Cocinar con amor

What does it mean to “cook with love”? The expression has become almost trite, as if talent is less an integral ingredient than passion. As if someone with enthusiasm can will a dish into greatness.

But when talent and passion merge — when a chef or cook knows the techniques (and even invents a few) while absolutely loving the process and the ingredients — magic happens.

Julio Ramirez and Marie Perucca-Ramirez

Julio Ramirez and Marie Perucca-Ramirez.

Julio Ramirez speaks of food and his eyes dance (call it a salsa). He smiles as he speaks, and spits out words one tick faster than his brain sometimes allows, malapropisms be damned. He loves to talk (for hours if you’ll let him) about food and the fascinating way it nurtures our soul. In Ramirez’s world, he embraces the words, cocinar con amor.

His passion, talent and business acumen led to the founding, along with his wife Marie Perucca-Ramirez, of two or our most heralded restaurants, The Fishwife Seafood Restaurants and Turtle Bay Taquerias, businesses they’ve long ago sold.

Certified as an Executive Chef by the American Culinary Federation, Ramirez was inducted into the prestigious American Academy of Chefs in 2000. In 2001 he was awarded the ACF President’s Medallion and in 2005 he was awarded the Antonin Carême Medal by the Pacific Coast Chef’s Association for the excellence of his work and his humanitarian efforts in the community. Continue reading


100 best bites before you die

Breakfast pizza at Big Sur Bakery

Breakfast pizza at Big Sur Bakery

True food lovers live with the nagging feeling that there is so much deliciousness in the world and so little time to taste it all. And now with the apocalyptic Mayan calendar on our minds, it seems there could be less time than we thought.

To provide inspiration for your own local food bucket list, I have joined master Yelper and Herald restaurant reviewer Raul Nava to put together a list of “The Top 100 Bites Before You Die.”

Our idea was to remain local, avoid duplication and try to cross all borders of ethnicity and cost. Now that we’ve narrowed it down a bit, get out there and eat, eat, eat. Throw caution (and much of your cash) to the wind and chew your way through the list. If the Mayans are right, you only have 11 months left!

Here are our lists, in no particular order:

Grub Hunter’s Top 50

  • The breakfast pizza at Big Sur Bakery in Big Sur
  • Pork ribs with mole at Cachagua General Store in Cachagua
  • Duck breast with squash chilaquiles, mole rojo and duck confit tamale, at Rio Grill in Carmel
  • Birria de chivo (goat) with housemade tortillas at Rosa’s La Villa Restaurante in Seaside
  • Moules frites at Bistro Moulin in Monterey
  • Pan-seared duck foie gras and apples with Calvados demi glace, at Andre’s Bouchee in Carmel
  • The BC Benedict at Brophy’s Tavern in Carmel
  • Cubano torta at La Tortuga Torteria in Seaside
  • Spicy tofu soup at Nak Won Korean BBQ in Marina
  • Seared ahi wontons with wasabi-ginger cream sauce at Hula’s in Monterey
  • House-smoked pork loin tonnato with grilled kale, 10-minute Glaum egg and tuna aioli at The C Restaurant in Monterey
  • Pumpkin ravioli with prosciutto and sage brode, toasted breadcrumbs and saba at Cantinetta Luca in Carmel
  • Soft shell crab tostada at Christopher’s in Carmel
  • Beef carpaccio with lemon olive oil and Parmesan at Will’s Fargo in Carmel Valley
  • Pulled pork pizza at Monterey Cookhouse
  • Foie gras and smoked duck terrine at Ventana Restaurant in Big Sur

    Pig plate at Montrio Bistro

    Pig plate at Montrio Bistro.

  • The pig plate at Montrio Bistro in Monterey
  • Abalone with grilled persimmon, parsnip and Burgundy truffle at Pacific’s Edge in Carmel
  • Braised rabbit soup at Wickets Bistro in Carmel Valley
  • Pho ga (chicken and rice noodle soup) at Noodle Bar in Seaside
  • Squid and eggs at Lou Lou’s in Monterey
  • Baked gorgonzola on curried greens and golden chutney at Passionfish in Pacific Grove
  • Dungeness crab eggs Benedict (and a bloody Mary) at Sandbar and Grill in Monterey
  • Crispy hen egg at Restaurant 1833 in Monterey

    Rusa with 40-minute egg at Mundaka.

  • Rusa (braised tuna, potatoes, peas, carrots,
40-minute egg) at Mundaka, Carmel
  • Marty’s Special (calamari and eggplant Parmagiana) at Abalonetti in Monterey
  • Sautéed frog legs in garlic-lemon butter at L’Escargot in Carmel
  • Couscous lamb shank Algerois semolina, lamb and vegetable stew, North African spices and harrisa at Fandango in Pacific Grove
  • Steak frites (flatiron steak with green peppercorn brandy sauce, and fries) at Fifi’s in Pacific Grove
  • Atlantic City sub on a crusy, sour Italian roll at Wild Thyme Deli in Marina

    Line-caught seabass, housemade potato gnocchi, fennel-tomato fondue and herb salad at Lodge Restaurant.

  • Line-caught seabass, housemade potato gnocchi, fennel-tomato fondue and herb salad at Lodge Restaurant, Carmel Valley Ranch
  • Whole Monterey Bay sardines with Sicilian salsa at The Whaling Station in Monterey
  • Calamari puffs at Sardine Factory in Monterey
  • Ambrosia burger at Nepenthe in Big Sur
  • Chicken fried steak at Holly’s Lighthouse Café in Pacific Grove
  • Carnitas burrito and a can of Tecate at Garcia’s Taqueria in Seaside
  • Wood-fired pizza with meyer lemon, prosciutto and arugula at Corkscrew Café in Carmel Valley
  • Kurt’s four-onion tart with grilled fennel and aged balsamic at Grasing’s in Carmel
  • Hobo stew at Little Napoli in Carmel
  • Prime Delmonico (bone-in, center-cut ribeye), cooked medium-rare, at The Tap Room in Pebble Beach
  • Pulpo ala marinera (octopus simmered in spicy ranchero sauce) at Mariscos Puerto Nuevo in Seaside.
  • Green eggs and ham at Carmel Belle in Carmel
  • Chicken curry at Crown and Anchor in Monterey
  • Crab-huitlacoche enchiladas with citrus-cilantro cream sauce at The Haute Enchilada in Moss Landing
  • Mediterranean steamers at Wild Plum Café in Monterey
  • Braised short ribs lasagna with spinach and goat cheese at TusCA Ristorante at Hyatt Regency in Monterey
  • Alaskan halibut with potato rösti, savoy spinach, pernod-poached oysters and Sevruga caviar at Sierra Mar in Big Sur
  • Palak paneer (spinach and farmers cheese) with garlic naan at Ambrosia India Bistro in Monterey
  • Pulpo confit with cherry tomatoes, garlic and potatoes at Esteban in Monterey
  • Grilled achiote prawns drizzled with herb oil over asparagus and butternut squash risotto at Tarpy’s in Monterey

Spinach gnocchi at Bistro Moulin.

Raul’s Top 50

  • Spinach gnocchi at Bistro Moulin in Monterey
  • Croquetas at Mundaka in Carmel
  • Pork tamales with guajillo salsa at Rosa’s La Villa Restaurante in Seaside
  • Burrata cheese and crostini at Cantinetta Luca in Carmel

    Burrata cheese at Cantinetta Luca.

  • Creamy polenta with truffled mushrooms, goat cheese, roasted tomato and a poached egg at Carmel Belle in Carmel
  • Prosciutto, butternut squash and sage pizza at Big Sur Bakery in Big Sur
  • Wood-fired eggs with kale-potato hash and housemade Nduja sausage at La Bicyclette in Carmel
  • Whole herb-roasted chicken at Le St. Tropez in Carmel
  • Rabbit five-ways at Cachagua General Store in Carmel Valley
  • BBQ pork banh mi at Banh Mi Bar in Marina
  • Oaxacan hot chocolate at Cafe Lumiere in Monterey
  • Spinach croissant at Parker-Lusseau in Monterey
  • Wood-fired eggs at La Bicyclette.

    Flammekueche pizza with diced prosciutto, onions, thyme and crème fraiche at Café Rustica in Carmel Valley

  • Sopa de lima chicken soup with limes and tortillas at Turtle Bay in Monterey/Seaside
  • Avocado smoothie at Noodle Bar in Seaside/Marina
  • Cold-pressed coffee at Acme Coffee Roasting in Seaside
  • Pork potstickers at Full Moon Mandarin Cuisine in Monterey
  • Dancing Ebi roll with shrimp tempura, cream cheese and cucumber at Sushi Heaven in Carmel
  • Clam chowder at The C Restaurant + Bar in Monterey
  • “Pollo in Carnicia” chicken stuffed with herbs, mushrooms and pancetta at il Vecchio in Pacific Grove
  • Dried chile and onion fries at Montrio Bistro in Monterey
  • Mandarin dry-fried chicken at The Orient in Seaside
  • Pumpkin doughnut muffin at Pastries & Petals in Carmel
  • Banana bread scone at Happy Girl Kitchen in Pacific Grove
  • Ricky Ricardo sandwich at Babaloo (mobile)
  • Lemon-horseradish roasted bone marrow at Restaurant 1833 in Monterey
  • Duck a l’orange at Fifi’s Bistro Café in Pacific Grove
  • “Mars Attacks” fried baby octopus at Crystal Fish in Monterey

    Fried baby octopus at Crystal Fish.

  • Crispy chicken sandwich with smoked bacon, avocado, leaf lettuce and Louisiana hot sauce at Point Pinos Grill in Pacific Grove
  • Beignets at Trailside Café in Monterey
  • Eggplant parmigiana at Joe Rombi’s La Piccola Casa
  • Dungeness crab eggs Benedict at From Scratch in Carmel
  • Pumpkin curry at Baan Thai in Seaside
  • Five-spice chicken dry noodle bowl at Chopstix in Seaside/Monterey
  • Apricot oatmeal cookie at Red House Cafe in Pacific Grove
  • Olive oil gelato at Salumeria Luca in Carmel
  • Garlic breadsticks at Gianni’s Pizza in Monterey
  • Seaweed salad at Hula’s in Monterey
  • Duck leg confit at Le Normandie in Pacific Grove
  • Oreo cupcake from Mrs. DeLish’s Cupcake Boutique in Monterey
  • French macarons at Patisserie Bechler in Pacific Grove
  • Artichoke tacos at Taqueria del Mar in Monterey
  • Bavarian-style sausages with caramelized and crispy onions at Carmel Food Company in Carmel
  • Tomato tart with rock shrimp and lobster butter at Estéban in Monterey
  • Triple truffle fries at the Cannery Row Brewing Co. in Monterey
  • Blackened chicken sandwich at Ferdi’s in Seaside
  • Chicken tikka masala naan burrito wrap from India Gourmet (mobile)
  • Grove cookie at Fournier Bakery Cafe in Pacific Grove
  • Caramelized apple crepes at Crepes of Brittany in Monterey
  • Falafel at Mr. Falafel (mobile)

The lure of luscious pastrami

Traditional, dry-cured, smoked and steamed pastrami at the Monterey Cookhouse.

Part of the authentic New York City experience requires a visit to a Jewish deli to order a pastrami on rye — with a giant kosher pickle on the side.

Like the bagel, and smoked salmon and cream cheese, pastrami is a food that has become a touchstone of the New York experience. It is a comfort to both Jew and non-Jew, male and female, black and white, Asian and Latino.

In Monterey you can’t really find that same salty, smoky, perfectly fatty meat with a peppery kick, piled high and still warm from the steamer. Once a year, Temple Beth El (424-9151) in Salinas puts together its Kosher-Style Take-Out Lunch and Bake Sale, and stacks up thousands of pastrami sandwiches. The 56th annual event takes place Thursday, Feb. 2.

But when I heard that the Monterey Cookhouse was reserving some of its beef brisket to make in-house pastrami, I called owner Linda Cantrell to get the scoop.

“Buying pastrami is so expensive, so we wanted to see how cost-effective it was to make it,” she said. “It’s turned out really well.”

Indeed, ordering sliced pastrami from an authentic source can cost up to $25 a pound. It requires hands-on labor and a lot of time. We’re talking a rubbing, curing, pressing, smoking and steaming over a period of a few weeks.

Pastrami isn’t a cut of meat, but a process (you can make pastrami out of any meat, really). It’s the act of preserving, or curing, meat with salt, spices and smoke. Both the dish and the word originate from the Romanian delicacy pastramă, which comes from the Turkish word pastirma (pressed meat). Continue reading


Indulgent Aubergine

Aubergine venison

venison with salsify, birch syrup and the twiglike devils club root.

Our economy still sputters and coughs, and the days of high-end, pretentious dining may be behind us, but there is still a market for classy, dress-up, adult experiences with delicious, artfully crafted food.

With Club XIX’s closure last year, the list of fine-dining places has really shrunk to three: Marinus at Bernardus Lodge, Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn and Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel.

Under wunderkind chef Justin Cogley, Aubergine in Carmel really stands out in my mind as a place to splurge and indulge, with the memories fresh in your mind weeks or months later. In 2011 the restaurant earned a No. 5 Zagat ranking throughout the San Francisco Bay Area region.

Cogley was appointed chef de cuisine of Aubergine restaurant a year ago, taking over for mega-talented Frenchman Christophe Grosjean. Cogley comes to Carmel by way of Chicago, where he was instrumental in opening the Elysian Hotel’s new kitchen as executive sous chef. He previously worked at Chef Charlie Trotter’s critically acclaimed namesake restaurant for four years, earning the title of chef de cuisine.

His sophisticated style and playful creativity work well together, and while he strikes a chord with innovative, modern twists, he doesn’t create dissonant tones by serving inaccessible chemistry experiments.

Cogley’s menu descriptions exude simplicity: braised lamb shoulder, charred scallion, elephant garlic, pickled tongue; or guinea hen, smoked potato, foie gras, mizuna. But the result is always a sophisticated, exciting flavor profile that tickles all the senses. There seems to be spontaneity (and always seasonality), but it’s certainly just not thrown together on a whim.

“If I had to describe my food,” Cogley says, “I would say each plate has a purpose.”

Equally talented, and a perfect sweet note for Cogley’s savory sensations, is executive pastry chef Ron Mendoza, a Thomas Keller disciple who was recognized as a “Rising Star” by

Mendoza cut his teeth at LA’s famous Patina Restaurant, where he undertook pastry training from Michelle Myers. Later he helped open Boule Patisserie in Los Angeles as the director of operations, overseeing the launch of one of the city’s most highly regarded specialty pastry shops.

In 2006, Keller offered him the position of pastry sous chef at the famed French Laundry in Yountville.

Pastry chef Ron Mendoza's "painted landscape."

Mendoza uses a modern style steeped in classic technique and has a reverence for raw ingredients. “Everything starts with fruit,” he says. Mendoza strives for balance in flavors and textures. He firmly maintains, “the best desserts are made in the moment.”

While talent such as this can cost a pretty penny, a new monthly dinner series called Terroir allows diners a less expensive entry into this world created by Cogley and executive pastry chef Ron Mendoza. The series, inspired by landscapes, includes wine pairings and costs $75 per person.

Hay-smoked, pickled quail eggs.

December’s dinner was titled “Forest and Fields,” and we were lucky enough to be present. Wow. It started with amuses of foie gras on flatbread served on a log with forest scents, followed by hay-smoked pickled quail eggs and a small shot of warm apple cider and bourbon. And it only got better from there. We ate squab cooked in smoked butter, with apple and strips of succulent lardo; porcini mushrooms with caramelized onion and black garlic; and venison with salsify, birch syrup and devils club root (a crunch component that looks like a twig). Dessert was a “painted landscape,” with guanaja cremeux (a decadent chocolate cream), bits of torn chocolate cake and eucalyptus ice cream playing the moon and a sweet, dark orange gelee serving as the setting sun. Edible art, and visually stunning.

Jan. 24 brings “Pacific Coastlines.” Call 624-8578 for reservations.

The winter chill isi mitigated by a shot of warm apple cider and bourbon.



Vintage Tequila Dip … and more

Vintage Tequila Dip

Momofuku's Vintage Tequila Dip is a creamy, boozy concoction and a conversation starter.

What is it about dip that’s so damn satisfying? The act of lowering a chip or cracker (or anything else equally sturdy and crisp) into a creamy or cheesy concoction is primal, agreeably self-indulgent and, yes, addictive.

In this way we shun the use of eating utensils and any civilized manners we may have attained. It drips and splatters and smears, and we simply don’t care. At large parties the dip can become a virtual cesspool of bacteria (double-dipping has not waned since “Seinfeld” shined its sardonic spotlight on the practice).

The perfect chip-and-dip companion is football, or rather the act of watching it at home, with or without a side of testosterone. And ‘tis the season, with NFL playoffs around the corner and the New Year’s Day football hangover/coma approaching.

Which brings me to Momofuku, a family of wildly successful New York restaurants, and the brain-children of David Chang, the bad-ass chef-entrepreneur who gives new meaning to avant-garde.

Chang held a company-wide “dip off” this year and the winner was Beth Lieberman, the beverage manager for the family of restaurants. She concocted something she calls Vintage Tequila Dip, an innovative mélange that is creamy and limey and boozy, with a slow, mild burn of jalapeno.

I halved the recipe and the end result was more manageable. I also added a bit of salt because it plays so well with tequila. Making the jalapeno powder was a kick. I dried chunks of peppers in the oven and pulsed the dehydrated pieces in my food processor, wearing a mask to shield me from the dust cloud that filled the kitchen. Paired with crisp, homemade flour tortilla chips, the dip is delicious, and a true conversation piece.

I also solicited the help of two local restaurants. The Monterey Cookhouse creates a yummy Brisket Dip, combining cream cheese, mozzarella and ranch dressing with bits of house-smoked brisket and barbecue sauce. It’s served with crostini, but is off the charts poured over French fries.

“Our brisket is the best seller at the Cookhouse, and something creamy really puts it over the top,” said owner Linda Cantrell. “It’s the whole thing in one package.”

Finally, chef Johnny deVivo of TusCA inside the Hyatt Regency Monterey donated his Creamy Artichoke Dip.

Enjoy the games … and the dips into decadence.

Beth Lieberman’s Vintage Tequila Dip

  • Half bottle blanco tequila (she uses Espalon)
  • Enough lime simple syrup to flavor the tequila as you like it
  • 5 cups sour cream
  • Zest of 2 limes
  • Juice from 4 limes
  • 3 oz. charred jalapeño puree
  • 1 chopped jalapeño
  • Handful of chopped mint
  • Palm sugar to taste
  • Jalapeño powder to taste (see note)
    Steps: Mix everything together then serve with tortilla chips and a large side of shit talking.
    Note: To make jalapeño powder, seed, devein and cut into even chunks six jalapeños. Place on a sheet pan and dehydrate in a 250-degree oven for at least 3 hours. When cool and completely dry, put in spice grinder and pulse into powder (consider wearing a mask to avoid breathing pepper fumes).

Cookhouse Smoked Brisket Dip

  • 2 lbs. smoked brisket, chopped into small cubes (barbecued tri-tip may be substituted)
  • 1 small sweet onion, sliced into rings and grilled
  • Two-thirds cup barbecue sauce (see note)
  • 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • One-third cup ranch dressing
  • ½ cup grated mozzarella cheese
    Steps: Smoke brisket or cook tri-tip, let cool and cut into small cubes. Grill sliced onions and chop fine. Add to chopped meat. Add barbecue sauce and stir. In a separate bowl, mix together cream cheese, ranch dressing and mozzarella cheese. Put meat mixture into bottom of a shallow baking dish. Pipe cheese mixture on top. Put under the broiler until cheese is brown and bubbly. Spoon onto crostini, or pour over French fries.
    Note: The Cookhouse sells its special barbecue sauce in bottles, as well as with smoked brisket (call ahead).

Chef DeVivo’s Artichoke Dip

  • 2 T. oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 cup diced canned artichokes
  • 1 cup feta cheese
  • 1 cup cream cheese
  • 2 8-oz packages thawed and drained spinach
  • ¼ cup heavy cream
  • Salt
  • White pepper
    Steps: In a large pot with the oil, sweat the onion until transparent (about 4-5 minutes). Next add the artichokes and cook until soft. Add both cheeses and slowly melt them in the pan until creamy. Add the chopped spinach and heavy cream. Reduce the cream by three-fourths or until tight. Fold in your seasonings and serve with your favorite chip, pita or crouton.



Phil’s famous cioppino

Throwdown with Bobby Flay

Chef Bobby Flay, right, laughs it up with Phil DiGirolamo during filming of "Throwdown with Bobby Flay" in 2009.

  As Phil DiGirolamo faced the camera to shout the familiar send-off at the end of “Throwdown with Bobby Flay,” the show’s star leaned in to whisper in the victor’s ear: “Things are going to get crazy for you now.”

The owner of Phil’s Fish Market in Moss Landing blinked, gulped and said his line (on hand as a judge, I can tell you it took the completely flabergasted DiGirolamo three takes!).

He was “ready for a Throwdown!” beating Chef Flay in 2009’s Battle Cioppino, but could not even fathom the coming onslaught of national interest in his famous Sicilian stew.

“It’s been crazy, crazy, crazy,” said DiGirolamo recently from his iconic restaurant. “Bobby told me it would be like this.”

Since the original airing (and following subsequent repeats on Food Network), orders for buckets of cioppino have come from across the globe (Phil’s website crashed four times the first day). DiGirolamo has since expanded his operation, freezing the cioppino and shipping it next-day air.

“It got bigger than all of us here,” he said. “It’s changed the way we do business.”philcooks

Phil’s has always been a popular spot, but after “Throwdown” it’s a dog-eared page on everyone’s travel itinerary.

“People come from all over the world,” he said. “They hold rehearsal dinners here, memorials. They say things like ‘my father’s favorite place was Phil’s,’ so they scatter the ashes on the ocean and come back here for cioppino.”

It even changed the way DiGirolamo viewed his recipe. What was always a closely guarded secret is now given away to anyone who asks.

“What the heck,” he said. “I got tired of saying no to people.” Continue reading


The beautiful bánh mì

Banh mi

The Vietnamese sandwich banh mi is inexpensive to buy, and easy to make at home.

What do you do when a charcuterie binge leaves you with half a loaf of liver pâté and a few French baguettes? You travel east across Europe, span China, dip south across the Bay of Tonkin and into Vietnam.

It’s there you find an exotic diet that is at once light, bright, savory, sweet and spicy — and heavily influenced by French colonialism in Indochina. The French are long gone, but their culinary influences linger, with food items such as baguettes, pâté and mayonnaise helping to create the most interesting sandwich in the world — the bánh mì

Bánh mì is a Vietnamese term for all kinds of bread, but the baguette is explicitly called the bánh mì baguette, and resembles a torpedo. The bread is usually more airy than its western counterpart, and thus has a thinner crust.

The fillings include meat such as seasoned pork belly, sausage, grilled pork, spreadable liver pate, grilled chicken, canned sardines, meatballs, head cheese or fried eggs. Accompanying veggies include pickled carrots and daikon radish (shredded or cut into matchsticks), cucumber and cilantro.

Bánh mì is more prevalent in the U.S. now, especially along the right and left coasts. They are popular food truck items, and Vietnamese restaurants usually serve them (although in cities such Saigon they are only a street food, never served in restaurants).

Marina is home to the Peninsula’s only Vietnamese sandwich shop, called the Bánh Mì Bar. For roughly $3.50, the diner gets a choice among many fillings, including pâté. Chopstix in Marina and Monterey also serves bánh mì. Continue reading


Easy terrines at home

Terrine from L'escargot

L'Escargot chef Kerry Loutas serves a different pâté (more correctly, terrine) each day at his Carmel restaurant.

Charcuterie, the art of making sausages, other cured or smoked meats, along with cooked preparations such as pâtés and terrines, is on the rise in this country, and the Monterey Peninsula is no exception.

The easiest test for the home cook is the terrine, made for centuries in farmhouses throughout Europe by thrifty, respectful cooks who put to good use every bit of the animal. A terrine is what American meatloaf aspires to be. (Read my full article about this topic in The Monterey Herald at

To help you on your way, I have asked local restaurants to provide home cook-friendly recipes for pâtés, or terrines.

Chef Kerry Loutas from L’Escargot in Carmel has offered his recipe for Chicken and Pork Terrine. He’s modified it for the home cook, using ingredients more readily available than rabbit, duck fat, caul fat or fatback. Fandango (Pacific Grove) chef Pedro De La Cruz , who earned his chops in the 1960s at the French-inspired Club XIX in Pebble Beach, gave up a recipe for Duckling Pâté. And, finally, look for a simple Chicken Liver Pâté from chef Brandon Miller at Mundaka in Carmel. Continue reading