Adventure awaits!

In case you missed it, here is my review of the new L’Avventura in Cucina dinner at il Vecchio that appeared in last Thursday’s Go! section of the Monterey Herald. I’ll be reposting my reviews and stories from my weekly column for the Herald here on my blog along with extra photos that didn’t appear in print.

With generous pasta portions and an accessible wine menu, il Vecchio has quickly cultivated a cult following since its opening nearly a year ago. Whenever I go past, the restaurant is abuzz, often with a full house and a wait for a table during peak dining hours. (Reservations are a must here.)

il Vecchio has quite a following for their pastas. Now, the menu’s expanded with a chef’s tasting menu on Mondays.

This summer, il Vecchio debuted a fun new dinner concept to reward more adventurous foodies. On Monday nights, the restaurant hosts L’Avventura in Cucina, a chef’s tasting menu for the masses.

This isn’t a tasting with tiny portions and a big price tag. Instead, the kitchen prepares generous portions for just $20 per person ($12 for children under 11). The menu includes at least four courses — but more likely five or six. Dinner may include antipasti, soup, salad, pasta, meat, fish and vegetables, with dessert available at an added (small) cost.

Italy’s cucina provinciale — provincial cooking that’s not often found on restaurant menus — takes the place of favorites like gnocchi or pasta carbonara from il Vecchio’s dinner menu.

The kitchen decides what you’ll be eating, so you don’t find out what’s for dinner until the plate lands in front of you. (We even tried to squeeze a few hints from our server at the start of the meal, but her lips were sealed!)

Those with dietary restrictions — vegetarians, anyone with food allergies or just picky eaters — should skip the Monday night dinner and return for the more accommodating nightly dinner service.

I rallied a couple of adventurous foodie friends for dinner on Monday night.

The polenta topped with a flavorful sausage ragu was a nice start to dinner.

Dinner started with a rich ragu of sausage served over a baked square of polenta. It was a simple starter for the dinner ahead.

The soup may not have been pretty, but it tasted great.

Next came a bowl of soup — a puree of spinach, onion and chicken broth. It’s hard to make pureed spinach look sexy, but what this soup lacked in looks, it made up for in taste.

The green bean and beet salad was so colorful!

The soup was followed by a colorful salad of beets, green beans, carrots and potatoes.

The addition of red peppers made a pasta that was perfectly sweet and spicy.

The pasta course was my favorite course of the evening — a plate of farfalle (bowtie) pasta with sweet red peppers and onions. The flavors were great — subtly sweet and spicy. But more importantly, the pasta was perfectly al dente. Pasta is deceptively difficult to prepare and the kitchen nailed it tonight.

When it came time for the entrée, we were offered a choice of fish or beef.

I chose fish — a duo of poached rock cod and sockeye salmon, served at room temperature with a simple spinach salad and topped with garlic aioli.

Sadly, the fish was a little disappointing.

Sadly, the fish was overcooked, an all-too-common risk when poaching fish. The garlic aioli was a little watery, but added nice flavor that was a good accompaniment to the rock cod especially.

The beef was a tad tough, but had nice flavor.

I preferred the bites of beef I stole from my friends. Thin strips of beef were wrapped around sausage, mushrooms and onions, then poached in red wine and served with roasted potatoes.

The accompanying roasted potatoes were quite tasty — golden crispy outside and tender inside.

The limoncello bread pudding was great, with light lemon flavor.

The evening’s dessert was limoncello bread pudding ($3 extra). I loved the mild flavor of the limoncello — much preferred to the preparation with amaretto that’s on the daily dessert menu.

Monday’s dinner certainly made for great fun — with no written menu, each dish became something special, and we found ourselves savoring each bite, all the while curious and excited about what was coming next.

It was a refreshing dinner experience, but one still true to il Vecchio’s mission of providing a fun atmosphere for friends and family to gather together to feast on Italian comfort food.

Il Vecchio is at 110 Central Ave. in Pacific Grove. 324-4282. ilvecchiorestaurant.com.

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