Best Bites: January 13, 2013

Well this is a little awkward—for the first time, there’s a veritable tie for this week’s Best Bite. Two dishes really wowed me this week, and try as I might, I simply cannot pick just one to take home the title of the best bite I’ve eaten all week.

Zuppa rustica at La Balena Cucina Toscana (Carmel)

After getting several text messages from friends teasing the delicious meals they’d had at La Balena, I cleared my calendar this week to make a return visit and see how things were rolling at the restaurant while chef Salvatore Panzuto was in Italy scoping out dishes and recipes for La Balena’s upcoming lunch service. It turns out the restaurant is in very capable hands with chef Brad Briske. He’s brought some delicious dishes to the menu, as well as his connections for sourcing the best local produce via Serendity Farms and meats from Soquel’s Fogline Farm.

Dinner here on Wednesday night included many mouthwatering options, but the one that stood out the most was the zuppa rustica, a cilantro broth topped with cannellini beans, kale, torn bread and a farm egg ($10).

The farm egg soup was superb, with an unexpected combination of flavors.

The farm egg soup was superb, with an unexpected combination of flavors.

I generally avoid cilantro—it tastes a little soapy to me, usually—but I was pleasantly surprised how light the cilantro flavor came through with this dish. It was well balanced, with the cilantro flavor subtly bringing together the earthiness of the beans and kale.

Put an egg on it! The egg yolk added a rich, velvety creaminess to the dish.

Put an egg on it! The egg yolk added a rich, velvety creaminess to the dish.

But of course my favorite ingredient was the poached farm egg on top. I’m a big believer of putting an egg on, well, anything. I’ve had soups with eggs on them before—like that killer nabeyaki udon at Ocean Sushi Deli—but this one might take the cake. With a stab of my spoon, I released the yolk, a pop of yellow agains the green cilantro canvas. The rich yolk gave the soup a smooth, almost creamy texture.

The menu at La Balena changes almost daily, depending on what ingredients are available, so be sure to run—not walk—over to try this soup before it’s gone!

La Balena Cucina Toscana is on Junipero Avenue, between Fifth and Sixth, in Carmel. 831-250-6295. labalenacarmel.com.

Duck popcorn at Montrio Bistro (Monterey)

On a tip from the Grub Hunter, Mike Hale, I headed over to Montrio Bistro this week to check out their duck popcorn. When I arrived for happy hour on Thursday night, the place was packed! After hovering over tables in the bar, we finally snagged a seat just minutes before the close of happy hour.

Without skipping a beat, I put in our order for duck popcorn.

First truffle popcorn, then bacon popcorn. It was only a matter of time before duck popcorn hit our local food scene too.

First truffle popcorn, then bacon popcorn. It was only a matter of time before duck popcorn hit our local food scene too.

Gourmet popcorn is a trend I’m thoroughly behind. Truffle popcorn is popping up—OK, bad pun—around town, most notably as a complimentary snack during happy, er, social, hour at Restaurant 1833. I’ve had miso popcorn and eaty popcorns, with bacon and the like, have caught on too. It was only a matter of time before duck got the gourmet snack treatment too.

The popcorn was studded with a generous portion of shredded duck confit.

The popcorn was studded with a generous portion of shredded duck confit.

Montrio’s duck popcorn—popcorn studded with bites of duck confit and dusted with Chinese Szechuan spices ($6.50, $4.50 during happy hour)—is an indulgent treat. The shredded duck confit lends extra richness to the dish, coating the kernels in duck fat. The bites of meat also add crispy texture, making for a more interesting nibble.

If Montrio were smart, they’d box up the duck popcorn for their Dinner and a Movie deal with the Osio Cinemas. I’m not sure I want to go back to plain old popcorn ever again!

Montrio Bistro is at 414 Calle Principal in Monterey. 831-648-8880. www.montrio.com.

Honorable Mention:

Polpo grigliato at La Balena Cucina Toscana (Carmel)

There’s been a bit of a trend toward grilled octopus around town lately. From Restaurant 1833 to Cibo to The Bench, it seems like everyone is adding this cephalopod to their menu. But I’ve been largely disappointed by the grilled octopus dishes around town—most have been too charred, too rubbery, too slimy. I ordered the grilled octopus at La Balena with a bit of trepidation, honestly, expecting to be underwhelmed once more. I should have known better given the restaurant’s stellar track record with cooking cephalopods. (Remember that killer calamari I had? I still salivate thinking about it!)

This was finally the grilled octopus that opened my eyes why octopus is so hot right now. (Zoolander reference? Oh yes!)

The grilled octopus at La Balena has restored my faith in this dish after underwhelming tastings elsewhere around town.

The grilled octopus at La Balena has restored my faith in this dish after underwhelming tastings elsewhere around town.

The polpo grigliato is served with warm potatoes, anchovy aioli and sweet chile oil ($16). The meat was tender, not gummy, not chewy, not gelatinous. It had the perfect touch of char on the outside.

I loved the rich anchovy aioli, giving some creaminess to counter the smokiness of the octopus. Served over potatoes, it was like an elegant potato salad. And the chile oil was a nice accent to give a subtle kick.

La Balena continues to impress me, coming in not once but twice on this week’s Best Bites. With meals as good as my dinner here this week, La Balena may just nudge out other heavy hitters for a spot in my Top 5 very soon!

La Balena Cucina Toscana is on Junipero Avenue, between Fifth and Sixth, in Carmel. 831-250-6295. labalenacarmel.com.

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