Last night, La Balena Cucina Tuscana opened its doors, just in time for the holiday rush. I dropped in for a peek after dinner elsewhere in downtown Carmel.
It’s a charming spot, in the space that Carmel Food Company left vacant earlier this year. The interior has a new coat of paint—Carmel Food Company’s signature circus-top ceiling is no more—and a new banquette. The tables have shuffled too, now accommodating a chef’s table looking into the kitchen.
The menu highlights rustic Tuscan cuisine—salads, soups, pasta, risotto and a couple meat entrees.
Chef Salvatore Panzuto—formerly of Carmel’s favorite bakery, Pastries and Petals—heads the kitchen at La Balena. He always brought his signature Italian flair to their lunch specials. While I’m sad to see him leave Pastries and Petals, I’m excited by the possibilities in store with Panzuto wearing the chef’s whites at La Balena.
Panzuto envisions a menu that changes daily to reflect what’s freshest from the market. Selections will be organic whenever possible, reflecting the season’s bounty. Expect a few items—like salumi and pasta—to remain the same, but otherwise, it’s really chef’s choice what might appear on the menu. On opening night, the evening’s fish was local Monterey Bay blackcod with saffron risotto and a prosecco sauce.
I didn’t have room in my stomach to sample any of the entrees, but chef Panzuto did prepare me a sampler of bruschetta to nibble on while sipping on some prosecco.
I loved the bite of bruschetta topped with speck and olive-truffle tapenade. The salty speck brought out the rich earthiness of the olives and black truffles. The crostino topped with sautéed kale and cannellini beans was lovely. And I finished with a piece of celery, topped with buttery crescenza cheese and a drizzle of sweet honey.
At the front of house, Emanuele Bartolini—formerly of Cantinetta Luca—and his wife Anna offer a great selection of wines, including many affordable wines by the bottle.
I’m excited to see La Balena grow in the weeks and months ahead. They’ll be offering dinner and soon lunch too, with panini and focaccia pizzas.
With budget-friendly prices and gourmet cuisine, La Balena is a welcome addition to the Carmel food scene.
La Balena Cocina Toscana is on Junipero Avenue, between Fifth and Sixth, in Carmel. 831-250-6295. labalenacarmel.com.