January is traditionally a slow time for local restaurants—the quiet before the storm of the dynamic duo of the AT&T ProAM and Valentine’s Day in February. To lure locals out, many restaurants have been planning special events all month. Pairing dinners have proven especially popular—in the last two weeks, I’ve counted three beer-pairing dinners, two wine-pairing dinners, a mezcal dinner and a sake dinner. I’ve been able to attend some of these events, enjoying some delicious dinners and drinks. Most recently, I joined a friend for dinner at Jacks Restaurant at the Portola Hotel on Wednesday night for a wine-pairing dinner with Hess Collection wines.
Jacks hosted winemaker Stephanie Pope to pour Hess wines tableside for each course. Pope’s down-to-earth approach to pouring was disarming—a welcome change from the more formal (and stuffy) wine dinners that are so commonplace. The Hess wines were paired with dishes cherrypicked from executive chef Jason Giles’ revamped dinner menu, unveiled at Jacks Restaurant just a couple weeks ago. Under the auspices of general manager Sonny Petersson, Jacks Restaurant is trying to break the mold of the tired conference center hotel restaurant, with a menu that’s high-end but still accessible enough for hotel guests and conference attendees.
Dinner started with a duo of oysters—a nod to the new raw bar. The duo featured a barbecue oyster—served in a smoky sauce with a hint of chipotle spice—alongside a classic Rockefeller preparation. I’m not really the biggest fan of oysters—try as I might, I’ve never really developed an affection for them. The Rockefeller oyster was my favorite—I was happy the sauce wasn’t overly rich, as is sometimes a risk with this preparation.
The oysters were paired with Hess Select Sauvignon Blanc, North Coast, 2011. The Sauvignon Blanc is only fermented for a few months, giving it sweeter notes of guava. The lighter wine brought out some of the briny flavors of the oysters. I wasn’t such a fan of the wine, but I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed the oysters.
The next course was Casunziei—roasted red beet and poppy seed ravioli, served with zucchini in a garlic cream sauce.
Beets aren’t exactly common in ravioli—I’ve had beet ravioli just once before, but that one bite was all it took to sell me on the combination and I’ve been looking for an encore ever since. The sweet beets made for a flavorful filling, contrasted with a rich, creamy sauce. This was hands-down my favorite course of the dinner.
The ravioli came from Bigoli, the pasta company started by chef Michele Cremonese after he left Basil Carmel. I’m happy to see this unique pasta (and purveyor) taking prominence on the daily dinner menu at Jacks. It’s a dish I’d happily return to Jacks to order again. (And of course Bigoli’s pastas are available for cooking yourself at home, thanks to their bustling pasta business.)
The accompanying wine—2010 Hess Select Chardonnay from Monterey—was a bit light for my tastes, honestly, but I appreciated how the light wine helped cut some of the richness of the cream sauce.
Our third course for the evening was a very close second for the race of my favorite for the night: quail stuffed with housemade fennel and apple sausage. This little bird packed a lot of flavor. The meat was tender and full of earthy flavor. The fennel sausage stuffing was a tad salty, but just enough to complement the sweet glaze of apple. The risotto underneath was savory, with great flavor even if the rice was a little too al dente.
By now, our wines had switched over from whites to reds, with a delicious 2010 Central Coast Pinot Noir. It was a perfect match for the quail, with light fruit flavors that complemented the caramelized quail.
Our final savory course was roasted Harris Ranch New York strip loin, paired with a potato latke and a succotash of wild mushrooms and corn.
My steak was cooked perfectly medium-rare, as requested. The cabernet demi-glace gave it such depth of flavor.
The succotash was earthy, mushrooms piqued with sweet corn. I liked the combination of textures too—tender mushrooms and a little crunch of corn.
The potato latke was a little disappointing—only because mine was lukewarm and soggy. I think if the dish had arrived with a properly prepared crispy latke, the dish would have been killer.
The wine, however, was a slam-dunk. The 2009 19 Block Cuvée was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec, Merlot with a dash of Petit Verdot. It was bold, but smooth, light on the tannins. It was the perfect partner for the savory steak.
We closed out the evening with butterscotch crème brûlée for dessert. This was the only course that truly underwhelmed. The custard was too light; the bruleed sugar too thick; the flavor just a tad too sweet.
But I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed the dessert wine—a 2006 late-harvest Chardonnay. It’s only available at the vineyard, a special treat for the evening. The Napa fog helps the grapes naturally rot, bringing out the sweetest notes.
Wednesday’s dinner was my first taste of the revamped menu at Jacks Restaurant. I enjoyed some very delicious bites—I’m still salivating over that stuffed quail and that beet ravioli was sublime—and my curiosity is piqued and I’m eager to return to try more. The revamped menu is bold step forward to break that stereotype that hotels have to serve boring food for the out-of-town crowd. Hopefully more locals will soon realize that while the hotel may be a hub for tourists and conference-goers, the food here offers some tasty options for us locals too.
Jacks Restaurant is at 2 Portola Plaza, in the Portola Plaza Hotel, in Monterey. 831-649-2698. www.portolahotel.com/dining/jacks