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Food & Drink

Subtle, adventurous craft propels Monterey's standing in SA cuisine

Photo: Josh Huskin, License: N/A

Josh Huskin

Littleneck clams, pig-ear bacon, and lamb broth from the Montere

In a pig's ear, you say? Okay, you probably don't — unless, perhaps, you're a devoted fan of To Kill a Mockingbird. But this expression of doubt comes into even sharper focus when we contemplate pigs ears as culinary objects: in a pig's ear you've eaten one.

Though maybe you have if you've ordered the sliced pig's ear in hot chili oil at Sichuan Cuisine. No? Then maybe you've been to the Monterey recently where littleneck clams with pig's ear bacon, Swiss chard, and lamb broth are on the menu. Yes, the ear is chewy-sinewy in both instances — but it's also brilliant. And at Monterey it's emblematic of the courageous path being forged by chef Quealy Watson and his sous chef Robert Cain.

I admit that I wasn't altogether happy with Monterey when it first opened. Loved the place but thought that most of the plates could have used judicious editing. I don't think that now, a case in point being a simple order of pork rillettes with Szechuan pickle and just the perfect amount of sourdough baguette. True, the pickle didn't count for much, but it was a good grace note, and the creamy rillettes, a potted mixture of pork and pork fat, were as unctuous and rich as they are supposed to be. No handstands needed; this is a classic, pure and simple. To cut across the fat, perhaps an IPA from the very impressive beer list (it's even more impressive at happy hour when 12-ounce Texas brews — and there are many of them — are $2.50). A plate coyly called Different Kinds of Pickles is another small revelation. Each ingredient in the bowl, consisting on this occasion of beets, cauliflower, cucumber, red bells, and kimchee, had its own personality, with a hint of ginger acting as a unifying thread.

On another occasion, there were transcendent brussel sprouts. Yes, you read me: transcendent; if a single BS-hater could remain unconverted after a taste of the often-reviled vegetable as done by Watson and crew, its roasty flavor contrasted to a sweet-hot chili sauce, I'm sure I don't want to meet them. A few more of the scant, scattered peanuts would surely help convince any holdouts. I feel the same way about the slices of pig's ear in the clam dish: one might remark on their resiliency, but the subtle flavor is just what the clam/lamb broth needs. Pho-like, the bowl is also adorned with Thai basil, cilantro, and (I had to ask about this, but the waiter was quick with an answer) Vietnamese "celery" leaf. Not much taste but a great shape. A happy-hour Segura Viudas cava was not unwelcome as a companion to the clams. (Clampanion?)
The Monterey's wallpapered interior is small yet light-filled and perfectly pleasant. But the patio, its character changing as light fades and the festoons of bare bulbs begin to create the feel of backyard fiesta, is the place to be. Much table-hopping goes on. Yet on a sunny Sunday morning, alfresco brunch also has it charms. A michelada made with turncoat Pearl beer will banish most night-before cobwebs; it changes with time as ice melts and you add more beer from the provided can. You might also want to add a jolt of Crystal hot sauce about now.

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