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Thursday, December 29, 2011

Eating in the valley or by-the-sea, Carmel is the place to be

Carl decided we should end the year with style so for our final food tour of 2011 we headed south to Carmel, CA. We began our day inland in Carmel Valley dining at the Wagon Wheel Coffee Shop, Corkscrew Café and dropping by the Earthbound Farm Stand. Then we headed west towards the water and the oh so very picturesque city Carmel-by-the-Sea. La Bicyclette and the Carmel Bakery and Coffee Co were our stops there.

We headed out bright and early to eat breakfast at the Wagon Wheel Coffee Shop on Carmel Valley Road.

The neat thing when you walk inside is that the Wagon Wheel doesn't have a stylized, wanna be kind of ambiance. You get the feeling that every thing on the walls is there for a reason. Each photograph and object have their own history and story to tell.

We started out ordering an Oatmeal Pancake ($3.50) with fresh bananas ($2.00). Here's the thing. I don't like oatmeal or pancakes, but I thought maybe I'd like them together. If you love pancakes or if you love oatmeal you'll probably think they're great! Turns out I didn't care for them but I kind of thought I wouldn't. But I wanted to give them a try :)

What I did love at the Wagon Wheel was the "Cookout" which consisted of baked beans and three poached eggs. The beans had a bit of bite to them with just a touch of jalapeno/chili heat which was just enough to bring out a flavor to contrast the sweetness of the sauce.

Next we headed further inland to the Corkscrew Café. There are, in total, 8 dining areas here.  Two are small, each with a single large table. And a larger L shaped area divides into three areas that are each very quaint and rustic. The two outside sections, one along the entire side of the building and another larger section behind it with a large pond.

The interior is early mission in style. As you walk in you immediately see loaves of freshly baked bread lined up on the counter before you along with standing metal containers that each hold bottles of wine dusted in flour. The walls are painted a warm earthy red mixed with aged, raw, grey wood accented by shutters of turquoise framing a mirrored wood fire oven.

Here's the funny thing. The Corkscrew Café offers not only a cheese sampler, they also offer a bread sampler (available Weds-Sunday for $5.75). Out of curiosity we had to try it. What arrived were two slices each of the four kinds of bread we'd just passed on our way in with fresh butter and the most flavorful olive oil I've ever tasted. Clockwise from top left: Whole Wheat, Rosemary Olive Ciabatta, Sourdough and Baguette. The Rosemary Olive Bread was loaded with tiny bits of kalamata olives (my favorite) so Carl got each of us a loaf to bring home.

Our waiter highly recommended the Corkscrew Onion Rings ($7.00) and once we tried them we understood why. Served haystack style they're thin, crisp, sweet & salty. OMOR. I ate too many, Carl ate too many. We couldn't stop eating them. I would definitely go all the way back to Carmel Valley just to have these onion rings again.

On the way out I spotted this freshly baked, wood fire pizza sitting just outside the oven door.

And of course there had to be a cool corkscrew collection right? I especially loved the little dog shaped corkscrews. There was also a really cute pic one too. You can see them (behind glass) in the first dining area in a large armoire and a built in wall display area.

As we headed back towards the highway to go to Carmel by the Sea, Carl spotted our next stop on the side of the road. We'd noticed this sign on our way out to Corkscrew, but on our way back Carl noticed that earlier we had passed the Earthbound Farm Stand, without noticing it because the sign came after. We made a quick decision and Carl made a u-turn.

This is what we found. A very cute country store full of organic produce, a small coffee and salad bar, fresh meals prepared to go and lots of snack foods and for home chefs, lots of healthy ingredients. I purchased my first bottle of agave syrup to use as a sugar substitute. I found out that Agave Nectar, sweeter than honey and refined sugar, is often used as a honey substitute by vegans as the sweetener comes from a plant.

It was there I spotted the Jimtown Fig & Olive Spread ($4.95). Now remember how earlier I said I don't like oatmeal or pancakes? Well, I love figs and kalamata olives. So I knew this spread would be a winner for me :) We had the bread from our Corkscrew sampler that we'd brought along with us in the car and had an impromptu picnic. Mmmmm hmmmmmm. That's a little spread on a bit of baguette. Yum!

There is so much to do and see at the Earthbound Farm Stand. There are three outdoor seating ares, an herb garden, a play area for kids, a vegetable garden for the cafe inside, and all kinds of things to see like how to compost.

We were, as Carl said, dilly dallying along and had to push ourselves to leave and head over to Carmel-by-the-Sea. It is a beloved tourist destination full of quaint houses, adorable hobbit like architecture, shops, art galleries and restaurants.

A very cute bicycle parked in front of La Bicyclette.

Our first stop was a sister-restaurant to the Corkscrew Café. La Bicyclette is on the corner of Dolores Street at Seventh. Aside from being one of the most wonderful places in California (and probably the world) Carmel-by-the-Sea is unusual in that the houses and shops don't have street number addresses. So you'll see addresses written as cross streets. I've always wondered how the postmen know who to deliver mail to but recently learned that they don't. If you live in Carmel's "village" you have to go to the Post Office to pick up your mail.

The restaurant's sign is so cute!

The restaurant is divided into two areas. On the left is a more modern, bistro looking bar and dining area. On the right is a fanciful, kind of Snow White, cottage'ish dining room which is where we sat.

Nantes Carrot Risotto

I was craving fresh veggies at this point and we found them atop this order of Nantes Carrot Risotto ($14.00) with truffle marinated artichokes, greens, thin strips of peeled carrot and shavings of parmesan cheese. The risotto itself was more flavorful and tangy than creamy. I mean it was creamy, but the flavor was what I noticed first. You can't help it.

Also on the menu that day was a Wood-Fired Quince and Apple Tart with Vanilla Ice Cream ($8.00). Though I'd have to agree with another diner sitting beside us, that because it is a free form crust, it's what most people would recognize as a galette, rather than a tart. No matter what you call it it was warm and delicious. The crust was perfect.

Ah, this picture was taken with my new macro lens hubby got me for Christmas!

The ice cream was served atop a small bed of brown sugar, laid upon thin strands of gooey caramel sauce. Not a lot, just enough of the extra sweetness to make you go ahhhhhhhhh when you eat it.

So was this picture :)

And I'd been craving apple pie since Christmas. This was the perfect treat to satisfy my craving. I wasn't sure what a quince even looks like! Turns out they look like a slightly lumpy pear crossed with a lemon but without the thick peel of a lemon. They are thin skinned like apples and pears and I couldn't tell the difference between the two in our dessert.

Oh we were so full. So for our final stop we headed over to the Carmel Bakery (at Ocean Avenue and LIncoln) for a to-go treat I usually only have every other year or even less frequently.

We had to wait a bit for the looky-loos to stop gazing in the front window so I could show you the exterior unobstructed. LOL. This place is always busy but the line moves quickly.

There are always plates and pedestals piled high with pastries and their house specialty: giant, soft, Bavarian pretzels. Some are savory, others sweet.

And did I forget to mention the cute cookies for both humans and dogs? These are the human gingerbread men, snowmen and Christmas trees above.

But my personal favorite are these Fruit Stick ($2.95) pastries. They're like sugar crusted, rolled up, flakey turnovers filled with raspberry or apricot. I chose raspberry and had it for breakfast the next morning. We kept them in the car instead of the trunk on the way home and they made the entire ride home smell like we were in a bakery.

If you've never been to Carmel-by-the-Sea this is what it looks like. The sidewalks are always full of shoppers and buildings are beyond cute. We were lucky. Often Carmel is overcast and a little chilly so imagine our surprise, no, make that shock, that we were there for an unseasonably warm and sunny 70º day with blue skies in late December!

You can read Carl's recap here. There's a very funny little white lie his parents used to tell him about Carmel when he was a kid so they could have it all to themselves.

Want to go where we went? Here's the way:

Wagon Wheel Coffee Shop
7156 Carmel Valley Rd
Carmel, CA 93923

Corkscrew Cafe
55 West Carmel Valley Road
Carmel Valley, CA 93921
Reservations: 831-659-8888

Earthbound Farm Stand
7250 Carmel Valley Road
Carmel, CA 93923

La Bicyclette
Dolores Street at 7th
Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA 93923
Reservations: 831-622-9899

Carmel Bakery and Coffee Co.
Ocean Ave & Lincoln
Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA 93923

For the camera curious: Still learning how to use my new camera and lenses. All images were shot RAW (but processed as .JPG's for the blog) in both manual and IA modes with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 camera using the following lenses:

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