scented smelling salts.
If you haven't seen any ghosts before, you may see them after.
Restaurant 1833, 500 Hartnell St, Monterey, (831) 643-1833, www.restaurant1833.com.