Monday, October 22, 2012

Adventuring Back to 1833

Monterey Bay's Restaurant Week is in full swing and I was thrilled to get an assignment to Restaurant 1833. My article went live on Edible Monterey Bay this morning (22 October 2012). Click here to read it on their blog.

Adventuring Back to 1833
Story and Photos by Camilla M. Mann

Monterey Bay’s Restaurant Week – taking place from October 18th to 25th –  affords diners the opportunity to try some of the area’s best eats for a reasonable price. Participating restaurants, all around the Monterey Bay, offer prix fixe menus ranging from $25 to $45 for three courses that are illustrative of their culinary breadth and depth. Last night I ventured to Restaurant 1833 with a two friends and not only had an amazing dinner, but was treated to a full helping of history right along with it.

Let me set the scene. Restaurant 1833 is housed in the historic Stokes Adobe, one of the city’s oldest residences. In 1833, James Stokes, a sailor from Britain, jumped ship with several cases of medicine and fraudulently presented himself as a doctor, opening a pharmacy in the single room, tile-roofed adobe. Despite his shady beginnings, he became the personal physician to Governor José Figueroa who ended up dying under Stokes’ care. And though it seems that Governor Figueroa was not the only casualty of Stokes’ deception, the business flourished and Stokes was able to purchase the home a few years later. He even parlayed his popularity into a term as the city’s mayor. When he married a widow, whose husband had died under his care, he inherited her four children; they had two more children together and he expanded the adobe, adding on seven more rooms and a second story to the building. Years later, purportedly in response to a horrific scandal, Stokes committed suicide and his ghost is said to haunt the building.

The adobe passed through several hands before Harriett “Hattie” Gragg and her husband Mortimer purchased the property in 1890. Hattie threw lavish dinner parties and her home became a centerpiece to Monterey’s social life until she died in 1948. Her ghost is also said to wander the adobe.

Steeped in romance, nostalgia, and darkness, Restaurant 1833 pays homage to the adobe’s colorful history and the characters who shaped the home. We climbed pine board stairs, stippled by decades of use and lined with Eastlake-style spindles, to dine in Hattie’s old bedroom. She seems to watch the room and survey the guests from a sepia-colored portrait, as three ornate period chandeliers and numerous sconces bathe the room in a soft light. Along one wall, an antique armoire showcases sentimental artifacts from her residence.

Now that you can picture the setting, let me delve into the delicious meal. We started off with a shot of gazpacho and chatted with the Ted Glennon, the Beverage Director and newly anointed “Top Sommelier of 2012” by Food & Wine magazine. Ted amiably guided us to a wine selection within our budget while speaking passionately about the emerging Central Coast wine region. Ted has curated an extensive list that features wines from local vintners as well as bottles from Europe and Australia. And he has more than fifty offerings of Champagne and sparkling wine split between two cellars at the restaurant. We selected a syrah from the Crozes Hermitage appellation in the Côtes du Rhône in eastern France. Our wine was full-bodied, combining cherry and peppercorns with a creamy finish. And, as Ted promised, it paired well with all of the dishes and even evolved through the course of the meal as it aerated and moved around in our goblets.

Since there were three offerings per course for this Restaurant Week prix fixe menu – and there were three of us – we simply ordered one of each and shared every dish.

The trio of offerings in the first course included a Boston bibb salad, a vegetable soup in which floated a dollop with pistou, a Provençal pesto made without pinenuts, and a hen egg cooked into a toasted brioche nest topped with wilted arugula, crisped prosciutto, and a drizzle of truffle butter.

Silence fell on the table as we tasted and marveled at the flavors and textures of the dishes. I think I would have been content to just eat more of those dishes. But then our waiter Andreas brought out our second course: pan roasted mahi-mahi in a creamy pool with leeks, potatoes, and mussels; butternut squash topped with pecorino and candied walnuts; and – the true surprise of the evening – parmesan crusted chicken over salsify spears in a lemon-butter with cracked pepper and basil chiffonade. I write ‘surprise’ because none of us would have typically ordered it; when we eat out, we gravitate towards the more exotic, or at least something that we wouldn’t cook on our own. However the chicken had the perfect texture – moist but firm – and was deliciously complimented by the tender salsify made tangy with the citrus sauce. I had never had salsify. So I asked about it.
Salsify is a root vegetable that Andreas described as a brownish carrot. It takes on whatever flavors surround it. In this case, the salsify lent a creamy texture to the citrus in the sauce without being heavy. I am definitely going to have to track some down and experiment with it on my own.
Like all the courses, it was difficult for us to choose our favorite dessert. They were all unique and delightful. The presentation was impeccable and the combinations of flavors – chocolate + hazelnut, strawberry + lavender – were stunning. I think that my favorite was the Booker’s Butter Bourbon Pudding topped with an airy pillow of cream and a generous sprinkling of sea salt and raw cacao nibs.

And because we had read about it, we had to try the tableside absinthe preparation. Absinthe ignited the creativity of an entire generation of artists. Everyone from Vincent Van Gogh to Ernest Hemingway credited their vivid imaginations to the Green Fairy. While Restaurant 1833 offers the traditional method of serving absinthe – dripping cold water into the drink through a sugar cube – Andreas explained the adventurous Russian method. He heated the absinthe in a snifter glass over a glass of orange juice; he poured the flaming liqueur into the orange juice, trapping the vapor inside the snifter with a napkin; then, through a straw, we inhaled the vapors before finally drinking the absinthe and orange juice combination.

Our bill was delivered inside a red linen-covered volume of Victor Hugo’s dramas – including Les Burgraves and Torquemada. The French poet, novelist, and dramatist lived and wrote during the 1800s. It was a nice touch.

In fact, the entire dining experience was punctuated with nice touches. Though I was initially drawn in by the great prix fixe deal for Monterey Bay’s Restaurant Week, I’ll be returning because Restaurant 1833 has it all: local history, a festive atmosphere, fabulous food, a stellar wine list, and something truly original – an absinthe adventure. I hope you take advantage of a Restaurant Week deal, or two, to explore some of the great places around the Monterey Bay.

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