Friday, March 11, 2011

Strawberry Fields

It might not look like much but soon there will be strawberries.

Driving along the 101 South back to Los Angeles, I'm again struck by the immensity of the agriculture here on the West Coast. Miles and miles of crops - as far as the eye can see. Our ability to maintain a continuous food stream for our nation is staggering.

As we make our way south of Salinas, it's fields of lettuce. On one building I quickly notice the "Andy Boy" brand sign and am suddenly excited. Yes, Andy Boy is one of those large scale industrial agricultural brands, but it's one that I'm familiar with and one that I've used in the past. If it wasn't so late in the day, I might try to stop and ask for a tour.

Continuing on, it's strawberry fields aplenty. Right now they're not much to behold but in a few weeks time, they will be bursting with red fruit ripe for the picking. Hoardes of migrant labor will descend upon these fields to pick and harvest that food which will feed the people. Yes, some of them are guaranteed to be illegales and lest the more narrow-minded of you start complaining about paperless workers, ask yourself if you're truly ready to pay Kona Coffee prices for that head of iceberg lettuce for your thousand island dressing tonight?

Jack In The Quesadilla

They say "Tacos", she says "It's like a Quesadilla."

Carmel Belle

Purity Apple Juice and Fizzy Lizzy Raspberry Lemon.

Ana wanted to see Carmel, so on the way there I fantasized about sitting on an outdoor verdanda, sunlight streaming across my face and eating some kind of hot sandwich (maybe a burger, crabcake or fish thing) with fries and a Coke. I don't know why I thought this way, but it's kind of how I remembered my previous visits to Carmel (back in the early 90s)

While part of my veranda fantasy included frozen pre-packaged Sysco style fries, the last place I want to eat is a Sysco supplied kind of restaurant. Ironic, really. With that in mind, I consulted Yelp to see what people recommended since I'm unfamiliar with Carmel's dining scene.

The top listing on Yelp? Carmel Belle. Tucked away in some artist studio off the main drag and a bit of a pain to find, the Belle comes highly recommended but turned out to be as far from my veranda fantasy as I could have found.

Slow Cooked Berkshire Pork - red onion currant chutney on ciabatta.

Imagine one of those Farm to Table restaurants and compact them into a counter-style place serving light fare and you've got the Carmel Belle. The ingredients are good. The flavors are nice but for some reason I was a bit off put by a place that puts out a large tip jar for counter service - condiments and silverware are off to your right.

Call me old fashioned but when it comes to food, I prefer a little service. You're going to the trouble of using ceramic plates, glasses and silverware but want everyone to serve and bus their own tables? I don't get it and I certainly don't think that warrants a tip - especially if the tables are left with used plates and stuff.

And then there's the bathroom. Pick up the key for the bathroom at the service/silverware counter and walk the three paces to the bathroom. I don't get it. Maybe it's to discourage summer tourists from inundating the bathroom but if the key is just laying out for anyone to pickup and use, why not just leave the bathroom open?

Free Range Rotisserie Chicken Salad - avocado, tomato, Hobb's bacon & blue cheese with mixed greens and lemon vinaigrette.

All that aside, we're here for the food. I have to say that since I was in the mood for Sysco fries, I was a bit disappointed - especially since the Carmel Belle doesn't make fries. I always wonder if places like this don't do fries because of some weak excuse like "too much grease" (that's why you have your hood) or simply because they frown upon menu items like that (maybe it's not healthy, but those bagged chips are).

Overall, the quality of our dishes was good, if a bit done in that Farm2Table sameness that I'm seeing nationwide (which means it's starting to get played out and tired). My real wish is that they would take a heavier hand on their seasoning since most of it was on the bland side but really started to shine after a confident dose of the nice table salt.

Then there's the question of the salad. Yes, the ingredients looked great and with salt, tasted great, but what is with the "let's stack all of the salad components next to each other and cram them on the plate" approach? Things are so crammed together that you still need to toss the ingredients to get the idea of what they're thinking with the dish, only to find your bits of greens, chicken and more falling to the table surface.

Couldn't they toss all the ingredients in a bowl before plating? They certainly did that with the greens and vinaigrette - making me wonder why they didn't just put a side of the vinaigrette and eliminate the toss altogether? Maybe it's to save on the vinaigrette since unruly customers might ask for more and not coat their own lettuce "properly"?

Personally speaking, I would have liked to try the salad with its ingredients properly tossed instead of the mess that we created by trying to do it ourselves on that tiny plate.

But once we got that semblance of toss, added some salt, both the sandwich and salad came alive and was pretty darn enjoyable.

Carmel Belle
Doud Craft Studios
Ocean & San Carlos Streets
Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA