Dazed and Confused: Basquing on the Beach
I feel I must start this post with my philosophy for writing these reviews for you. I’m not a chef, and therefore have no right to criticize. I prefer to inspire you by telling you what I enjoy no matter where we go. I don’t want to be a “restaurant critic” because everyone has bad nights, servers in bad moods, stand-in cooks. I simply want to inspire you to try everything and make up your own mind, but also have been told I know good food, which is why I started posting to begin with. So please accept this post in that spirit as you read. Now, on to the day AFTER 4/20, which may explain why I entitled this post “Dazed and Confused.”
Great friends Mel and Bob (from our evening at Marisol) invited us to join them at a new restaurant that opened in place of Old Vienna, the only German food we’ve found in the county. I was terribly excited to hear it was Basque food, which we have thoroughly enjoyed on each trip we’ve taken to the Tenth Street Basque Cafe in San Miguel. That place always amazes and amuses us. A single seating on Friday, Saturday and Sunday inside an old house. You don’t just feel like you’re eating in someone’s dining room – you are! Red berets, passing the wine skin, non-stop courses being brought out in big dishes to your table to share, unusual preparations of seafoods, meats and produce ending in Chef Dallas’ scrumptious paella. This is what I was expecting at this new Basque restaurant only a few minutes from my house. I was excited.
We park and approach the entrance to what used to be our beloved German restaurant and noticed the sign. It read “Alphy’s Basque Chateau,” and I’m making a point in saying this next part: each word was in a different font. I can hear the groans of all the people who just stopped reading, but for those of you who know why this is the 8th Deadly Sin know that this set me on edge. I was also thinking “Wait, isn’t Alphy short for Alphonse, which is probably Italian – Basque is Spanish – and a Chateau is French?” Inside the entry is the old familiar bar – still with German signs all over it, and very little seems to have actually been updated in the restaurant. In fact, the German signs on the bathroom doors are still up. “No biggie. I’m here for the food,” I tell myself.
The place is loud and busy. I take my plastic seat at the corner table and join our friends. The drink menu is limited (I’m assuming still in development) but our friends brought a magnum of wine to share. The menu, to me, looks decidedly American and includes steak, chicken, pork chops, scallops, shrimp and lamb – the barbecued meats are cooked over an oak pit. That has promise. The dishes are expensive, but it’s because they come with multiple courses brought to the table – soup, salad, potatoes with peppers, carrots with mint, pasta, ice cream or wine sorbet after dinner – and pickled beef tongue. Cool. I like new experiences. But here we are by the sea in Shell Beach eating mostly “mountain” food – we’ll have to see how this goes.
The staff was friendly and on it. I’m glad about that for a new place, because that’s so often not the case. The only hiccup I detected was when I asked about getting a mojito and was told they didn’t have any mint. But the carrots with mint have the prerequisite mint, I thought, and let it go. My server recommended the lamb shank, which I agreed to. The rest of the table all got something different on the menu, so we had lots of notes to compare.
The soup was fun. Big bowls with accompanying beans and salsa (yaay, Spanish food) to add as you choose. Nice flavors, but really salty. Soup is really tough to make for a lot of people eating over a long period of time because the water cooks off and concentrates the salt. Bread and butter were bread and butter. Then came the salad and beef tongue. The salad was truly delicious. Simple, but a fantastic dressing. The beef tongue was an adventure. I did not like looking at the consistency, so cut it in thin strips. It crumbled because it was tender, and had a nice flavor. Pickled tongue is to steak like canned sardines are to halibut. Get the picture? It was a fun side dish which I would experiment with again.
The Donati Family Claret on the table made everything better. A delicious Bordeaux blend of red wine perfect for a dinner like this. My entree came out with the aforementioned sides. Potatoes with peppers were excellent. The carrots were diced small and cooked well (with the mint stolen from mojitos). Very tasty. The pasta was well done. The lamb shank was my biggest disappointment, even after the recommendation from the waiter. It was mostly fat, tasted a bit gamey, and came out luke warm. In fact, we heard from the rest of the table that about three quarters of the entrees were luke warm as well. I helped myself to tasting some of the others’ food. The steaks were beautifully cooked and had that familiar oak flavor we’re used to here on the Central Coast. I will be getting that next time. The scallops looked delicious, and I was told they were. The pork chop looked very well prepared and was super thick and barbecued just as I like it.
I’m not down on the place at all. I was just a bit confused on this first visit. So I came home and did some research and found out that Basque food can vary from the more coastal Spanish influences to the more mountainous French influences. So even though it wasn’t the Basque cuisine I was expecting, it ended up being something new and different.
I think we’ll give Alphy’s Basque Chateau a little time to get into their groove and maybe change the German signs on the bathroom doors. I look forward to going back to try some steaks and pork chops – I’ll ask for them to be served hot next time. And I’ll bring people who know more about this kind of food than I obviously do to get their opinions. As for while I’m waiting, this experience has renewed my desire to go check out the Tenth Street Basque Cafe again. Do any of you want to join us? It’s a place in the mountains serving seafood. Go figure.