11966 El Camino Real, Carmel Valley
Bay Area-based chef Bradley Ogden is still the official guiding spirit at Arterra, but ever since executive chef Carl Schroeder left to open his own Market about 18 months ago, the top toque working actively in the kitchen has been Brian Pekarcik, who inherited the job after several years under Schroeder here, and even earlier at Bertrand at Mr. A's. He's less a graduate of the Bradley Ogden "school" of cuisine than one of the "sons of Gary Danko," whom many consider San Francisco's best chef. (I ate a final feast at Gary Danko's restaurant the night before I moved to San Diego. It was exquisite.)
Schroeder's food at Arterra was excellent, cleaving to the Ogden mode of great ingredients in tasty, unchallenging, all-American combinations -- but it was somewhat less exciting than what it's become, now that he's free from having to please corporate diners whose minds are more on their deals than on their dinners. In contrast, Pekarcik's cooking at Arterra absorbs all the attention you can spare. Every dish, starting with the "amuse," is complex and creative, an adventure for the mouth. It's artful, perfectionistic food to savor, not gobble as you talk business. But there is a downside to this rampant fruitfulness: It can be a tad exhausting.
We began with an "amuse," a soup spoon filled with Chino heirloom tomato soup, one shrimp, gently pungent opal basil microgreens, and additional tiny unnamed garnishes. You're supposed to swallow it all at a gulp, chewing the shrimp en route. I'd have preferred to attack it bite by bite with chopsticks, savoring each flavor in turn before upending the spoon. It was so delicious, it nearly brought tears to my eyes.
The bread basket at Arterra, like those at any Ogden restaurant, is worth attention. The stars are tiny corn muffins, abetted by delicate miniature biscuits. In the past (starting way back when Ogden was cooking at Campton Place in SF), you couldn't get refills on the divine corn muffins at Ogden's restaurants, just the regular breads. After I moaned to Schroeder about this, the policy at Arterra changed. Now, ask and ye shall receive.
Of the exceptional dishes that followed, my favorite, not accidentally, was seemingly the simplest -- a thick soup of curried white lentils and celeriac. The puréed lentils served as a thickener, while the haunting flavor of celery root stole the stage, abetted by a lacing of hot pepper oil and a secret, subtle waft of curry spices. On the side was a mini-salad of crabmeat, cucumber, and mint in lime vinaigrette, cool relief from spice and earthiness -- although scarcely necessary. After my friends had sipped their fill of the soup, I scraped the bowl in a state of greedy ecstasy. A five-star dish, winning on both artfulness and sheer flavor.
Maine Lobster, "hot and cold," was not as finely focused, offering a ramekin of warm lobster, orzo, and baby fava beans next to a salad of thin-sliced poached lobster "carpaccio," disks of beets, and greenery. Interesting, fun, but not totally orgasmic. I regret missing the Satsuma tangerine version of the double dish in the summer of '06. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and chefs gotta change their recipes or die (of boredom), but I have a feeling I'd have liked last year's version better.
A tiger prawn "BLT" offered two garnishes for large, tender shrimps set at opposite sides of the plate. In one corner, a couple of prawns sported red robes of fresh tomato confit. In the other, the prawns mingled with sweet corn relish and applewood-smoked bacon. Refereeing the bout from the center: a mound of newborn arugula and a little patch of "avocado terrine" (chopped avocado and veggie friends, disciplined into a minuscule parade-ground square). Charming -- especially the avocado terrine. (It reminded me of a dish I badly miss, a lobster and avocado terrine at San Francisco's sublime La Folie.)
A Chino Farms fig salad was, in comparison, a relaxed composition. The salad, spotted with fresh black figs, consisted mainly of arugula in a fine truffle vinaigrette, with a few slices of silky Parma prosciutto draped across the greenery like Venus lounging on her daybed. Along the edge of the plate were several lumpialike crisp rolls of thin pastry filled with caramelized onions and enough Brie to bind them. I'm not sure the rolls and the salad really had much to say to each other, but both were precious -- in both senses of the word, gemlike, but also a bit "arty" as a combination.
By now, I was starting to notice that the chef here is so smart and so inventive, he has a tendency toward overkill -- too much wonderful stuff on every plate, wearying the palate. (I had a similar experience with Tony De Salvio at Jack's, where I enjoyed the doggie bags over several nights better than eating at the restaurant.) I wanted to put my hands on Pekarcik's cheeks like a fond old aunt and say, "Don't work so hard, dahling. You've made your point, now relax a little -- so we can relax too."
The entrée I liked best was Hawaiian hamachi (yellowtail), arriving pearly and opalescent, some of it straight up, some in the lightest tempura crust. It came with a garnish of thin, delicate soba noodles in a spicy sauce, mingling with spinach and baby favas, tomato bits, pistachios, and purple string beans, plus a daub of spicy coral-colored sambal aioli. Textures ranged from meltingly soft to vegetatively crunchy. I'm not sure that the combination works in absolute harmony, but it offers a bustling, anarchic pleasure, like Kowloon's Temple Street Night Market or a street scene in a Charles Dickens novel.
I wasn't thrilled with grilled day-boat scallops. The huge scallops were a little coarse textured and not quite vibrant, perhaps the result of sitting on the tarmac too long on the flight from Boston. Many top local chefs have switched to Mano de León scallops, farmed in Ensenada, which arrive here much fresher. They have less snob appeal, more mouth appeal. (Pekarcik sometimes uses them, too.) In any event, we were tickled to find each scallop crowned with a frizz of horseradish foam. Alongside came haute-Mex garnishes: a puffed roulade of poblano peppers, prawns, and cream cheese, and a pepper-and-avocado salad. The "puff" of peppers and cheese proved spicy, salty, and thoroughly amusing, a culinary joke on the theme of chile rellenos gone upscale.