Foodie Heaven: Carmel & Monterey Peninsula

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If you love food and wine as much as we do, you’re likely disheartened by the closure of some of your favorite restaurants since Covid hit the world by storm roughly a year ago. With Covid restrictions in place, many have had to close their doors for months while others have had to build outdoor dining spots, which is tough if you’re in Minnesota or Wisconsin.

On a recent jaunt to the Carmel Monterey area, we were able to review a few new restaurants and despite the stricter rules about masking and social distancing than other areas, many restaurants have made it work, at least in Carmel where there’s more open spaces and a lot of eateries had courtyards already. Let’s take a look at some of our fun finds during our winter weekend escape.

Jeninni Kitchen & Wine Bar in Pacific Grove

Located in Pacific Grove, you’ll be wowed over by the combination of French style cooking and flavors with all things Palestine. Yum, yum and more yum! Owner Thamin Saleh is an integral part of the fixtures at Jeninni — not only is he courteous and goes out of his way to make you feel like family, but he’s a Sommelier as well. Divine, right? You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that wine sales have gone up since Covid hit.

I had a hard time not ordering their Burrata (I always do if its on the menu), which they serve with Black Tahini, Za’atar (an Eastern Mediterranean herb with toasted sesame and sumac), Oregano and Turnips, so it’s a unique twist. Instead, I opted for something a little warmer — their scrumptious Butternut Squash which they serve with Shawarma Oil and Chives (perfect for a cold winter evening).

Vegetarians will love their Lentils & Butternut Squash Stew, which they serve with rice, baharat (a spice blend used in the lavant) and yogurt. (parsley on top of course)

To be honest, I tend to never order chicken when I’m out because I want to try diverse ways of preparing fish, steak, veal and lamb for the most part and chicken tends to be boring UNLESS it has an unusual recipe like this one. Their Chicken Torchon has become a local favorite (it’s made for two) and this tasty dish takes two days to prepare.

The chicken is deboned and then spices are added. Combine soubise and sauce ravigote (our waitress pours it over the chicken at the table), and you’ll find yourself in heaven. The chicken is so tender and tasty that you’ll be thinking about the dish for days after you leave the restaurant.

Our waitress at Jeninni Kitchen & Wine Bar pours the Ravigote sauce over the chicken at the table.

The chicken special comes with a bowl of Charred Brussels Sprouts as well.

If you’re a fish lover, order the Cod, which is fresh from the Bay and served with cauliflower puree, grilled swiss chard and maitake mushrooms. The latter was so good that Anthony kept stealing one off my plate. So so delish!

While we tend to avoid fried food in general, when there’s Eggplant Fries on the menu, how can you resist? Add just a tad of urfa pepper and dip them in honey-garlic alioli and you’ll want to order a second for the table to share. Their Jeninni fries are made with potatoes (the traditional style) but with a twist — a smokey savory seasoning with salmorra.

Those new to spices and sauces from the Middle East and Mediterranean, Salmorra is a Spanish tomato sauce with paprika and garlic. (see third photo below) OMG! I want the recipe.

The Eggplant Fries. More please.

The Jeninni Fries, served with a smokey savory seasoning and Salmorra.

Because Thamin curated such an amazing wine menu, we opted for Spanish Grenache followed by a Rioja Crianza Tempranillo (also from Spain). He recommended the Campuget Blanc Roussane with Grenache Blanc and Marsanne to go with the Cod however although with a Barnett Chardonnay on the menu, I had to try it.

Rare for a restaurant that boasts such a fabulous wine menu (including dessert wines and a 20 year Tawny from Portugal), they also offered a large array of divine cocktails. For example, the Fig Provencal (shown below), made with Underberg, Dry Vermouth, Fig Shrub and Lemon Juice. Or, how about a Pomegranate Mojito or a Blueberry and Lavender combo with pineau des charentes, dry vermouth, blueberry syrup and soju. OMG, right?

Above and below, the Fig Provencal, made with underberg, dry vermouth, fig shrub and lemon juice.

They have French press coffee as well (perfect after dinner sipping under a heat lamp). What a great way to spend a weekend evening. Their desserts are divine as well. The below fried Sicilian donut with rosemary sugar and salted honey gives French beignets competition and the Bay Leaf Rice Pudding was so creamy and delicious, I wanted to take it home for further savoring. Although we didn’t try it, they also offered a Cardamom ice cream with a shot of acme espresso. Wow, right?

Rice Pudding – oh so creamy!

This charming spot is in Pacific Grove and they have outdoor seating with social distanced tables and heat lamps.

Indoors is equally charming — take note of the copper pots hanging in the kitchen.

What a great bar right?

Great creative flare in the bathroom as well.

Two thumbs up. Check out their website for hours and location.

Hulas Island Grill in Monterey

This charming Tiki restaurant has a fun festive atmosphere, tropical cocktails and island fare. Given a friend’s birthday falling on the same day, we had to give it a try. Located in Monterey along Lighthouse Avenue,  they have plenty of outdoor dining space with heat lamps and an ambiance that will make you feel like you’re on vacation in the tropics.

Hula’s Island Grill is a throwback to the popular tiki restaurants and bars of the 1950’s and 1960’s.  As you arrive, you are greeted by the island décor and eclectic music. I had a chance to chat with the owner beforehand and she was brimming with positivity and excited to share the restaurants kudos. Also very proud of her staff who have been with them for years, I learned a bit about the history and the vibe.

The latter is perfect for a group gathering as the outdoor patio is a blend of festive and California casual. Think upbeat and fun with tropical cocktails being the order of the day.  Hula’s mission is “to create a community gathering spot for local residents, as well as that special place to invoke great memories, for diners from shores afar.” Let’s just say that they didn’t disappoint.

First up is their Seared Ahi Wontons which is made with Wasabi-ginger cream sauce.

Above and below: The Seared Ahi Wontons

I went for the ever so healthy Island Style Poke, which they top with soy sauce, sesame oil, avocado, onion and sesame seeds. It was so so fresh — remember how close they are to the ocean.

Above and below: The Island Style Poke

I paired the above with a Bernardus Chardonnay although they also offer a crisper Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio from Carmel Valley by the glass. Because of the festive atmosphere however, and the large array of options you can choose from, why not go for a margarita with one of their countless Tequila and Mezcal options? Or even better yet, one of their fabulous cocktails?

We tend to skew healthy so were thrilled to see an all Vegetarian menu selection (extensive at that) and they also offer a number of gluten-free options as well. They boast some amazing salads (spicy seaweed, kale cashew, arugula, etc) all of which you can add tofu, veggie chicken or tempeh to as well. If vegetarian is your thing, but you love fried options, then don’t miss their fried sweet plantains.

They have meatless burgers, tofu and tempeh curries, tofu tacos, spicy edamame, shishito peppers, Chimichurri and countless other scrumptious veggie options. Fish lovers beware because there are so many choices, you’ll want one of each.

You can pick your favorite fish and the way you’d like it prepared. For example: pan fried, macadamia nut encrusted, blackened, Jamaican Jerk and others. I hadn’t seen Barramundi on the menu in awhile so went for it, with a Lemongrass Encrusted finish — it is topped with lime-ginger cream sauce and slaw. And, who doesn’t love slaw?

Anthony went for the Abalone-style calamari to start with a lime-ginger cream sauce and a soy glaze.

Other delicious options include fish tacos, pork tacos, crab cakes, Hawaiian ceviche, Kona-Style chicken wings (great for the table), Hilo Pork Sliders, and Spicy Edamame Hummus — sounds divine right?

Above and below: fish variations

Taco options are so abundant you’ll want to come with a group large enough to share several.

Taco options look scrumptious right? Above and below, look at the to-die-for tuna?

If you’re a red meat lover, go for the Grass Fed Teriyaki Ribeye Steak with Shitake mushrooms or the Kalbi Ribs Korean style. They also offer a Mango Chicken Caesar (yum, right?) and a Hawaiian Fish Soup, two items we didn’t order but plan to next time we’re in town.

Because it was Deanne’s birthday, we had a little dessert at the end. This is not a restaurant to say no to — come here when you want to celebrate and enjoy. It’s been a long year, so it’s a perfect place to go to with family or close friends. With enough outdoor space for tables to be far apart, you can dine without the stress.

Be sure to visit their website which includes their hours, photos and location.

Little Napoli in Carmel

Another gem we discovered on this trip is Little Napoli, which has an adorable Italian-style courtyard in downtown Carmel. Pèpe’s Little Napoli, Bistro Italiano is a bit of an institution. Rich Pèpe opened Little Napoli in 1990 and it has been considered the icon Italian restaurant on the Monterey Peninsula ever since.  Antipasti, Pizza, Pasta and Risotto are prepared perfectly with the handed down Pèpe family signature recipes and all of it is downright delicious.

Although the below shots show the inside of Little Napoli during our recent stay, there is plenty of outdoor dining space and is what makes the place so uniquely special.

Above and below: They have a great bar scene and plenty of products for sale as well like their specialty Marinara sauce.

You really get the flavor of Italy inside and out here – it’s oh so charming, so much so that you won’t want to leave.

This is the outdoor courtyard area – sweet right?

NOW, let’s move onto the food. If you love artichokes, you’ll have to order their special Pezzini Farms Artichokes. They tout over 100,000 served. Wow, right? It’s a grilled castroville artichoke “marialene” with chipotle aioli and balsamic vinaigrette. Anthony said: “it’s just the way my grandmother — also from Naples btw — made them.”

I can’t NOT order Burrata if its on the menu and sure enough it was — how could it not be given Italian tradition. It was prepared classic style with tomatoes in a balsamic reduction. That said, you could also opt to get it with roasted red peppers instead of tomatoes. They offered a spicy bruschetta with warm goat cheese and micro greens as well.

Above and below: the over-the-top delicious Burrata Mozzarella Caprese

If you’re a pizza lover, beware. They offer a variety of wood-fired pizzas with gluten-free options as well. From the classic margherita (“dal 1889”) to black olive pie, white truffle pie with mushrooms, cambozola, mozzarella, truffle oil and caramelized onions and san vito with spicy sausage with peppers and onions, there’s no shortage of options to choose from on the menu.

Anthony went for the Black Olive Pie, which included black olives, arugula (very very fresh), tomato sauce, mozzarella and provola.

Of course, I tried a slice, but wanted to go with a slightly lighter option for lunch. Take a look at the ever so epic Beef Carpaccio, served with parmigiano, arugula, and a dijon aioli. It was so fresh and delicious that I’d argue you don’t even need the aioli. The olive oil is enough – it had me at hello.

Above and below, the ever so delicious Beef Carpaccio as an appetizer

It’s a great spot for a romantic meal — lunch or dinner. They also offer more decadent options like a truffled Gnocchi with white truffle oil, melted fontina cheese and parmigiano, fried calamari, steamed clams or mussels arribbiata (wood-fired), as well as salmon with capers.

If you want pasta, they’ve got you covered with veal “osso buco” ravioli with mushrooms in a porcini cream sauce, lobster and crab ravioli, pesto genovese with asparagus, basil cream and pine nuts or classic ragu bolognese with hand-cut pappardelle pasta. It’s hard to go wrong with any of their choices. They have plenty of great wines by the glass as well as by the bottle — Champagne and Prosecco too of course.

If you have time for dessert, which we didn’t this time around, then you’ll be in heaven. Imagine all of your Italian and French favorites: creme brulee, chocolate mousse, black and white cannoli, cheese cake, Biscotti, Spumone Napoletana, Sorbet and Amaretto Affogato (more amazing biscotti). They also offer amazing dessert cocktails like chocolate and espresso martinis.

Two thumbs up — we’re definitely return. For more information, be sure to visit their website.

Village Corner

An epic place for breakfast is Village Corner on the corner of Delores and Sixth. Established in 1948, Village Corner California Bistro is considered a bit of a dining institution in Carmel-by-the-Sea. They have a great patio area for dining during Covid which is great as well.

The outdoor deck area is lovely on a sunny day — it’s a great place to people watch and flowers are draped around the edge of the outdoor sitting area.

Above and below are shots taken from our trip in February. While they’re known for breakfast and brunch, it makes a great lunch spot as well.

In addition to the more classic options we ordered (see below), you can go a little more decadent if you wish, like Brioche French Toast with whipped cream and blueberries, Eggs Benedict with Canadian bacon and Hollandaise sauce, Leige Brioche Belgian waffles with cream and berries, or Buttermilk Pancakes with banana pecan or blueberry toppings. Wow, right?

Sour dough toast with poached eggs and bacon. Oh yeah, and I had a side of cottage cheese to boot.

Scrambled eggs with an English muffin, sausage and fruit

They also have a great omelett selection as well, from smoked salmon and roasted veggie to smoked ham with cheese and spinach with feta. You can also go for a burrito, a Brisket or even Pastrami Hash and Eggs. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget the Huevos Rancheros which Anthony often orders.

They do have organic bread as well as Gluten Free Toast options as well for those with dietary restrictions. For more information, visit their website.

Hogs Breath Inn

This hangout in downtown Carmel is on San Carlos Street and is known for the Clint Eastwood-inspired decor dishes up American comfort food & cocktails.  They have a fabulous patio that is great for drinks or bites.

Photo credit: Hogs Breath Inn

Below is the patio while we were there in February.

For more information, visit their website.

Carmel Bakery on Ocean

Right on Ocean Avenue, you’ll find Carmel Bakery, which is a quaint 1906 bakeshop dispensing European-style pastries and pretzels, coffee, soups and sandwiches. Can you say decadent?

What a gem of a find. There was a long line when we were there in February. If you’re a chocolate lover, you won’t be able to pass this cafe. For more information, visit their website.

The Little Swiss Cafe

Located on Sixth Avenue and Delores in Carmel, this place is so quaint you’ll want to pop your head in even if you don’t dine here. They have outdoor tables however, so give it a try.

Look at the cute details inside? Attention to detail once again, something that Carmel is so good at, again and again.

This is a great spot for breakfast or lunch. Take a look at their Yelp page.


Enzo in downtown Carmel is an upmarket Mediterranean cafe showcasing Italian cuisine and wines in a stylish, subdued setting. It is located on San Carlos between Ocean and 7th, so just off the main drag.

Inside the restaurant

Looking into the restaurant from the street

They offer outdoor tables as well. If you love Italian food, give it a try. Here’s their website for more information.

Photo credit: Enzo

Le Soufflé

Located on the corner of 5th and Delores in Carmel, you’ll be greeted with Le Soufflé which offers just a couple of outdoor tables on a quaint and romantic wooden patio area.

Le Soufflé is a fine dining traditional French soufflé restaurant that is the work of co-owners Lisa & Tyler Foreman and Ivan Samchenko, the chef & co-owner. Inside is so beautifully done — see below.

Looking through the windows at Le Souffle in Carmel (above and below)

If you are a soufflé lover, don’t miss the experience.

Photo credit: Le Soufflé

For more information visit their website.

Dametra Cafe 

This cozy yet high-energy choice for Mediterranean specialties, pizza and pasta in a rustic space offers outdoor dining as well and it’s OH so adorable. 

You really get the feel of the Mediterranean as well as its accompanying food experience at this gem of a spot on Ocean Avenue.

Below is inside the cafe during our visit in February – very tastfully done.

The outdoor tables bring a little bit of European style flavor into the streets of Carmel.

Above photo credit: Dametra Cafe

For more information, visit their website.

Cafes in Monterey: Water & Leaves and Alta Bakery & Cafe

Two great options for breakfast in Monterey include Alta Bakery & Cafe on Munras Avenue and Water & Leaves on Fisherman’s Wharf. Think freshly baked items, pastries, and at Water & Leaves, be sure to order their signature Liege Belgium waffle. You can even enjoy that waffle with a view of the Monterey Bay. Alta Bakery is set in the restored Cooper Molera complex and has a really funky vibe.

Photo credit: Alta Bakery

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