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Aug 22, 2008 06:41 PM

Are there any restaurants in Carmel where the main attraction is actually the food?

We have never been impressed with the restaurant scene in Carmel. Everything is all about presentation, the view and overly obsequious service rather than about the main point of a restaurant (imho) which is the FOOD!

My ideal restaurant is Higgins in Portland or the old Cafe Beaujolais circa 1992. Warm and caring service, a decor that is pleasant and a really fantastic, full-bodied, multi-layered, complex food experience!

While restaurants like Sierra Mar can be lovely for special occasions, my favorite restaurants are ones that are the passionate vision of the owner - and are intellectually interesting, yet nuturing at the same.

And if you don't know of such a restaurant in Carmel proper (and I am doubtful that there is one) - I would be grateful for a recommendation to such a restaurant in a near-by place (we are driving down from the East Bay).

Thanks Hounds....

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  1. Food is a very subjective topic. "One man's trash is another man's treasure". However, the Red House Cafe in Pacific Grove might fit your criteria. Though not in Carmel proper, it is very close and gets stellar reviews.

    1. have reservations for Passionfish in Pacific Grove and from the rec's on this board, looks like a place that the owners are serious about the food.

      1. Passionfish in Pacific Grove. The atmosphere is nothing special, but the food is good to spectacular. The chef has a little east-meets-west thing going, but in a good way (as opposed to '90s fusion food where Asian ingredients were tossed blindly into western dishes). Not every dish is equally successful, but I've never been disappointed.

        And the wine list--it's quite possibly the best wine list I've ever seen anywhere if you consider breadth, depth, and price. Want to spend under $25 for a decent bottle? Lots of good options. Want a "trophy" cabernet? You're covered there as well. Best of all, both the $15 Burgans Rias Baixas and the $200 Ridge Monte Bello are priced around where you'd see them in a wine shop. Compare this to the partial wine list featured in a recent Chow TastingNotes blog entry, where the same cab is $800. (

        1 Reply
        1. re: alanbarnes

          Always love your take Alan on this forum and I am so excited to dine at Passionfish and order great wine without being gouged!
          Best to you..

        2. Its funny, but after I posted my question I noticed Passionfish had been mentioned on many posting and looked up the menu and thought it looked like a promising choice. I am thrilled that you all mentioned Passionfish after reading the type of restaurants we really enjoy. So we will try for a reservation and let everybody know what we think. Also, I have to say that Red House Cafe seems like a great (a bit more casual) choice as well. I think you guys really nailed what I was looking for - and I appreciate the tailored recommendation.

          I will also say that the two choices suggested (being located in PG) also validates my thoughts that Carmel proper would not be a likely venue for "my kind of restaurant".....Frankly I am not wild about Carmel in general- it is a "Santa's little pop-up village" as a friend of mine called it. But I love the surrounding areas - PG in I'm not surprised that the restaurant choices go along with the general impressions.

          Re Alan's comments on the wine list - looked at it on their website - it is clearly very thoughfully chosen and very personal list and many of the names I recognize as well-regarded boutique wines/wineries. And while I don't doubt that prices are attractive for the selection, the selection overall tends to focus on rather pricey wines. And I have to admit that I am barely personally familiar with more than 15 of the wineries listed and even with those I am not necessarily familiar with the particular wine that was selected. We usually bring our own bottle and pay corkage except in places (like Sierra Mar) where there is really expert Sommelier services - because if I am not familiar with the particular wine - I have little hope of matching it to a food selection(s). Interestingly at the top of the winelist they specifically say that they keep their prices low by NOT having a Sommelier and state that you will get varied personal suggestions by the waitstaff. That is great if the waitstaff is pretty educated about food and wine - but not having been to this restaurant before - I have no idea what level of experience they bring to the table (literally!). So frankly, this approach seems a bit risky - the wines themselves may be quite excellent - but if not skillfully paired with the food I fear that some fairly pricey wines will not be fully appreciated (at least by me and DH!) So we will play it safe and stick to our usual MO of bringing our own bottle - despite the interesting list......

          Thanks everybody for your comments...

          2 Replies
          1. re: missdemo

            Passionfish's service staff is knowledgeable and educated about the wines they serve. If you have any qualms about relying on your server's advice, ask if Cindy (co-owner) can help you select a wine. There are plenty of sommeliers out there with less knowledge.

            Passionfish is one place where I would definitely not bring a bottle, and I strongly encourage you to reconsider doing so: dining there is the perfect opportunity to try something new at a reasonable price, and to learn more about wine, without paying a lot of money. IMO, you are missing out on one of the main reasons to dine there if you bring a bottle, particularly if it is a bottle of something one could buy at the grocery store.

            It is true that the wine selection leans to the upper range (though very reasonably priced) but there are plenty of less expensive options too, and even the lower end wines are well-selected and often hard to find in stores and other restaurants. In looking at the wine prices, keep in mind the lack of mark-up: there are some real bargains to be had at Passionfish, at all price ranges.

            Edited to add: I guess part of what I am trying to say here is that, for me at least, Passionfish is about the food AND the wine (and the commitment to sustainability), not just about the food, and I am just not sure it really is what you are looking for if you want to bring a bottle to avoid any risk of a poor food/wine match. I'd certainly recommend Passionfish to a non drinker, but that said, a big part of the restaurant's appeal is the serious thought that the owners have put into the wine list: if you are going to experience the owners' vision you will miss that piece of the experience by bringing your own bottle.

            1. re: susancinsf

              What she said.

              Seriously, the first time I ordered wine at PF I was a little nervous asking for wine pairing advice from our 20-something server. But she was not only very well-informed about the wines on the list, but also willing to admit when she didn't know the answer to a question and find somebody who did.

              There are lots of very unusual wines on the list, but for me that's part of the allure. I can get grocery store wine every day at, well, the grocery store. A chance to have something a little more exotic at a bargain (for a restaurant) price is a rare experience.

          2. Along with susaninsf's thinking...

            Assuming the menu is on the site, how do you know what wonderful specials may be available that night? Wouldn't it be possible that you would bring a wine that isn't suited at all to your dining choice of one of the specials?

            4 Replies
            1. re: Gail

              I agree Gail, and as usual, agree with susaninsf as well. The menu is constantly changing and there are specials, so which wine would one bring? I know no one who owns a wine cellar with the choices available at PF.

              What's more, after paying corkage, the OP's own wine would cost more than a comparable bottle from the restaurant.

              I also love that PF has a great selection of wines that I have never seen at my local winestore or at the larger wine discounters. With some wines available by the glass and a decent selection of splits, one can match wines with exact dishes, something not possible when bringing a bottle.

              Also the best dining is not defensive dining, but adventurous dining. One shouldn't worry about a bad bottle; rather one should realize that there are dozens of great bottles that will work wonderously.


              1. re: Ed Dibble

                Well, here is my report on Passionfish and following that my response to the lively debate about wine:

                Restaurant ambience was very nice - contemporary but not overly stylized. Young, friendly waitstaff also a plus. They had what I would refer to as an appetizer/amuse bouche - two grilled figs filled with mascapone and wrapped in their special bacon. It was only $5.00 so at $2.50 a piece - it was a delicious amuse bouche for two people to share (in addition to a regular starter) - just for fun. I liked that alot. I had the "fisherman's daughter" starter - which was four shrimp in an extremely flavorful olive oil/garlic/feta cheese/oregano sauce - which I mopped up with their very nice bread. This had my name all over it - I loved it.... I was less impressed with the main course. I had the duck - which was two duck legs with a nicely done potato slices and fennel - the portion was generous. I am a duck lover - and this dish was good but I have definitely had better overall. Didn't love the fennel with the duck and the sauce on the duck was ok but did not have the slightly acidic or fruity quality that works so well with duck.

                DH said that both his starter and his main course "were ill-conceived" Starter was a butter lettuce salad with baked gorganzola, candied pecans and chutney -he felt that it would have been better had the gorganzola been evenly distributed in the salad rather than as a small portion in the middle of the salad - so as to stand up to the sweetness of the chutney and candied pecans.
                DH's entree was a peppered sable fish with a wasabi "slaw" which I believe was jicama. He liked the fish itself very much - but the fish portion was small and the large amount of wasabi slaw accompanying the fish was overpowering in quantity and flavor. Neither of his dishes were well balanced. We shared a "special" dessert - peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream scoop - it was your standard cobbler - nothing really different about it - the vanilla icecream seemed like it was homemade and was very tasty. Overall, everything was creditable - but far from a homerun. Total with tax and tip (and half bottle of wine) was $113. This counts as a special meal for us and we while we didn't feel ripped off, we didn't feel like it was amazing either...

                Re the wine debate: let me explain in more detail our wine MO: we usually peruse the menu online and have an general idea what we are in the mood for - often I will bring along two wines to hedge our bets. Sometimes when we get to the restaurant our choices are too divergent to open either of the wines - so we just order by the glass. Sometimes it goes with one person's starter and the other's main course - so we might open the bottle and also order a glass of wine for the person whose main course doesn't go with the bottle. Sometimes the wine is really special and we are going out to eat to just compliment the special wine - so we order according to the wine. There are many variations to this theme. I have a pretty good wine memory and DH really appreciates wines paired well to the food - so most the wines in my collection I have tasted - and I can pair them pretty well by asking some questions about the dish.

                OK back to Passionfish: DH pointed out that a whole bottle of wine between us was too much for us to drink and have to drive home to Bay Area - so we didn't bring a bottle in the end . Their selection of wines by the glass is quite deficient - I recall only 3 reds by the glass (ok, I realize they do this on purpose - but that doesn't change the facts) so rather than go by glass (my preference when our food choices are so disparate) we followed their lead down the half-bottle path. Now, there are two general approaches these days about wine/food pairing: the traditional approach and the "why are we so hung up on rules - let's have fun with wine/food pairings and break the rules" approach. After this evening I realize that DH and me fall firmly into category one and I have no intention to allow myself to be swayed into category 2 (against my better judgement) again.

                The charming 20-something waitress claimed that Sangoviese or a Pinot would go with both our dishes. I was sceptical and she went off to consult the rest of the staff and came back saying the consensus was a Zinfindel!!!! Apparently they all felt that the spiciness of the peppered fish and wasabi would work with the Zin. I am not that crazy about Zins and they are WAY too variable to order one with a meal untasted. So (playing along with their thinking) I said that if they were were willing to suggest a Zin - then how about a Tempernillo - also spicy and fruity. She went off to consult with the others - and came back with a consensus that this was a good choice.....and brought over the half-bottle.

                Cutting to the chase, it was a terrible choice because frankly the sablefish (I was unfamiliar with this fish) is a medium textured, dry (as opposed to oily) fish and should not, imho, be paired with any red wine in any circumstances I can think of. And the tempernillo was pretty big and not really that spicy anyway. It didn't go that well with the duck either.

                It's not that big a deal really - I mean there are worse things in life than having a nice wine that doesn't go with ones meal. But my point is - a - had the restaurant had a better selections of wines by the glass, this problem could have been easily avoided and b- if the restaurant subscribed to Wine Approach #1 instead of Wine Approach #2. they would have had a better selection of wines by the glass and they never would have recommended a zinfindel to go with sablefish!!

                So while you may not agree with me on any of this - I am hoping nobody will jump down my throat for being contrary to the consensus on this thread.

                I am interested in your feedback to my thoughts above and hope that I haven't offended anyone....

                1. re: missdemo

                  I am sorry that you weren't wowed with PF: as I said in my first reply; given your feelings about wine I was not sure after reading your approach that it really was what you were looking for. Frankly, I am not sure that what you are looking for exists in Monterey County, where it is darn hard to find amazing food and service that is so seamless you don't even realize how important the service is to you, but at PF or lower prices.

                  I absolutely agree with you that PF does not have a great selection of wine by the glass. Had you not discussed bringing a bottle, and had said you thought you wanted wines by the glass, I think you might have gotten more of that feedback in advance (and you could probably guess it by looking at the wine list on line anyway).

                  However, I guess I am a little confused: sounds like you were the one who chose the Tempernillo, not the server: Are you saying you think she should have tried to talk you out of it when you rejected her suggestion of a Zin and asked about a Tempernillo instead...? If the Tempernillo was such a bad choice, why did you ask about it?

                  Which wine would you have brought with you for the food choices you made, per your number one approach, or whatever you mean by your number one approach? (Part of my confusion is that I also am having a hard time following the number one vs number two approach. Not sure which is what in reading your post.)

                  Not really disagreeing with you in any way, but honestly, if I can't follow it from your post, I am wondering if a big part of the problem was communication with the server: part of choosing a wine is taking into account the drinker's preferences, as not everyone would like the same thing, but sometimes that can be hard to do if there isn't back and forth communication.

                  It also appears to me that you didn't have faith in the server's recommendations, since you make a point in mentioning that she was twenty something, (how is that relevant, unless you are implying she is too young to be knowledgeable?) and since she originally mentioned one wine, then another: it is too bad you didn't ask at that point if Cindy could help you pick the wine, per my original suggestion. Ultimately, however, if I am understanding what happened, you picked the wine, not the restaurant, and I think it would be unfair to not see it as a give and take and to only ding them. I don't think that a poor match under those circumstances can be taken as an indication of poor wine service, and certainly not of a poor wine list.

                  And all that said, re the food: the duck is not my favorite dish there, so I agree with you that it isn't the best thing to order. I've thought it was only ok when I ordered it too. With the exception of pork dishes, which are usually great at PF, I tend to like the seafood dishes better. Sorry we didn't clearly steer you in that direction. I do really like the sablefish, however, and I am often reminded of why when I dine elsewhere and get fish that isn't properly cooked.

                  When I've had the peach cobbler it has been great, fwiw, but I am a sucker for peach cobbler so I could be easy..

                  1. re: missdemo

                    Thanks for the feedback. It is too bad that everything was not as good as you were hoping. I have had a couple of dud dishes there, though my overall experiences have been more postive. When I had the salad with the gorgonzola, for example, luckily I cut into the packet with the cheese early on, so I was able to combine bites of it with the rest of the salad.

                    In any case, it is too bad that they steered you to a half bottle instead of really pushing wine by the glass. I can't think of a single wine that would match sablefish and duck confit.