Allen Pierleoni / apierleoni@sacbee.com

Portobello mushroom fries and charred octopus in sauce are two of the tasty offerings at The Bench, at Pebble Beach.

Counter Culture: Another sampling of Carmel-by-the-Sea

Published: Friday, Jan. 18, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 32TICKET

We Sacramentans are ideally positioned to … well, get outta town. Within easy reach are destinations that are the envy of the world – Lake Tahoe, San Francisco, and the Napa and Sonoma wine countries. Then there's the Monterey Peninsula, always a favorite destination.

We were considering this geography on a recent stop in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a well-manicured seaside village crowded with bistros, boutiques and art galleries.

Dog-friendly, of course.

We camped at the unpretentious Bavarian-themed Hofsas House, a quiet, 38- room inn owned by the same family for 60-plus years; San Carlos Street and Fourth Avenue, (831) 624-2745, www.hofsashouse.com.

The comfy hotel is a short stroll from the main drag, Ocean Avenue. That's where we found ourselves one morning (amid the Audis and Ferraris) in search of an early bite, and walked into the charming, family-owned Cottage, where breakfast is served "all day."

Inside the former office "building" (circa 1938) is a mini-labyrinth of stone floors, faded brick, stained glass, dutch doors, plastered walls, exposed-beam ceilings, a vintage fireplace and an intimate cubbyhole snuggling a potentially romantic table for two.

On offer are omelets, crepes, Benedicts, "Kathy cakes" (small pancakes), huevos rancheros and rarely seen pannetone french toast. The diverse lunch menu includes chicken stew, fettucine, lasagna, chili, chicken quesadilla and filet mignon sandwich. Dinner will resume in the summer, said co-owner Nellie Cardinalli.

We shared fluffy scrambled eggs, light-as-air pancakes, bacon so crisp that it crumbled into savory shards at the touch, cinnamon-raisin toast piled with orange marmalade and blackberry preserves, and one of the most impressive fresh-fruit bowls we've found – chunks of cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple, apple and watermelon, with raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and grapes, all fresh.

The Cottage, on Lincoln Street between Ocean and Seventh avenues; (831) 625-6260, www.cottagerestaurant.com; $2.50-$14.25.

Later, we played tourists and cruised the 17-Mile Drive, an incredibly scenic route that winds through pine forests and along the dramatic coastline, past multimillion-dollar mansions.

We wondered who lives in them. Should we knock on a few doors and ask?

We'd heard that the super-upscale Club XIX restaurant at the Lodge at Pebble Beach had been replaced with the more casual and realistically priced The Bench. It opened Aug. 6 with a new chef, Yousef Ghalaini, a big believer in wood-fired roasting and open-flame cooking.

Inside is a handsome bar, built-in wine cellar and marble-topped tables in an enclosed wood-and-glass, patio-type dining area filled with natural light.

The framed photos from the 1930s are fascinating. The dining room adjoins an outdoor stone patio with roaring firepits.

The incredible view from inside and out is of the 18th hole of the internationally renowned golf course, backdropped by hills, cypress trees, Stillwater Cove and acres of fairway.

Below the outdoor patio is a wood bench (thus the name) and plaque commemorating the return of Pebble Beach to American ownership from Japanese ownership. The ceremony of transfer was in 1999.

Of course, former Carmel Mayor Clint Eastwood was involved, along with Arnold Palmer, and their names are on the plaque.

The menu shows appetizers, flatbread pizza, salads and "mains" such as a soy-glazed pork-belly hero sandwich, petrale sole, curry-scented eggplant and wood-grilled steak.

We split a puffy, blistered-crust margherita pizza topped with luscious mozzarella cheese, shreds of fresh basil and a schmear of tangy San Marzano tomato sauce.

Octopus is a tricky dish, too often showing up as rubbery tentacles that tire the jaw with endless chewing. Not these.

The kitchen first tenderizes the meaty tentacles by cooking them sous-vide (sealed in plastic bags and simmered for hours in water), then chars them over flame. The three tentacles were tender and smoky, in a briny sauce of rancho gordo beans, olives, tomato, onion and sherry vinaigrette.

The star of the show was a dish we'd never seen before – portobello fries. They're french fry-shaped segments of earthy mushrooms soaked in buttermilk, coated in seasoned flour (cumin, cardamom, white pepper) and fried to tender crispness. Enough to make you forget about sweet- potato fries, now so common on menus that the novelty has worn off.

We wanted to sample all six desserts, but settled on a steaming ramekin of spectacular wood-roasted strawberries with crisp "butter-crumble" topping and cheesecake ice cream, drizzled with balsamic glaze.

The Bench, 1700 17 Mile Drive, Pebble Beach; (800) 654-9300, www.pebblebeach.com; $8-$31.

Carmel is a town where the locals and dialed-in visiting foodies pay obsessive attention to restaurant openings. Lokal in Carmel Valley caught all the buzz last summer. Now the tiny, 2-month-old La Balena Cucina Toscana is the latest darling.

Owners Emanuele and Anna Bartolini moved to Carmel from New York City, where he worked in restaurants for 13 years. Part of that was a gig at Del Posto, co-owned by the demanding celebrity chef Mario Batali.

La Balena (the whale) serves dinner only, but lunch is set to show up in a few weeks. The menu is short but intense: sea bass tartare, arugula with blood orange and fennel, braised lambchops, osso buco. All the pastas are made in-house.

We lingered over a bowl of exquisite roasted pumpkin soup with cannellini beans and Parmesan broth, defining what great soup really is; plump beef-lamb meatballs with ricotta salata (slightly salty Sicilian cheese from sheep's milk); steaming, mint-scented tagliatelle with rich lamb ragu and oil-cured olives; and ricotta-based gnocchi with broccolini, kale, Sicilian olives and braised tomatoes. This is the place for special dining.

La Balena, Junipero Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues; (831) 250-6295, www.labalenacarmel.com; $6-$28.

While you're in town, also look at:

Casanova for wild-mushroom risotto, mussels, braised pork cheek, croque monsieur. The place to sit is beneath the heat lamps on the patio. Fifth Avenue at San Carlos Street; (831) 625-0501, www.casanovarestaurant.com
St. Tropez for onion soup, pan-roasted chicken breast, crepes, and penne with spinach, goat cheese and pine nuts. Dolores Street between Ocean and Seventh avenues; (831) 624-8977, www.lesttropez.com.

Nico for pizza, four-cheese plate, spaghetti alla carbonara with pancetta, and Calabrese sausage sandwich. San Carlos Street near Ocean Avenue; (831) 624-6545 or www.nicorestaurant.com.

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