Cantinetta Luca in Carmel
She-Who-Must be-Obeyed decided that we needed to go out the other night and we dined at David Fink's new place on Dolores (between Ocean and 7th). We sat at the kitchen bar where we could watch the open kitchen and Walter Manzke make extraordinary food with his new chef Jason Balesteri. He and Jason used to work at Patina together so it is no surprise that they are quite a team. In fact many of the kitchen staff worked with Walter at Bouchee or L'Auberge (where Walter still spends 3 nights cooking with Tim Mosblech). Guiseppe Panzuto (Neapolitan and late of the Ritz Carlton, Laguna Niguel) oversees the front of the house. The space has been re-built from the walls outward (used to be the old Toots Lagoon) by Kathleen Fink and is another notch in her belt.
The first food served you is this marvelous ciabatta bread that Walter's wife Marge bakes on premise. You know that you have found a little bit of heaven as soon as you bite past the golden crust and reach the creamy crumb. It wasn't until I had half the loaf that I realized that there was a small side dish of really good olive spread (a tapenade if we were speaking French here). But this is the Italian joint that Walter has wanted to open. Pizza (not to go!), pasta, steak florentine, whole grilled fish, house made salumi ( they got a windowed cooler between the bar and the rest of the restaurant where you can see Jason's salumi hanging) etc..
We had to focus. No meandering around the menu which like the other two restaurants change daily. In fact we focused so hard we didn't get out of the first choices and decided that the mains were for another day. Domani as it were.
We had this incredible selection of little tastes with crostini: a touch of velvety burrata, zucchini pesto, La Tur with rosemary, eggplant caponata. Sigh. Then the crudo arrived. Fish like this is usually a province of Japan, but here was these transparent slices of yellowtail, topped with teeny tiny perfectly halved cherry tomatoes, and fleck of green olive. A drizzle of perfect EVOO, a sprinkle of sea salt, and what a way to go. I was very happy. SWMBO was very happy. And then came the sardine.
How can you go from happy to really happy? You haven't been paying attention. Order the crudo and then have them bring you the sardine. This wondrous piece of silver fish glistens with a perfect sheen...no trace of scales. The sardines are cured in a citrus marinade much like gravlax. Then perfectly sliced into 2 pieces, they sit on top of crunchy lettuce hearts, which in turn sit on top of a finely chopped essence of tomato. A drizzle of not EVOO (eat your heart out Rachel Ray), but lemon oil finishes the dish. I am a sardine man. I have loved them for years when the only kind you could get are the canned variety. Then I discovered the fresh ones. And we live in an area known for the silver tots. So I eat them when I can find them. At Stokes, at Bouchee, and now very happily at Luca.
I lose track of where I am...but the pizza was next. Freshly made dough patted out in front of us, drizzled with some oil and slid onto the wood burning deck. The cooked crust was then covered with wedges of fresh figs, a little prosciutto, some Italian cheese I forgot to write the name down, and back into the oven to melt the poor forgotten cheese. Topped with some arugula dressed with EVOO, salt and pepper and some real balsamic. Perfect pizza. A balancing act of crisp and soft, sweet and sour, hot and cool. Walter at his best walking you thorugh his cultivated parkland of harmonious flavors. SWMBO was happy. What can I say it was a damn lovefest.
Somehow we also got some of the grilled shrimp. Prawns with the heads on, but the shells removed and spread with a herb paste and grilled. Not grilled until you can play tennis with them, but grilled so that the sweet flesh is still vibrant and succulent. And of course we succulented them until they were gone.
Did I say we were going to get through the appetizers? Well, I sensed we were reaching saturation. I knew that dessert was out, but maybe a bit of pasta would leave us content but not leaden. So we went for the Strozzapreti with a Barolo Braised Oxtail Ragu. Yep as good as it sounds. Rich meaty sauce (with the only jarring note of the evening...a touch too salty) and chewy chunky thick strands of pasta. The portion was not to huge so that both SWMBO and I had our pasta fix and yet did not pass out from a carbo loaded induced lethargy. For that I will blame the great wine by the glass (thank you Tomas Perez, Wine Director).
All told this looks like another winner for David, Walter and their team of professionals. While this may seem like a simple Italian eatery, there isn't anyone in this area creating the kind of flavor profiles married with the incredible presentation skills that Walter has created here. I will return for another review after they get better established (and Jason's sopressata has time to mellow). Lunch service begins sometime in November.