Living Here: The best tastes in town

Many of you have long been asking me to compile a list of the best places to eat in town. Well as luck would have it, I was asked to contribute to the annual “Living Here” issue of the Herald, and I chose to contribute my choices for the best restaurants in town. The winners were revealed last Sunday. You can read an interactive version of the special issue here (jump to page 20), but here’s the raw text too, for easier reading, embellished with some photos because, well, why the hell not?

Stay tuned next week for an extra bite of the best tastes in town with the runners-up and more top tastes–from best sushi to best Mexican–that didn’t make the printed column.

Best Restaurant: Bistro Moulin, Monterey 

The coq au vin at Bistro Moulin is a sophisticated take on this classic rustic French favorite.

Without a doubt, Bistro Moulin is my favorite restaurant in town. Chef Didier Dutertre prepares simple, yet delicious, French fare. The menu includes classics like coq au vin, duck confit and steak frites. All are executed to perfection: the coq au vin has rich hints of wine; the duck confit is cradled in perfectly crisp skin; the steak is tender enough to cut with a fork.

Didier's spinach gnocchi: little pillows from heaven!

Didier’s spinach gnocchi has earned him celebrity status among local foodies. Made with the French preparation using pâte à choux, it’s lighter than Italian potato gnocchi and served in a decadent cheese sauce.

Weekend specials, like the seafood paella, are always delicious.

Each week, I’m plastered to my computer screen waiting for the weekly email announcing Bistro Moulin’s weekend’s specials. My favorite weekend addition? The paella—seriously the best in town. The rice leaves a nice crispy crust on the bottom of the pan; the Spanish Bilbao chorizo is so spicy; the seafood is a spectacular feast on top.

Bistro Moulin: 867 Wave Street, Monterey. 831-333-1200 or www.bistromoulin.com

Best Bargain: Noodle Bar, Seaside and Marina

I’ve previously sung the praises of the Noodle Bar’s cheap fare. Nothing on the menu costs more than $10—it’s the best deal in town!

The dry noodle bowls are super cheap and super tasty!

The noodle bowls are popular with local foodies; the five-spiced chicken is my favorite. The chicken is juicy, with a crispy char outside, and a blend of sweet and spicy that’s a party in your mouth.

The egg rolls just might steal the show from the noodles. The thin, golden-brown wrapper cradles tasty filling, like pork or veggies.

But if you ask me, the egg rolls steal the show. They’re fried, but they aren’t as greasy as you might fear. The outside is thin and crispy, wrapped gently around the meat and vegetable fillings inside. Both the pork and the vegetarian egg rolls are tasty.

And a friend recently reminded me that the egg roll deliciousness doesn’t stop with appetizers—don’t forget about the banana egg rolls for dessert!

Noodle Bar: 1944 Fremont Boulevard, Seaside and 215 Reservation Road, Suite E, Marina. 831-392-0210 (Seaside) or 831-384-6225 (Marina).

Best Small Bites: Mundaka, Carmel

From staples like patatas bravas and béchamel and ham-filled croquetas to more exotic fare like a decadent truffled duck pate and an egg wrapped in ravioli, Chef Brandon Miller delivers small bites with big flavor at Carmel hotspot Mundaka.

The menu is always changing, reflecting what’s available with the seasons. Every time I go, there’s something new on the menu. Brandon is an inventive chef, creating new and unusual—and most importantly tasty!—items for the restaurant.

My only complaint? Mundaka recently nixed their brunch service—looks like my days of duck confit hash or pork belly croque madame for breakfast are no more.

Mundaka: San Carlos Street, between Ocean and 7th Avenue, Carmel. 831-624-7400 or www.mundakacarmel.com

Best Breakfast: Holly’s Lighthouse Cafe, Pacific Grove

I’m not big on breakfast—my ideal breakfast is a cup of coffee and a pastry—but when I get a craving for a proper breakfast with eggs, pancakes and the like, I head over to Holly’s.

From a simple breakfast of scrambled eggs and hash browns to fancier foods like scrambles or chocolate chip pancakes (a guilty pleasure of mine), Holly’s breakfast fare is popular among many locals.

The menu is extensive, and I’ve made my way through just a small fraction of it. A few things I’m still itching to try? The panettone French toast and the cinnamon waffle.

There’s usually a line outside, but check with the host when you arrive—even if there’s a wait for a table, you can sometimes snag a chair at the bar without much of a wait.

Holly’s Lighthouse Cafe: 602 Lighthouse Avenue, Pacific Grove. 831-372-7006 or www.hollyslighthousecafepacificgrove.com

Best Lunch: Carmel Belle, Carmel

While it’s not much on atmosphere, Carmel Belle serves up simple, yet sophisticated, lunchtime fare.

As many delicious items as I find on the menu at Carmel Belle, I keep coming back to the open-faced mushroom melt.

I’m partial to the open-faced mushroom melt, with mushrooms and Gouda, finished with a sprinkling of truffle oil. The mushrooms are soft and tender; the bread crunchy; the Gouda nice and gooey.

I also love the pulled pork sandwich, served on rustic ciabatta with a red onion relish. The pork is juicy and tender, and the onion relish adds a sweet touch that brings out the smoky flavors of the pork.

You can get small plates of cheese, pate and charcuterie too. It’s truly a one-stop shop for foodies looking for a gourmet lunch. And you can take your lunch to-go—it’s perfect food for a summertime beach picnic!

Carmel Belle: Doud Craft Studios, corner of San Carlos and Ocean, Carmel. 831-624-1600 or www.carmelbelle.com

Best Coffee: Happy Girl Kitchen, Pacific Grove

Serving Blue Bottle coffee that’s roasted in Oakland and a staple in San Francisco’s coffee scene, Happy Girl Kitchen pours a cup of coffee that’s strong and bold, but incredibly smooth.

A beautiful latte, courtesy of Lucy.

Two expert baristas—Miriam and Lucy—work the espresso machine, serving up a latte that’s velvety smooth. The foam is artfully presented and so rich and creamy.

And I appreciate that Happy Girl Kitchen makes their vanilla syrup from scratch. None of those chemical syrups here!

Doubling down on my coffee intake: a latte with one of Stephanie Stein's chocolate espresso muffins.

There’s nothing better than a cup of coffee and a pastry from Happy Girl Kitchen’s in-house baker, Stephanie Stein, for breakfast.

Happy Girl Kitchen: 173 Central Avenue, Pacific Grove. 831-373-4475 or www.happygirlkitchen.com

Best Sweet Treats: Parker-Lusseau Pastries, Monterey

With two locations in Monterey, Parker-Lusseau is my go-to stop for fancy French pastries.

The croissants are so flaky and buttery. And I love how much almond they squeeze into their almond croissants—with almond paste inside and slivered almonds outside, it’s a croissant for serious almond-lovers.

Parker-Lusseau bakes up the best almond croissant in town, along with other fancy French pastries.

Other French favorites populate the case—apple galettes, pithivier and canelés are among the usual suspects and both are tasty. The apples are cut paper-thin; the pithivier has flaky crust cradling almond paste; the canelés are rich vanilla flavor.

Parker-Lusseau Pastries: 731 Munras Avenue, Monterey and 539 Hartnell Street, Monterey. 831-643-0300 (Munras) or 831-641-9188 (Hartnell) or www.parker-lusseaupastries.com

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