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Friday, December 30, 2011

December Food Excursion: Carmel Valley & Carmel By-the-Sea

We wanted to end our year of food adventures on a high note so I instantly thought of Carmel. I have long envied this tiny coastal enclave for all of its charm and uniqueness. Even though it is a wildly popular tourist destination they have managed to keep their identity and keep out the cookie cutter world of homogenized chain stores. There are basically two major areas of Carmel and they are both different and alike in many ways. Since breakfast is a favorite meal of our we wanted to try The Wagon Wheel which meant we had to first head for the hills and visit Carmel Valley.

Carmel Valley Road runs up the valley away from the ocean for about 12 miles and is dotted with small businesses, golf courses, wine tasting and resorts along the way. The air is definitely coastal but the terrain is rustic and rural. Just a couple of miles up we found The Wagon Wheel serving up classic coffee shop fare with an old west feel. You feel like using the spurs to kick dust off of your boots before entering this place. On this beautiful winter day they even had diners enjoying the morning on their front porch tables.

The Wagon Wheel at 7156 Carmel Valley Road

 The Wagon Wheel transcends you to another time and place in the Old West

We had read about the oatmeal pancakes and they peaked our curiosity. Turns out they are a perfect mating of the two dishes. On the outside they look and taste just like a good pancake but inside they are not fluffy but rather hearty as a bowl of hot oatmeal. It is a strange combination but topped with ripe bananas, a powdered sugar dusting and hot maple syrup all the big flavors are on board. They offer just a single cake portion and considering how filling it was this choice makes sense for average size appetites.

Oatmeal Pancake with bananas (single serving) – $5.50

What really caught our eye on the menu was what they call "The Cookout." This dish is just three poached eggs served floating in baked beans. As simple as this sounds it was really good. First of all the eggs were perfectly poached which is not something I have come to expect at many restaurants. What made the beans so good is that they were not sweet but rather had a little spicy kick to them. How good was this dish? Good enough to make me want to show three photos of it.

The Cookout – $9.50

The Cookout closer up and nicely garnished with parsley

The Cookout – A surprisingly great flavor combination

Instead of heading into town we opted to go further up the valley because several locals suggested we try Corkscrew Café. Just like everything else in Carmel you can miss it it if you are driving too fast or not paying close attention. All signage is understated in keeping with the rustic feel of this little town.

Corkscrew Café is at 55 West Carmel Valley Road in Carmel Valley

But don't let the super casual vibe of this restaurant fool you because the moment you step inside you know that really great food is upon you. Their fresh baked artisan breads and pizza oven say hello and welcome your senses.

Corkscrew Café feels like old Mission Monterey with a local seasonal menu

The artisan bread display had us curious to order their bread sampler. It included Whole Wheat, Rosemary Kalamata Olive Ciabatta, Sourdough and Baguette. While most restaurants serve bread for no charge with your meal it seldom stacks up like this platter. Great tasting butter and local olive oil turned it almost into a meal. We are both big bread lovers and almost could not stop eating the Kalamata Olive Ciabatta.

Corkscrew Café Bread Sampler – $5.75

We did manage to save room for the highly-recommended-by-our-server Onion Rings. Stacie commented that they were the best rings she has ever eaten. Although my experience with O rings is a little more limited this version was as light as air. They were super thin shaved probably with a mandolin but crispy and chewy at the same time with just the right saltiness. The only thing that kept us from devouring all of them was the steady distraction of the bread sampler. Great job Corkscrew Café!

Onion Rings – $7.00 for a nice high stack that two can easily share

Corkscrew Café is understated yet style abounds everywhere with great attention to detail. Even the water bottle brought to your table is a beautiful long neck vessel offering hydration for the senses.

Water just tastes better from a classic wine bottle

Corkscrews are not just their namesake as a huge collection of vintage ones are on display with some dating back to the 17th century.

Corkscrew Café Corkscrew Collection

We could have hung out all day in Carmel Valley but it was time to head back into town. However, one more stop in the valley beckoned as we passed by the Earthbound Organic Farm. I am a long time fan of Earthbound Organic products but I was unaware that they had a roadside retail market of their own called The Farm Stand.

Earthbound Farm Stand at 7250 Carmel Valley Road
We weren't quite sure what to expect but were pleasantly surprised by the expansive picnic grounds and gardens outside as well as the beautifully merchandised market inside.

The Farm Stand – All organic shopping along Carmel Valley Road

Inside the shelves are well stocked with gourmet goods

Super fresh and all organic produce is the standard here

We found a perfect dip to accompany our leftover bread from Corkscrew Café. It is a combination of figs and olives made by Jimtown in Healdsberg, California. It made for an instant picnic on one of their many benches. The dip was a bit more sweet than savory but the olives definitely added another layer of flavor and paired nicely with all of our breads.

As we wandered around the Earthbound Farm grounds it became apparent that this family friendly place offers more than just a place to buy organic foods.

Clip it yourself herb garden

Kids' garden with a rock labyrnith

Coincidentally, our next stop is a sister restaurant to Corkscrew Café called La Bicyclette. At 7th and Dolores this charming little French style café is another really hard-to-resist spot for just a bite or full meal.

When I saw Nante Carrot Risotto on the special menu I knew there was no question of what to order. Served with truffle marinated artichokes it was a no-brainer for me. The risotto was perfectly creamy and the fresh vegetable salad on top just popped. The artichokes were a buried treasure beneath the many flavor layers.

Nante Carrot Risotto with truffle marinated artichokes – $14.00

It was Stacie's turn to order dessert and she did not hesitate when she saw Wood Fired Quince and Apple Tart on the large wall menu.

Les Desserts wall menu at La Bicyclette Restaurant Downtown Carmel

Again I need three photos to do justice to this delicious dessert. 

Wood Fired Quince and Apple Tart with vanilla ice cream – $8.00

Vanilla bean ice cream nesting in raw brown sugar

The inner goodness of the wood fired quince and apples tart

Not that we needed any more sugar at this point but Stacie said we can't visit Carmel without a stop at the legendary Carmel Bakery and Coffee Company. After she twisted my arm we made the short walk up to Ocean and Lincoln where the line of customers extended out the front door. I thought to myself that they must have baking down if they have been in doing it since 1906.

I could have almost been satisfied by just window shopping here. The display of baked sweets in their front window just makes your head spin. Here's just a sampling of what greets your eyes before you even set foot inside the front door. We opted for a Fruit Stick and Chocolate Pretzel ($2.95 each) to go.

Fruit Sticks in raspberry and apricot

Chocolate Pretzels

Cinnamon Pastries

Almond Claws
Suddenly we looked at the clock and it was dinner time but we weren't exactly hungry after this day of delightful indulging. We had to get back home but were hardly ready to leave the charm of Carmel. This place is just as much about wandering and browsing as it is about eating. You can't help but relax and unwind here. I love the absence of billboards, graffiti and fast food restaurants. The many thatched roofs and curving gables make you feel like you've landed in an old European village.

The typically quaint style of Carmel buildings where cozy is the mode

On a whimsical side note when I was young my parents' favorite weekend getaway was Carmel. I was never curious about it because they told us that children were not allowed in Carmel and I sincerely believed them. Now I understand why this little heavenly spot was not one of our family vacation destinations. This town is strictly adult entertainment but the classy kind not the XXX rated version like you'll find on Broadway in San Francisco. To enjoy Stacie's story of our adventures in Carmel just click here.

My parting shot is of a sign in front of a home and garden shop. It is not only the name of this business but to me describes the entire town and spirit of Carmel, California whether you're in the Valley or by-the Sea.


  1. Just when I thought I'd had enough of California for a while you once again have me sitting here drooling!!! Carl, you do have a way of showing your heart when it comes to amazing food! You never let me down. And Carmel!!! OMG!!!! Love it love it love it!!!!! Thanks!

  2. Thanks David. I am still disappointed that we could not do some California during your visit here but it should be around for awhile and it gives us something to look forward to for next time. Happy New Year my friend!

  3. That was a great summer day at the end of December! I still can't get over it was 70º and sunny! And the food and company were just as fantastic as the weather :) Thanks for suggesting Carmel as our destination. It was the perfect end to our year.

  4. Great post! La Bicyclette is so amazing... We reviewed it at: //www.stillservedwarm.com/bicyclette-carmel-pizza/
    Stop by!