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Thursday, September 9, 2021

Monterey Weekend

Monterey Weekend

We had the pleasure of spending last weekend with our friends John and Linda in beautiful Monterey, California. We traditionally get together with friends Larry and Trish, and all of us rent a house in Cambria for a pre-Thanksgiving feast, but the good doctor Larry was on call this weekend in Sacramento, so the doctor’s loss was our gain, as we had a wonderful time in Monterey.


Weather can be spotty this time of year on the Central Coast, but it couldn’t have been better for this trip. Low to mid-sixties with nary a cloud in the sky, Monterey Bay was a gorgeous dark blue, wind was minimal.


The ride down was uneventful, after getting out of the always-too-crowded peninsula and inching down El Camino Real on a Saturday morning. We wanted to get John a wine carafe for his upcoming birthday, which meant driving down the King’s Highway for about 10 miles, making a stop for his gift, and then heading out Woodside Road towards beautiful 280, and our ride south. 280 cuts through some of the most beautiful (and expensive) real estate in the state. Formerly sleepy (although always nice) suburbs like Los Altos Hills, San Carlos, and even the Belmont and Redwood City hills have become homes to a good many of the benefactors of the dotcom and computer surges in nearby Silicon Valley. Homes that sold for under $50k when I was young, are now commanding several million dollars. Suffice it to say, if you can afford to live in one of these areas, that’s where you want to be.


South on 280, onto 85 and through the western part of San Jose, past the equally upscale communities of Los Gatos and Saratoga, and the totally untouchable enclave of Monte Sereno, then onto 101 south. This stretch of 101 used to be an incredible bottleneck, virtually any time you drove it. I remember driving south through this area with my dad when I was a kid. It seemed to be a perpetual backup in both directions, and it’s the only way to get from the peninsula to the Central Coast, unless you’re willing to drive way out of your way into the Central Valley and catch 99 or 5. But times have changed, and this is now five lanes in both directions, and traffic flies through here. Slow to 70 in the right lane, and you’re likely to have people on your tail. Speed up, KEEP up, or get out of the way!


We arrived in Monterey at around three, and after bringing our things into the guest bedroom of our wonderful host and hostess’ abode, we proceeded to get into a martini (gin, like God intended), some munchies, and of course getting nostalgic about the several decades (I’m not saying how many) that John and I have known each other. Linda raises Lhasa Apsos, and her two bundles of joy, Kitty and Daisy were their usual entertaining selves. These are wonderful dogs, descended from Tibetan palace guard dogs, so their small size belies their capabilities. The trick is that they don’t know they’re small, so they just go for it, when need be. Like us, they had four cats for quite a few years. We’re down to two, they’re down to one … John’s prized Bengal cat … Jake. Jake’s coloring is incredible. It’s hard not to fall in love with these when you first encounter them, and this is exactly what John did at a cat show we all went to about 14 years ago. I was looking for a replacement for my Maine Coon (Ben), who’d died at at only 18 months old, and John was totally taken by the Bengals. But he’s the last cat in their household currently, having survived Funny Face, Curie, Sabrina, and their outside cat whose name escapes me. I enjoy my cats, they love their cat and two dogs, but I’ve come to believe that fewer is better. They get more attention, stay mellower, and really appreciate their homes and peeps.


Taste Cafe and Bistro, Pacific Grove

Saturday night’s dinner was at a local spot called Taste CafĂ© and bistro, in nearby Pacific Grove. I’d been here before, and remember it being very good, but last night’s meal was one of the best I’ve had in years. Absolutely superb food, service, beverages, ambience, interaction with the owners, and for me, it’s going to be a tough one to beat.

I had a Chilean meritage while the others shared a bottle of Bocage Chardonnay. All were superb, complimented the food perfectly, and priced fairly.


The Caesar salads were the most perfectly balanced I can recall. It’s so easy to go too much in the wrong direction with any of the ingredients in a Caesar, and this one was perfect. Traditional romaine lettuce with a light dressing, garnished with shreds of Reggiano Parmesan, and topped with a thin slice of baked brioche. Inventive, balanced, impeccable.


The ladies both had the halibut special, which was perfectly cooked and seasoned, accompanied with mixed vegetables, incredible caramelized onions, and their famous potatoes au gratin. John had the veal medallions, which were equally delicious. I had the roasted half chicken, again perfectly cooked, garnished with roasted garlic and Italian parsley sprigs, also served with caramelized onions, mixed roasted vegetables, and the au gratin potatoes. My benchmark for roasted chicken is the Los Altos Grill (formerly called Bandera’s), and I think tonight’s was better. This is no small accomplishment!


I’ve used the word balanced twice here, and it’s meant as the highest form of compliment. With any of these meals, the diner could have easily been led in an extreme direction with just the slightest more “this or that” in the mix. But everything simply fits at Taste. Nothing overshadows anything else; all the spices are done in proportion to the dish, gravies and sauces are complimentary, not dominant, and it all makes for a rare meal indeed.


I’m not a big dessert eater, but I had to sample the home-made butterscotch pudding, which is served in a creme broulee type ramekin, garnished with fresh whipped cream and a sprig of fresh mint. Once again, something you don’t see on every menu, and it was perfect. If I wasn’t totally full of the meal, I would have been tempted to lick the dish.


Host / owners Bill and Sue Karaki have created an elegant, yet comfortable dining experience. They personally visit every table and are at the ready for anything the diner may need. Between Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel, our friends John and Linda truly have a plethora of excellent restaurants around them, and there’s good reason why they eat at Taste a couple times a month. A wonderful food and dining experience.


Saturday night was capped off with some amazing 16-year-old Lagavulin Scotch. Appreciating fine Scotch whisky is one of several “vices” my childhood friend John has gotten me into over the years. Others include fine cigars, great gins (which is the ONLY way to have a real martini), cameras, and fly fishing. We also have a strange anomaly in common, which is that we tend to make an in-depth study of our interests. I’ve said too many times over the years that I believe I know a lot about a very few things. But I do my research, as does John. Doesn’t hurt to know everything there is to know about your vices (interests), right?


We awoke Sunday morning to a warm, crystal-clear Monterey sky. There was no question but to pack some essentials and head for the beach for a makeshift brunch. John had brought a bottle of Dom Perignon to my brunch last Easter but given the fact that I had about 10 people, we opted to save it for the “pre-Thanksgiving” gathering. I stopped at our local Lunardi’s Market on the way out of town and picked up some huge, gorgeous strawberries, which I thought would be the perfect complement for the Dom P. A stop at a great French bakery in Pacific Grove would add a perfect ham and gruyere quiche to our quarry, and we were off to the beach.


The Central Coast gets its share of fog, Monterey being no exception. But this November morning was gorgeous. Mid 60’s, no wind, clear skies, and it couldn’t be a more perfect setting. We shared the quiche, strawberries, and Dom Perignon, and felt very decadent sitting on the beach watching the surfers. As much as I love our home in Bend, there’s something to be said for November weather like this.

We headed back to their beautiful home for a little more conversation, then headed out for the 102-mile drive home. Along the coast that skirts Monterey Bay, inland past Castroville (artichokes galore), up past our old home of Gilroy (garlic capital), and back up 280 and home.


I was thinking pork chops for dinner, but the local Safeway didn’t have any thick ones that weren’t already pre-stuffed and living in the meat display case. I opted for a pork loin roast, which I stuffed with an apple, shallot, thyme, bread crumb and salt and pepper combo. Note to self: Omit the shallot next time. Not a disaster, but a distraction for sure. Rice pilaf and simple green beans capped off a great Sunday dinner.

I love weekends like this, and they’re quite rare. We spend our lives working too much, and not enjoying the genuine pleasures in life. Good friends, great food, beautiful surroundings, and a reduction in the pressures around us, are something to be cherished. And I do.


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