Marinus at Bernardus Lodge (Carmel Valley, CA) – California Cuisine

Cal Stamenov’s Marinus at Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley (CA) has always come highly recommend by food enthusiasts, including his fellow chefs. There is no reasonable excuse for its omission from this blog; the restaurant is a desolate highway and 20 miles of curvy mountain roads away. My birthday dinner was due, a certain favorite restaurant was closed for a few days, so what better excuse to try Marinus? Take a day trip down to Carmel, stop in Watsonville for Mexican food, cruise the 17 mile drive, and finish the day with a great meal.

At its best, the restaurant is undoubtedly a delicious expression of the local lands. In the San Francisco Chefs profile, the article state that Cal’s kitchen has an open-door policy for local foragers who want to bring their ingredients to the restaurant. Cal also maintains a personal garden/farm with many types of forgotten vegetables and fruit. You can’t get more local than that. The cooking is meticulous and careful – addition by subtraction – reeling back everything until the only necessary ingredients are left. It is a highly articulated expression of that now common cliche – “California cuisine.”

A (blind) chef’s tasting menu was available but the a la carte options sounded too appetizing. Given my enjoyment of this meal, the next one will be courtesy of that tasting menu.

Pea Shoots & Avocado Vichyssoise
This was a cool introduction to the meal. The vichyssoise had an intense pea taste, balanced by the avocado’s creaminess. Of course, it did not hurt that pea shoots have become my snack of choice this spring, displacing fava greens. This dish was the epitome of Northern California spring.

Nantucket Bay Scallops ceviche, meyer lemon, cilantro, avocado
Despite a creeping distaste for scallops (that I can’t explain), this dish was a stunning follow-up to the vichyssoise. The scallops had their requisite sweetness and the scallop / olive oil had a pleasant viscous texture in the mouth. However, it was the “less is more” approach to the meyer lemon and cilantro component that elevated this dish; the tastes were there, just within reach, enough to highlight the scallops, but restrained in a remarkable way. It reached the heights of minimalism that only Manresa and L’Arpege do for me.

Maine Lobster tartare, white miso glazed tangelos, manila mango, mustard green
Given the strength of balance in the scallops, I thought this dish would be equally impressive. However the white miso and mango flavors were somewhat cloying, overpowering the sweet lobster. This dish was still good but it didn’t reach the heights of the scallop above.

English Pea Risotto, morel mushrooms, chervil butter
I had reservations about ordering risotto (a roll of the dice in any but the very best restaurants) but the lure of peas and morels was too great to overcome. My worries intensified when the dish arrived, a small film had developed on the top – here we go, another gloppy risotto. How wrong could I have been? This was another true taste of spring. The risotto had the right consistency and the chevril (and hints of mint), again, broke through and gave the dish a perfect brightness.

Red Abalone slow cooked, white asparagus, sauce ravigote
Nice, tender, and meaty abalone with a great crispy outside; the sauce ravigote adding the slightest hints of acidity. The asparagus were not a revelation, nor the eggs; but they were fine accompaniments to the abalone.

Dungeness Crab “Cannelloni”, satsuma mandarin, local hass avocado, ginger emulsion
The chef obviously has a love for seafood and citrus; I can only wonder how great a meal must be during prime citrus season (one month earlier.) Crafting one’s own menu, it is also easy to order one too many of these dishes – and this was it. The avocado portion of the cannelloni felt like it had been resting in the refrigerator all afternoon (even the Fat Duck is prone to this practice) and its texture tempered my enthusiasm for the dish. The mandarin and ginger emulsion continued the ‘hardly there but just enough’ theme; this would have been a strong dish if not for the avocado.

Foie Gras seared, caramelized bosc pear, almond, verjus infusion, thyme
Considering the size of the previous courses (small), this foie gras dish seemed rather large in context. It may have been a bit too much; a heavy bridge into the heavier courses. Nonetheless, the pear and thyme proved to be excellent accompaniments. I rarely eat foie gras with sweet foils, choosing to savor the creaminess alone, but this remarkably sweet pear gave the dish its identity.

Bacon and Egg slow cooked duck egg, black trumpet, duck prosciutto
A nice hearty medley of ingredients – a dish that could have ended the meal. The egg was quite rich and fresh; its egg yolk a bright orange. The crisped bacon and prosciutto provided a great salty crunch with each bite.

Sonoma Duck, fava, morel mushroom, wild onion, parsley root puree
This was a competent dish, cooked perfectly rare to medium rare, but it was probably too much by this time of the meal – no fault of the kitchen since I composed the menu. The morels were muddier tasting than those found in the risotto. I ordered this thinking the meal needed to end on an obligatory meat note but the egg/bacon dish above would have been a better conclusion.

Palette Cleanser with Pop Rocks
The flavor of the sorbet is long lost but the memory of those pop rocks are still bouncing in my head. These pop rocks had a major punch, popping for up to a minute or two! Pop rocks seem to be the newest trend (where did I first see them?) in desserts but these were certainly some of the more potent.

Oak Tree
This was a strange conceptual dessert that tasted good. The ice cream flavor was supposedly “oak” but I’m not sure what that means – I forgot to ask – and though I’ve forgotten the taste, it did not overly remind me of oak trees. The strawberry sorbet was vibrant and sharp and the mini donuts crisp and gooey on the inside. Everything tasted great on their own terms, but I did not understand the conceptual grouping.

Springtime, Carmel Valley, California, April 2008 – this meal. It showcased the burgeoning of spring and the winding down of citrus. The ingredients were allowed to shine though, gently coaxed for maximum flavor. The next time a Julot-les-pinceaux asks me for a restaurant recommendation “uniquely California”, I might have the perfect answer 1.

The Bay Area Michelin guide did not make it as far south as Monterey and Carmel; but Marinus did score very high in the recently released Opinionated About Dining guide, ranking behind only Manresa and The French Laundry in Northern California. If every Marinus meal hits the highlights of this one, that is an absolutely correct assessment 2

- chuck

1 – Obviously, as you read the review, not everything is local. I’m not an expert on Northern California seafood seasons but, given the exemplary Monterey Bay catches, I’m sure Marinus uses local seafood whenever possible.

2 – I would also put Sawa and Quince slightly above it, but it certainly ranks as a Top 5 Northern California restaurant. If you are in Carmel, Pebble Beach, Monterey, or Big Sur; it’s a must-do restaurant.

  • Dave Somerville

    Chuck, it would be nice to know what wines accompany your meals…

  • ChuckEats

    Dave, I’m not a wine guy (on purpose, I already spend enough $$$ on food) but I do love German Rieslings (Spatlese in particular), Burgundy, and Rioja.

    For this meal, i had a 99 Mugnier Chambolle-Musigny Les Fuees. I had this same wine at Ledoyen (Paris) last year and it’s a nice ethereal wine.

    Considering the outrageous prices of French wines in American restaurants, I usually refrain from Burgundy (which can be a minefield) and just go w/ a Riesling (which is pretty consistent.)

  • Liz Haskell

    Chuck, you inspired me me to finally post my meal at Marinus in 2007. Thanks for the write-up.—2007.html

  • ChuckEats

    thanks Lizzie – your original review was what got me to this restaurant.

  • Michael

    The meal sounds great. I love real Nantucket Bay scallops, but they cannot be harvested after March 31.

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  • Duane

    Hey Chuck, long time no talk. As I told you we tried this place when we met you last August. My wife and I were not impressed at all, especially after the meal you set us up with at Quince the night before. At this point I can barely remember what I ate yesterday but I know were were very dissapointed.

  • ulterior epicure

    Thanks for the photos and sharing your review.

    Perhaps the “oak” ice cream was supposed to be infused with the flavors of oak(ed) wine? If so, that sounds fantastic to me; though it doesn’t seem like it was strong enough of an infusion for you to pick up.

  • Hallini

    Marinus is our favorite place to dine and we love Wickets too.  We love the Bernardus Lodge.