Carmel-by-the-Sea may be dripping with quaintness but, happily, it’s not a theme park. It’s just a sweet, charming, expensive place on the edge of a wide California beach, 122 miles south of San Francisco. As I stroll by fairy-tale houses, sleek plate-glass contemporaries, and a few concrete monstrosities (to me, anyway), I notice there are no street addresses. My friend Barbara, our ever-gracious hostess and tour guide, tells me that residents use post office boxes for their mail. No need for numbers in this posh little town. Art galleries abound, bed-and-breakfasts offer a warm welcome, and several restaurants have terrific food.
Le St. Tropez is our lunch spot of choice this time. Chef Jean Humbert combines modern and classic French cookery in his “cuisine of the sun.” Sample appetizers: escargots in garlic butter, smoked salmon en brioche, and arugula with chevre and caramelized onions. A taste of French onion soup, crusty and almost spilling over the edges of its white bowl, takes me immediately to a cafe in Provence. The seared scallops are melt-in-the-mouth tender and served with white wine garlic sauce, diced tomatoes, and egg noodles. French wines, French scenes on the walls, blue and yellow Provence-style tablecloths–we’re almost in France, without the airfare.
Dinner at the Flying Fish Grill is different. This cozy restaurant with wooden booths has a mirrored wall that makes it seem bigger that it is. A friendly staff serves Tina and Kenny Fukumoto’s East-West fusion dishes, combining choices from the best of both worlds–sake or California wines; sushi or Monterey abalone; rice or fries. Crisp, light wonton chips are excellent with a light salsa. Sea bass has an almond crust and comes with whipped potatoes, Chinese cabbage and rock shrimp, while halibut is served with black beans, ginger and scallions steamed in paper pouches. I’m loving the shrimp-curry soup but curious about the famous claypot. That’s seafood, beef or vegetables, cooked at your table and combined with rice noodles, broth, lemon shoyu, and sesame sauce. It’s the signature dish of the Flying Fish Grill. The dessert menu has more East-West options, from creme brulee to green tea sundae. It’s one more treat to return for, when I come back to Carmel to walk the beach, shop, admire the cypress trees and seascape,, and eat very well indeed.