A Ringer: Chef Mark Ayers at TusCa and Pacific's Edge

Every so often, I come across an extraordinary chef who hasn't been hyped up yet. For a food writer, this is a fun and exciting moment!

I love giving props to people who are doing great things, so today's post covers Mark Ayers, a chef whose food I first enjoyed last year at TusCa restaurant down in the Monterey Hyatt Regency -- and more recently at the stunning Pacific's Edge restaurant at Carmel's tony Highlands Inn.

(It *is* autumn getaway season, after all!)

Ayers' food at TusCa is sophisticated and homey-chic at a very mid-range price point, not what I'd expected from the hotel restaurant at a Hyatt plopped on a golf course in Monterey.

He makes all attempts to shop local, and the back of house is run in part by serious Norcal surfers, a type known among surfing buffs for their fastidious natures and conscientious ways. Always good in a kitchen.

Wood oven pizzas ($12-$14) are savory and thin-crusted if I recall correctly, and soups like white asparagus with porcini oil ($9) are delicate and thorough in flavor. I loved a Pacific grilled sea bass plated with a platterful of grilled artichokes, fingerling potatoes, green beans, and baby squash in a fine fumeto; at $21, it's a dish that easily would go for $37 in the city.(And it's still on the menu.)

An open kitchen and a few high-backed booths give Tusca a cosmopolitan feel...

...And the wine bar can fulfill one's desires for a lil bit of chic -- to balance out an afternoon spent watching games and cheersing beers at Knuckles, the hotel's old-school "Historical Sports Bar." (Historical?)

The hotel is nice enough, with newly renovated rooms, two outdoor pools, and a full-service spa opening up in early 2009. At $240/nt or so, the pricing is competitive for a resort in the area.


Where Ayers shines, however, is at Pacific's Edge, an oft-noted fine dining destination with vertigo inducing, floor-to-ceiling windows cantilevered on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

The Highlands Inn was once independently owned and quite the darling among the Bay Area's traveling elite, but it was bought out by Hyatt in the last decade; for high-end hotel snobs, this brings down the Highlands Inn's former cache considerably (though not its $400+ room rates), but it's still a gorgeous place for an exemplary dinner and...dancing!

That's right. On weekend nights there's a live piano/jazz situation in the high-ceilinged great room adjacent to the restaurant (the "Fireside Lounge"), where a huge fireplace crackles and the pomegranate margaritas are top notch.

The divide is palpable between the glassy-eyed tourist couples of various ages sitting uncomfortably throughout the great room's couch seating, and the fun-loving glam set, who -- though seriously outnumbered -- do a decent job of decking out, cocktailing, and partner twirling between courses of Mark Ayers' haute cuisine menu.

The wine book at Pacific's Edge is impressive enough if a little short, listing excellent values like Alain Graillot's 2005 Crozes Hermitage ($65) as well as Napa cult wines like Kongsgaard and Arietta ($145-$265). We lucked out with a Pisoni estate pinot noir, grown in Monterey and perfs with Ayers' cheeky "Steak & Eggs" starter ($17) -- a poufy leek-gruyere quiche surrounded with (too few) slices of Tellicherry-peppered steak carpaccio.

Other standouts: a killer seared Hudson Valley foie gras ($26) with grilled brioche, caramelized pear and fig puree, and a light and lovely butter-braised lobster dish ($28) over a sweet corn bisque and potato risotto (potato risotto is all over the place, suddenly!). We hoovered up a plate of braised short ribs ($42) in an inky pinot noir reduction, cylindered over whipped potatoes and foraged mushrooms -- which the kitchen graciously split and plated for us.

As you can tell, the menu isn't challenging, nor is it groundbreaking. But the flavors are perfectly balanced, the textures are glorious, and the presentations are delicate without being precious. Oh, and there's the crashing sea beneath you, too.

Luxe booth seating by the windows is a must, so treat the hosts well to avoid getting seated at a rear table with freestanding chairs. Unless, you know, that's your thing.

It's oddly challenging to find truly excellent food in Carmel; you have to hunt and peck a bit to sort through all of the low-caliber, high-dollar traps that are stuck in the 80s, which seems to have been an era of one-dimensional continental cuisine and steamed cauliflower side dishes. (Not that I don't love my cauliflower. It good.)

I like knowing that talented chefs are doing their thing outside the SF city limits.

Gives a girl something to look forward to when the road lust sets in.

photos: Hyatt Hotels

p.s. Yesterday, I added my photos of Piccino's newly expanded space to that post, here:


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