Savoring the summer harvest

Here on California’s central coast, we’re fortunate to have a great bounty of fruits and vegetables year-round, but it’s during the summer that the best come to harvest. Ripe red tomatoes and sweet summer corn, succulent strawberries and juicy stone fruits—the summertime harvest is hands-down my favorite on the Central Coast. And let’s not forget about the bounty from the bay this time of year—grilled salmon is a favorite of mine for summer barbecues.

All around town, restaurants are featuring the best of the summer harvest, like heirloom tomatoes.

All around town, restaurants are featuring the best of the summer harvest, like heirloom tomatoes.

It’s encouraging to see local chefs featuring the season’s bounty on their menus. Several restaurants wisely tweak their menus to feature the best local fruits, vegetables and seafoods during the summer harvest. Chef James Anderson at La Bicyclette (Carmel) is a regular fixture and local farmers markets, his menus at the bohemian bistro reflecting the seasonal bounty. Chef Brad Briske features the best local, seasonal and sustainable seafood on the menu at La Balena (Carmel). The farm-to-fork movement is picking up steam here on the Central Coast and diners get to reap the benefits.

Read on below for a look at some of the best bites I’ve enjoyed this summer . . .

Tomatoes and mozzarella at Mundaka (Carmel)

In these parts, tomatoes are the quintessential food of summer. I’ve enjoyed many great interpretations of the classic caprese combination around town, but there’s one that stands out of the pack—chef Brandon Miller’s “mozzarella” ($12.50) at Mundaka.

Nothing says summer like a plate of ripe, red heirloom tomatoes. The tomatoes and mozzarella at Mundaka takes the top spot on my list for best in town.

Nothing says summer like a plate of ripe, red heirloom tomatoes. The tomatoes and mozzarella at Mundaka takes the top spot on my list for best in town.

The dish started with tender mozzarella, with a meaty pull. The housemade cheese was paired with juicy tomatoes—heirlooms, of course, and sometimes cherry tomatoes too. But chef Miller’s secret weapon was a roasted Catalan “ugly” tomato. Don’t be fooled by the looks—burnt and bruised—these “ugly” tomatoes were superb! It was cooked whole, locking in all its juices. One cut into the wrinkly skin released the sweetest flavor I’ve ever had from a tomato.

A few torn leaves of basil garnished the dish, finished with a drizzle of saffron gastrique. The sweet gastrique reduction was a bit like saffron honey. Be sure to ask for some bread to sop up the last drops of saffron—I unabashedly did the other night, not wanting to waste a drop of the gastrique!

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try you own hand at making chef Miller’s signature handmade mozzarella at home—visit his Facebook page for the recipe.

Mundaka is on San Carlos, between Ocean and Seventh, in Carmel. 831-624-7400. www.mundakacarmel.com.  

Salmon at Lokal (Carmel Valley)

Central California is famous for its bounty of fruits and vegetables, but let’s not forget about the fertile waters of the Monterey Bay. In the summer, I look forward to salmon season, when restaurants feature my favorite fish—rich, savory king salmon.

I tend to gravitate towards simple salmon—preparations that let the quality of the fish speak louder than clever technique. But I was pleasantly surprised by the harmonious blending of ingredient and technique at Lokal (Carmel Valley).

Chef Brendan Jones always finds new, creative and often risky ways to feature the season’s bounty on the menu at Lokal. The salmon at Lokal certainly takes a left turn from the standard grilled fillets on menus around town.

Cooked in duck fat, the salmon at Lokal was simply sublime, served atop a velvety carrot puree.

Cooked in duck fat, the salmon at Lokal was simply sublime, served atop a velvety carrot puree.

Jones served up salmon, cooked confit-style, in duck fat ($25). Yep, you read that right—duck fat. Cooking the fish in duck fat gave it a lovely rich finish. (What isn’t made better with a bit of duck fat?!)

I was pleased when the generous portion of salmon arrived perfectly rare, with the center still a bit red. It’s such a shame when restaurants take a beautiful piece of salmon and cook it into submission. I was worried that could be the case cooking the salmon in duck fat, but I should have realized such reservations were misplaced in Jones’s skilled hands.

The fish was plated above a vibrant orange carrot puree—with rich, buttery flavor—and paired with squash and zucchini. It was a tableau that was a tasty testament to summer’s bounty.

Lokal is at 13762 Center Street in Carmel Valley. 831-659-5886. www.lokalcarmel.com.

Coonstripe shrimp at Cindy’s Waterfront (Monterey)

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has given their food service a serious facelift, remodeling the space and bringing in celebrated Napa chef Cindy Pawlcyn. Pawlcyn’s specialty is local and seasonal cuisine—a perfect match for the bounty of the central California. She’s handed over the reins for day-to-day service to Executive Chef Jeff Rogers and Executive Sous Chef Michael Dei Maggi. Together the dynamic duo have crafted a number of unique daily menu additions that celebrate the season’s bounty, even if they enjoy a short shelf-life on the menu. (That’s the risk with a seasonal focus—ingredients come and go, sometimes just available for a weeklong window.)

The daily catch highlights different seafoods, like salmon paired with an heirloom tomato and pickled watermelon rind salad.

The daily catch highlights different seafoods, like salmon paired with an heirloom tomato and pickled watermelon rind salad.

The kitchen has featured a number of delicious daily fish selections—even if it feels a little guilty eating fish inside an aquarium. The grilled salmon over bacon-braised Romano beans with heirloom tomato and pickled watermelon salad ($27) was sublime. (The pickled watermelon rind was a revelation!) And earlier this week I enjoyed a risotto packed with Dungeness crab, sweet corn and blue cheese ($25).

But my favorite seafood selection has been the coonstripe shrimp, trap-caught in Bodega Bay. Cindy’s Waterfront is one of the few restaurants in California to feature these little crustaceans. (Thomas Keller’s Michelin-starred Napa mainstay, The French Laundry, is another on the shortlist.)

The little shrimp were cooked whole, locking in all their juicy flavor. Eating them required a little bit of work—cracking open the shell, digging out the meat and slurping out the insides—but the payoff was well worth the effort! The flavor was delicate and delicious.

The shrimp spaghetti, with whole coonstripe shrimp, has been one of my favorite dishes at Cindy's Waterfront.

The shrimp spaghetti, with whole coonstripe shrimp, has been one of my favorite dishes at Cindy’s Waterfront.

The shrimp have been featured in a number of dishes, but my favorite has been the spicy shrimp and lobster spaghetti—spaghettini with coonstripe shrimp, cherry tomatoes and a tomato-lobster stock ($25). The sweet tomato sauce was delicate and almost buttery from the addition of lobster stock. The slurping out the head of the succulent shrimp added a nice briny touch.

Coonstripe shrimp are enjoying a break from the menu for the time being, but here’s hoping they return to glory soon.

Cindy’s Waterfront is at 886 Cannery Row, inside the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in Monterey. 831-648-4870. www.cindyswaterfront.com. Aquarium admission/membership required.

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