Last Sunday night, the kitchen of La Balena Cucina Toscana hosted a special dinner with neighborhood fish co-op, Local Catch Monterey Bay. Together, they gave the bay’s bounty of succulent seafood the spotlight, serving diners a five-course meal with wine pairings courtesy of Cima Collina.
There was no printed menu—chef Brad Briske wasn’t quite sure what seafood Local Catch Monterey Bay would deliver until the day of the event, making for a menu a la minute. (If Briske’s name sounds familiar, he was previously executive chef at Soquel’s Main Street Garden Cafe and has made a few cameos here on the Monterey Peninsula, most notably for Carmel Belle’s pork-themed “Big Night at Belle” pop-up dinner with Fogline Farm.)
The ingredients were fresh, fresh, fresh—we walked in as forager Peter Eichorn was delivering his bounty of chanterelle mushrooms destined for the evening’s main course. La Balena was the perfect host for this dinner highlighting the best of the bay—from land and sea—considering the commitment owners Emanuele and Anna Bartolini have to sustainable dining. (The restaurant’s nightly dinner menu uses only the freshest organic produce and sustainably and ethically harvested meats and seafood.)
Sunday’s dinner started with a seabass sausage, served with a persimmon mostarda. The sausage had a surprising depth of flavor considering seabass is such a light, lean fish. The persimmons added a lightly tart touch, an especially nice combination with the sweet Sauvignon Blanc. It was a playful nod to the classic combination of a hot dog with mustard.
The second course was perhaps the most unusual—a deconstructed “soup” made with Dungeness crab, salted cod puree, crostini and radishes. I appreciated the collection of diverse flavors—buttery crab, salty pureed rockcod, sweet radish, peppery Mizuna greens. The lack of appropriate hardware for cracking open the crab was a little frustrating, but it made me relish each bite of succulent shellfish.
Between the “soup” and the main course came a palate cleanser—a housemade sorbetto trio, courtesy of La Balena’s executive chef, Salvatore Panzuto. The trio included blood orange, lime and Meyer lemon, each with lovely citrus flavor. It was Panzuto’s parting gift for diners before he embarked on a 20-day research trip to Italy, scoping out recipes and ingredients for the restaurant’s forthcoming lunch service.
The main course featured sablefish. It’s a very oily fish—hence its nickname of “buttercod” in many seafood markets—with a very light texture. This was the only course that disappointed. The fish was marinated in prosecco and truffle oil, an Italian twist on a Japanese preparation heavy on umami with sake and miso. From Briske’s description, I expected a powerful punch of flavor, but it fell short. I was also a little disappointed by all the bones in my portion. Because the fish arrived practically right off the dock, the kitchen hadn’t had time to properly prepare the fillets, meaning some of us encountered little bits of bone. But the crispy potatoes were a nice touch, giving the dish some much needed texture.
We finished dinner with a creamy Armagnac ice cream. The flavor of the French brandy was very subtle, giving just a light accent to the rich cream. The accompanying bite of biscotti—served still hot from the oven—was nice.
As the dinner drew to a close, everyone left with a renewed appreciation of the local harvest here on the Central Coast. While seafood may have been the star, the fresh produce from Watsonville’s Mariquita Farm and wine from the Valley’s vineyard deserves praise too. And of course major kudos to Savor the Local—the food events brainchild of Colleen Logan—for putting together a fun event that reminded diners of the great catch of seafood and produce right here along the beautiful bay.
La Balena Cocina Toscana is on Junipero Avenue, between Fifth and Sixth, in Carmel. 831-250-6295. labalenacarmel.com.