Living in the Bay Area affords you the chance to leapfrog across various touchstones in the region, many of which exist just a 90-minute drive away from downtown San Francisco. I, myself, have grown privy to partake in micro-adventures that span across the Golden Gate and Bay bridges. (Sausalito will always exist as a bastion for houseboats and calmness backdropped by the SF Bay; Mare Island has become synonymous with hyperlocal walks into Mother Nature’s reclamation of a now-defunct naval base; Guerneville… because queerness.)
But a longer trip south on the 101 will see you pass sea-swept Santa Cruz, garlic-infused Gilroy, and, eventually, Monterey — where a recent summer trip to dine at the City’s only chef-guided tasting menu, served inside the historic (and breathtaking) Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa.
“We’ll get there eventually, don’t worry,” my plus-one for the event consoled me from the passenger seat. True to form: We left San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood with roughly 45 minutes of wiggle room before dinner was set to be served. The Prius’s drink holders puddled with condensation dripped from ice-cold Diet Coke as my brow tensed. Sweat — not from the day’s mild heat, but rather the building reserves of cortisol — slicked my mustache. Whatever composure I had before entering the car dissolved into an amorphous mass that flew out the window along 101.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” I say on repeat, accepting the radicalness of the situation at hand; there’s nothing I could do, nor could I bend Father Time’s arm to retreat the clock an hour. Or two. Maybe three.
But what I did know for a fact is that whenever the parking brake would go up, we’d be along the Monterey Bay coastline, awash with coastal breezes and pools of serotonin. And, as my far more composed companion said, we were “in for a phenomenal meal and a spectacular view.”
It was a prophetic bit of hope, one my sanity clung to like dripped honey onto wool sweaters.
Sitting down around the long table, which corned the back of the eatery boarded by two adjacent windows taller than healthy Christmas trees, a plate of white asparagus found itself in my line of sight. Complemented with shoja santa, sea beans, and a rich remoulade, it was the first of eight dishes from the new Chef’s tasting menu at Coastal Kitchen — the sprawling, newly redesigned, and revamped eatery inside the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa — that debuted this summer.
Food journalism serves as a lens to observe both culture and human nature through. The paradox is that my career — a job seated inside a pantheon of respected culinary writers whose palates outweigh my in not only sheer experience, but savvy as well— affords me certain experiences that would otherwise be unfit for my wheelhouse of content creation. Meals consumed under the veil of my editorial review are exercises in intentional adaptation. And, by relationship, a means of anthropological observation.
What would later prove to be a three-hour long ode to hyperlocal flavors, jovial conversations, and instances of waves crashing onto the towering glass in front of me was such a flexing.
The elevated culinary landscape executed by the team at Coastal Kitchen was breathtaking in its approachable splendor. Heirloom beet — colored in deep purples and reds, packed with ripe pectin — were cut with ease. The most succulent scallops I ever had were front-and-center for what was the fourth dish, which elevated locally-sourced snap peas, and the perfect horseradish complement. (Not overtly pungent, but had just enough pucker to hit your olfactory system with a regenerative kick.)
A miso-infused filet of black cod reminded me of how penetrable white fish is to broths and sauces and marinades. 48-hour braised beef short rib, which was enhanced by way of a bed of forbidden rice and black trumpet mushroom bouillon, proved that the best things in life are, indeed, worth waiting for. After our last glass of paired wine was served by on-site sommelier Conrad Reddick — a man whose wine knowledge rivals that of other sommeliers in larger metros; at one point, I was convinced Reddick could fill a coffee table book with the explanations and trade insights he shared — dessert came in the form of raspberry, lychee, rose, ad champagne sherbet. The flecks of crushed pink peppercorn offered visual and textural contrast.
What executive chef Michael Rotondo, who Monterey residents have referred to as the “best chef on the peninsula at this moment” since taking the helm at Coastal Kitchen, and his team have achieved is nothing short of laudable. Nestling such an experience by coastal getaway offers a rare chance to enjoy an hours-long dinner, all while the pulse of the pacific ocean beats along a four-star hotel’s floor-ceiling viewing glass.
It’s a calming occasion. Satiating. Captivating. Serotonin-soaked in its composition. And one I’d be remiss not to experience again in the future… perhaps when another bot of hyperlocal escapism bites the nape of my neck.
Although, I’ll make sure to depart downtown San Francisco quite a bit earlier next time.
// Coastal Kitchen is located inside the historic Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa at 400 Cannery Row in Monterey, California; the “ever-evolving” tasting cannot be ordered ala carte and is only served in the restaurant during opening hours, Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.; for more information on Coastal Kitchen’s tasting menu, visit coastalkitchenmonterey.com
Feature Image: It’s giving fungi — in the best way possible. (Photo: Courtesy of Coastal Kitchen)