Casanova Restaurant – Carmel, California
For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left inside
On that starry, starry night
You took your life as lovers often do
But I could have told you, Vincent
This world was never meant
For one as beautiful as you
When Vincent van Gogh painted “The Starry Night” depicting the view of a swirling night sky from the window of his room at the sanatorium Rémy-de-Provence, there’s no way he could possibly have known that its fame would be spread by the heart-rending lyrics of a song. In 1970, his painting was immortalized in pop culture on the refrain to Don McLean’s 1970 poignant Vincent. Throughout his 37 year life, van Gogh’s “suffering for his sanity” was exacerbated by the fact that his work and lifestyle were more widely criticized than they were recognized.
van Gogh spent the last seventy days of his life as a tenant at the Auberge Ravoux, a country inn in a small village some 22 miles northwest of Paris. The Auberge Ravoux was a favorite among Dutch and American painters and still attracts art enthusiasts from throughout the world. It also continues to offer traditional food, the type of which van Gogh himself would have enjoyed nearly a century and a quarter ago. In 2001, the book Van Gogh’s Table at the Auberge Ravoux was published as a tribute to the painter’s life and the many cafes and restaurants he enjoyed.
van Gogh’s table, the one on which he enjoyed so many meals, now has a home in a private dining room at Casanova Restaurant in Carmel, California. The table’s presence at Casanova marks a cultural exchange between two artistic communities and two world famous restaurants. It’s one of the most romantic aspects of a restaurant long considered the most romantic restaurant in Carmel-by-the-sea, a city world renowned for its European charm and architecture.
Perhaps there may be nothing intrinsically romantic about a simple wooden table, but when you consider that the great painter probably sat there and lamented the many failed romantic pursuits of his life, there’s a Shakespearean quality romantic tragedy in there somewhere. Most of us can relate to unrequited love, if not to the utter devastation of a bad break-up. Sometimes not even a great meal at a high quality restaurant can quell the ardor of love gone wrong.
Without a doubt Carmel-by-the-sea is one of the most beautiful and romantic cities in the Golden State. How else can you explain why the legendary Hollywood transplant Clint Eastwood, the most macho of macho movie stars, both directed and took the lead role in the torrid romance Bridges of Madison County? He was undoubtedly inspired by living in (and once having served as mayor of) Carmel. Eastwood’s Carmel restaurant, the Hog’s Head Inn, by the way, is a veritable shrine to the old west and his spaghetti westerns.
Carmel-by-the-sea has also earned a reputation as the “pet friendliest” town in America,” thanks in no small part to America’s sweetheart Doris Day, a Carmel resident who left Hollywood to dedicate her life to the protection of four-legged children. For my good friend and culinary kindred spirit Sandy Driscoll, the combination of pet friendliness (she’s the best dog trainer in Los Angeles), a romantic ambiance and outstanding food make Casanova a must-stop during her visits to Central California. She and her handsome doberman Gunner have dined at Casanova on many occasions.
Almost anywhere else in America, Casanova would seem out-of-place, perhaps as an architectural anomaly. It’s almost antithetical to any restaurant in another renowned romantic city, Santa Fe, whose architectural standards and city ordinances mandate such uniformity as to make the “City Different” a model of adobe-hued homogeneity. Instead, Casanova fits in precisely because it is different, but then so are so many other “storybook cottages” throughout the city. Architectural styles range from California Mission Revival to Tudor, Gothic and Spanish. Viva la difference!
Casanova is a converted home made to resemble the restaurant owner’s family’s old farm-house in Belgium. The restaurant both resembles and pays tribute to the great cafes throughout Europe with meticulous attention to detail at every turn. Both its architectural style and decor are widely imitated and have influenced numerous other restaurants and private homes in Carmel and beyond. If you’ve ever traveled the European countryside, your first glance will transport you across the Atlantic where quaint cottages often double as cafes and meals are slowly paced to allow for great conversation to couple with great food and coffee.
Casanova Restaurant wasn’t solely a trend-setter architecturally. Several facets of the dining experience we all take for granted today had their genesis at Casanova. If you enjoy flavored dipping oil for bread, you can thank Casanova for having introduced that now de rigueur concept in the 1980s. Appreciate fresh pasta? Casanova was one of the first restaurants to make their own pasta, transforming a spaghetti and macaroni favoring public to one which appreciated fettuccine and linguini, too. Casanova pioneered serving cafe au lait and lattes in large French country bowls.
Because of its cool Mediterranean climate, there may be no better milieu for al fresco dining than Casanova, especially if you like to dine with your canine children. The outdoor patio abounds in green plants and colorful flowers and is well shaded by assiduous trees. A basket with bundles of fragrant lavender sits on a wooden bench on the walkway to the restaurant. Old-fashioned oil cloth tablecloths festoon the tables. Menus can be plucked out of the basket on the handlebars of a vintage bicycle.
The dinner menu is an homage to ingredients sourced locally from small farms and producers, the essence of “California cuisine.” For someone who’s spent too much time and effort eating (and cursing) the flavors of “homemade” foods sourced from Sysco or Shamrock and served in restaurants throughout New Mexico, dining on garden-fresh vegetables and fruits is a little piece of heaven–even without green chile. The menu is relatively small, graced by only eight Hors D’Oeuvres, six small plate fruits de mer (seafood starters), eight entrees and two Plats Pour Deux (plates for two). The menu showcases seafood, Italian, French cuisine prepared in the California style which emphasizes freshness and quality.
It’s only fitting that the restaurant which pioneered flavored dipping oil for bread would excel at both. The dipping oil during our inaugural visit was a summery sun-dried tomato tapenade redolent with pungent California olives. It’s an excellent tapenade, the type of which you immerse as much as your bread as will fit in the bowl so you can sop up as much tapenade as possible. The staff of life served with the tapenade included a hard-crusted baguette, an egg-washed Gruyere cheese bread and several hard-crusted breadsticks. It’s a terrific triumvirate.
I’ve often lamented the fact that appetizers at some restaurants outshine all their entrees. That’s almost the case at Casanova where we could not possibly have conceived of an introduction nearly as superb as the Gnocchi Casanova, light spinach dumplings baked with a topping of rich parmesan. At almost any other restaurant, this appetizer would have been the best dish on the entire menu (and it nearly was at Casanova). Each gnocchi is roughly the size of a marshmallow. Bite into the light, delicate exterior and you’re rewarded with a sensual eruption of flavor punctuated by the rich sharpness of unctuous cheese. There is little of the astringency often found in spinach, because the soft and pillowy deliciousness is so well complemented by the creaminess of the cheese.
The restaurant’s selection of housemade Charcuterie, pickled vegetables and Roman mustard is another superb starter. It wasn’t so much the haute cuisine of France’s grand, elegant restaurants which won my heart during frequent visits to France in the 1980s, but the more simple family fare–bread, cheeses and meats. In France, as in much of Europe, the ancient culinary art of charcuterie is still highly revered and well-practiced. Charcuterie refers to the products made and sold in a delicatessen-style shop, also called a charcuterie. The operative word here is “made” as in butchering, cutting, salting, curing, slicing, storing and preparing such meat products such as bacon, sausage, ham, pates, and more. Casanova’s charcuterie plate showcases spek (a smoked and salted bacon), wild boar sausage, bresaola (air-dried, salted beef), pickled vegetables, edible flowers, grainy Roman mustard and cornichons.
Casanova lets your senses feast on mouth-watering entrees and sumptuous dining experiences you can only have replicated in a past life. Perhaps not since Burford, England have I had lamb chops quite as good as the roasted lamb chops at Casanova. Lamb chops are the specialty of the house and it’s easy to see why. These aren’t the desiccated and waifishly thin “lollipop” lamb chops served at most restaurants. Casanova’s chops are thick and meaty with a profusion of juices at medium rare (the level of doneness recommended by the chef). Nor is the flavor of these lamb chops obfuscated by sauces. These lamb chops are seasoned so that there’s a nice “crust” on their exterior, but they’re not overly salted. They’re also not gamey as some lamb entrees tend to be. They’re simply some of the very best lamb chops I’ve had in three continents. The lamb chops are served with Umbrian ceci bean ragout & marinated favas, neither of which would ordinarily have been my choices. These are no ordinary vegetables, however. They’re fresh and crisp with the flavor of freshness.
The Linguini alla Scapesce (lobster, clams, mussels and shrimp with white wine, Meyer lemon, chervil & crème fraiche) is nearly the equal of the lamb chops. The seafood ingredients have the flavor and freshness of just having been extricated from a net and prepared within minutes. The linguini is perfectly al dente. Gloriously long noodles only propriety will prevent you from slurping will remind you they’re made on the premises and not sourced off some store shelf or delivery truck. The chervil (a mild herb related to parsley) and creme fraiche sauce is applied parsimoniously as it’s done in Italy where the appreciation of a great pasta is akin to a religious experience.
If dessert is a sweet prelude to romance, Casanova has several sweet treats designed to get you in the mood–to lick the plates so that you don’t miss a morsel. One option is three scoops of housemade ice cream in flavors you might not find elsewhere such as lavender-vanilla, chocolate and Armagnac with blueberries, strawberries and blackberries. The ice cream is rich, creamy and sinfully decadent with each flavor bursting out as a paragon of the named ingredient. The lavender-vanilla exudes the essential oil flavor profile of memory evoking sweetness. The Armagnac (a French brandy) is studded with figs and is oh, so delicious. The chocolate is simply outstanding, a not-too-sweet, adult chocolate.
One dessert you might not want to share even with a loved one is the tarte aux bananes, a banana tartlet crafted on a graham cracker crust atop of which lie vanilla custard, caramelized bananas and vanilla whipped cream with a caramel sauce drizzled throughout the plate. The caramelized bananas are sliced dime-thin and will remind you of the caramelized sugars on the top layer of a crème brulee. This is a simple dessert with complex flavor combinations that resonate on your taste buds.
Casanova is a restaurant which lives up to its name. The cuisine is outstanding, well-seasoned and beautifully presented. Service is impeccable. Your four-legged children will love it, too.
Fifth Avenue between San Carlos & Mission
LATEST VISIT: 15 July 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Gnocchi Casanova, Tarte aux Bananes, Selection of House-Made Charcuterie, Linguini alla Scapesce, Roasted Lamb Chops, Housemade Ice Cream