Before I get into the real body of this entry, I must begin by announcing that Friand has asked me to marry him! I am just over the moon happy! I am the luckiest woman on the planet to find myself loved by such an incredible man. I don’t know what I did to deserve such happiness, but I am thankful every day to have him in my life.
On to the blog now!!
A well deserved and much needed break from real life found us again indulging ourselves at The Monterey Plaza Hotel. We had very much enjoyed our first stay at the hotel in March of 2010. After corresponding with the general manager regarding the blog, it was clear that the next time we visited I should give the staff a head’s up. And so, I did! A week before our visit, I emailed the hotel to let them know we were coming, and of course to remind them of my special dietary “needs”. To my surprise, I received a response from the Director of Food & Beverage. Considering this email was sent just days before Christmas, and our visit would be smack dab in the middle of the holiday week, I took this as a promising start to our trip! He also had the foresight to CC the chefs, and several others who would be involved in our meal.
We arrived a little later than we expected on Monday December 27, just an hour before our dinner reservation. I had been assured in an email the day before that we would be well cared for during our dinners at The Duck Club Grill, so although we were a little hurried ourselves, we relaxed as soon as we took our seat by the window overlooking the stormy bay.
Glass of Bridlewood Pinot Noir in my hand, Mojito in Friand’s, we devoured the fresh warm bread and spoke to our server about my correspondence with F&B director. She immediately recognized us from our visit last spring (great memory!) and said she would speak to Chef Gonzalo Sanchez about my meal.
Apparently, she didn’t have to really consult with him, because just a few minutes later he came personally to our table to place a beautiful green soup in front of me. He told me that he had prepared a large batch of the soup in anticipation of our visit, and that it was something that he had made in the past – my dish was only missing a dab of cream for garnish. The soup was a puree of asparagus, potato, spinach, artichoke and lemon. To me it tasted like a little drop of heaven. Black pepper, so often used to flavor food that we have almost become numb to its presence, was a star flavor standing strong with one of its favorite flavor partners: lemon. Friand and I wiped the soup bowl clean with the bread – we left that bowl almost “health department clean”!
Chef Gonzalo returned with my entree. In fact, this meal was something I hadn’t seen yet from any chef either in LA or Vegas: Vegetable Wellington! He described how he used olive oil to coat the filo dough instead of butter, the sliced roasted vegetables inside (zucchini, eggplant, roasted red pepper, asparagus, portabello mushrooms, basil, spinach) served with a parsley/garlic sauce topped with microgreens and a very pleasant black lentil salad (cucucmber, carrot, cranberry, barley) on the side.
I think it is pointless for me to say that I ate every last bite…
Day 2 brought us to our second haunt in the hotel: “Schooner’s Bistro on the Bay” for lunch. And, maybe not so surprising at this point, another server who remembered us from our visit 9 months ago: Javier!
I started off my lunch with a delicious decaf soy latte, which includes one of my favorite touches of Schooner’s: rock candy on a stick! With the wind & rain outside, nothing says comfort (at least to me!) better than a warm cup of sweet coffee.
Lunch itself was a little more simple for me: Chef’s Flatbread Pizza (a la vegan)! Javier actually knew that I was going to ask for no cheese and he said the chef would take care of me. I have no idea who was in the kitchen for our lunch (Schooner’s and Duck share a kitchen) but we spotted Chef Gonzalo walking around the dining rooms in a suit so clearly he wasn’t doing the the actual cooking. The flatbread pizza was surprisingly well done. There isn’t much to screw up with pizza, but when there is no cheese or sauce to disguise any shortcomings, the dough has to be perfect. And it was! Delightfully thin, but not too crispy that I couldn’t get a good fold on it. I enjoyed, what I now think of as a wonderful “comfort lunch” at Schooner’s.
Dinner that evening was had again at The Duck Club amidst several power outages in the storm. The longest stretch we went without power was about 15 minutes – we waited in our room until the power came back on to go down to dinner, but opted to take the stairs lest we get caught in the elevator during another outage! Funny enough… when we exited the stairwell, we found ourselves in the kitchen!! Thankfully, there was a server back there who noticed we looked lost and helped us find the door out to the lobby.
Unfortunately, Chef Gonzalo was still in his suit, not his chef whites, mostly focusing his attention at Schooner’s. We weren’t sure what was going on in there, perhaps some VIP?, but I admit I was a little anxious that he wasn’t in the kitchen! I’d become accustomed not necessarily to his personal attention, but to the security of knowing I was going to get a no-questions asked vegan meal. I found myself in the very low-grade panic that usually accompanies a “first visit” to a new restaurant. And our server, who we had never seen before, wasn’t instilling much confidence in us with his inattentiveness, long periods of absence, and obligatory stuttering when the word “vegan” was mentioned.
I tried to pave the way by asking for another bowl of the asparagus soup. At the very least, I knew I could fill up on the soup and bread and wine. To his credit, he did at least say he would speak to the chef about preparing a dish that would meet my needs. He arrived back with a bowl of the asparagus soup and another board of fresh bread. Friand, though occupied with his own appetizer, kept eying my soup with very hungry eyes, and how could I resist those baby browns of his? I was happy to feed him as many spoonfuls of my soup as he wanted!
My entree arrived and my heart sank… What is the one dish that all us vegans dread? Yup: “Pile Of Vegetables.” The best thing about this dish, was the tomato sauce that the veggies were sitting on. Not because it was the best sauce I’ve tasted (I’m an Italian woman, believe me, if I want sauce I make my own…) but because I had something to dip my bread in.
Before I go on…there’s something that needs to be made clear to chefs, servers, managers, hostesses, friends, family, colleagues, other human beings, is that being vegan doesn’t mean we have no taste! Removing meat from a dish doesn’t mean that we want boring food! Vegetables, legumes, and (don’t forget!) starches provide an infinite palate of colors, flavors, textures, and possibilities that it is inexcusable to serve a veg*n a pile of vegetables. BORING!! Who would be excited to eat that? Would You? Nope. And neither am I.
Here’s my rule: if I can recreate it at home, then it is not something that I should be served at a restaurant. Unlike the Vegetable Wellington, which would take a concentrated effort to recreate, “Pile of Vegetables” takes no thought, creativity or skill to make. If it wasn’t already obvious, I was deeply disappointed in this meal, as was Friand, and we questioned whether or not we would return the next evening.
The next day, Day 3, we returned to Schooner’s for lunch, and were very happy to find Javier was our server again! He offered us the same drinks we had the day before, remembering that mine was a decaf soy latte and that Friand preferred Blue Sapphire Martinis. We were charmed & excited for the meal to come.
I was dying for a veggie burger ever since I spied it on the menu (of course with fries, don’t even ask me if I want a salad!!) and when it arrived I dove in head first. The burger, not sure if it is made on site, was a light crispy combination of rice, possibly barely, and mushrooms, lightly fried to a golden brown, topped with grilled onions, tomato and lettuce. There is probably no need for a place like Schooner’s to keep Daiya cheese on hand, but I could imagine a delicate sprinkling of melted Daiya Italian flavored cheese to compliment the onions. We were pleased with both meals at Schooner’s and I will most certainly be ordering another garden burger at our next visit!
Evening rolled around, and Friand and I decided that we didn’t feel like walking in the rain to another restaurant somewhere on Cannery Row to take our chances with an unknown chef & kitchen. So we returned, our last evening, to Duck Club Grill. On this evening, there is no Chef Gonzalo to be found, so my fear of a repeat of the evening before began to creep up on me. But our server, Stephen, arrived and was probably more knowledgeable than most on veganism because as soon as I said I was vegan, he shared with us that his brother has been vegan for 8 years. He reassured me that one thing I would not be served was a “plate of veggies” (was he psychic & knew of my meal the night before?) which he said was one of his brothers biggest frustrations when eating out.
Stephen returned to our table with a luscious corn chowder for me: fresh corn, paprika, nutmeg, and soy milk. Ooooh… One thing I will say about all the kitchen staff at The Duck Club Grill is that they are artists when it comes to their soups. One thing I’ve always said about soup is that soup is made from love… and these chefs/cooks love their soups. I’m almost certain that I made little yum-yum noises with every spoonful, and the bread of course was used to sop up the last remaining drops.
Now for dinner. What would they make for me tonight…? I cannot say that the dish was as creative as the Vegetable Wellington, but it was way more creative than most off-menu meals I’ve experienced in the past few years: four thick slices of grilled potato (yes, grilled!) layered with grilled asparagus, sitting in a puree of black lentils (bay leaf on my plate gave away the wonderful herb undertone I was tasting), with grilled “winter” vegetables. Of course, this is a fancy way of saying zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, onions, red pepper, mushrooms & carrots. But I didn’t care. It was a wonderful blend of finely diced veggies with the lentil puree, and the grilled potato gave a sweet & starchy crunch to the whole meal. I loved it!
It was an uneven performance by The Duck Club Grill because of the obvious absence of Chef Gonzalo on the 2nd night, but the kitchen pulled it together for the 3rd meal and made me a very happy vegan! It needs to be pointed out that Chef Gonzalo is an artist in the kitchen. He was given a “limitation” in his own restaurant: feed a vegan; and managed to create art. He created meals for me that stood head & shoulders above even the meals I’ve had at dedicated vegan restaurants… RFD I’m talking to you… Friand made the observation that the vegan meals put out by Chef Gonzalo far overshadow the actual menu. This makes me feel exceptionally lucky.
It does not go unnoticed by me, or Friand, that Gonzalo’s presence at our table draws looks from the other diners, or that people eyeball the food that is sitting in front of me. I feel a bit like a VIP myself, but I’m just a regular person looking for an exciting dining experience.
We will, of course, return to Schooner’s and Duck Club on our next visit, not just because they are the restaurants in the hotel in which we are staying, but because it truly is good food. And it does not go unappreciated the lengths to which the entire staff goes to ensure we have a good experience while we’re there.
Check out both places next time you are in Monterey Bay! And I highly recommend visiting the bay during stormy weather…
Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa
400 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940
For reservations, please call (831) 646-1706