The owners of Monterey Coastal Cuisine spared no bell nor whistle in designing this sexy addition to Carmel’s Main Street. At the entrance (a heavy copper door with a small porthole window), guests adjust their eyes to the dreamy slates and wood tones, as well as the textured fabric wallpaper, the squiddy light fixtures floating down from the ceiling, and the actual aquatic life bobbing in the aquarium that is built into the paneled wall behind the host’s head. There are dining cubbies lit by chandeliers that look like driftwood dripping with ice crystals. Walls are whitewashed brick or covered in muted, color-blocked murals that conjure misty seascapes. And the dining room’s ceiling is a busy topographic map of beams and dropped panels hanging at various levels for both acoustics and, I suspect, some added flair. Monterey’s hype index is decidedly pre-2020, a throwback to a time when, blissfully unaware of so much, we regarded restaurants as luxuries and mini-escapes. In a perfect world, we could ride out the last months of this pandemic in one of its cushy leather clamshell booths, slurping fresh oysters and sipping Highway 1 Vespers.
The bulk of Monterey’s menu is a deep dive into sushi and sashimi. It covers the spectrum of standard traditional rolls, as well as some more flashy specialty creations, like the spicy tuna–based Mexicali flavored with tropical pico, cilantro, and Japanese chili oil. The Lone Cyprus contains snow crab, shrimp, and lightly seared tuna, and the Mount Diablo’s soy-paper skin can barely contain its soft-shell crab innards. It is all, predictably, delicious. Who wouldn’t fall for a tempura-fried Krusty Krab roll packed with spicy tuna and avocado and lacquered in tiger sauce, or the TNT, which is more like eight little scoops of creamy, spicy seafood spread on top of rice?
A full team of sushi chefs assemble these fishy gems behind a raw bar that spans the back dining room. The presentation is as gorgeous as it is meticulous, the plates bedazzled with live flowers, nests of daikon, and wasabi roses. Some of the rolls are cut on the bias and arranged like little tempura skylines while others line up along lengths of bamboo leaves. Specialty rolls pander (deliciously) to the tastes of sushi neophytes with creations like the eel sauce–squiggled Dragonfly and the Fresh Prince, which has a cream-cheese core and should be included in any sushi-eater’s starter kit. Meanwhile, purists can choose from a selection of bright, pristine sashimi laid out like jewels, along with three artful Chef Plates: Snow Crab Hand Roll, Salmon Avocado Sashimi, and Hamachi Citrus Sashimi.
If you are a bit overwhelmed, that’s perfectly natural. It’s been a while since people have seen the inside of a restaurant—or, at least, felt at ease there. Monterey, which is located in Hamilton County and co-owned by Chris Thomas (the former general manager at Kona Grill) and Carmel-based homebuilder Paul Estridge, Jr., opened in early April, around the same time that Indiana started loosening its social-distancing restrictions. That near-perfect timing meant that if you got up to use the bathroom and realized halfway there that you forgot your mask, an employee might just tell you not to worry about it, as if the experience didn’t feel like that terrifying recurring dream in which you’ve gone to work without your pants.
As a service to anyone still not comfortable crossing the threshold of indoor dining, this old Scotty’s Brewhouse location offers a covered patio that faces Carmel’s leg of the Monon Trail. It’s a breezy, dog-friendly spot, perfect for enjoying a flatbread pizza while taking in the bustling scene. Anthony’s Chophouse sits diagonally across the street, serving cocktails and pricey steaks in an equally lush setting. With lights and fountains built into the landscaping and a fancy wide crosswalk carved into the street, the cluster of fresh limestone-and-brick architecture at this well-heeled intersection represents the New Carmel, a temptingly attractive self-contained village. In the middle of it all, a police officer statue by artist John Seward Johnson (one of the town’s 17 lifelike installments that first arrived in 2005) represents the old New Carmel.
If the vibe reads “North Suburban Renaissance,” the menu alludes to Monterey’s rugged California coastal namesake, referenced in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row but also Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Nicole Kidman’s house in Big Little Lies. Seafood entrees are especially strong, including ginger-glazed salmon that stays pink and meaty inside its sesame-seed crust, laid atop nutty forbidden black rice. Miso butter provides a savory bottom note to the seared seabass, and the ahi tuna is accompanied by a panko rice cake and sweet-chili sauce. Even the obligatory crabcakes (weighty and drizzled in soy-ginger aioli) and fried calamari (punctuated with a few starchy discs of batter-fried lotus root) go out of their way to impress.
Roasted chicken is served with mascarpone polenta and sundried-tomato cream sauce, while the 12-ounce Fischer Farms pork chop gets a piggy upgrade from bourbon-bacon jam. The menu covers the spectrum of food groups, promising filets and ribeyes plated with wild mushrooms and house mashed potatoes, as well as a 10-ounce Big Sur Burger sourced from nearby Joe’s Butcher Shop—and then dipping into lighter fare, like a brilliant roasted beet salad that plays the pickled tanginess against a cloud of goat cheese mousse and candied pecans, all arranged over baby arugula tossed in white balsamic vinaigrette. For dessert, a flight of three mini tarts wearing crowns of mixed fruit that would not look out of place in a patisserie window. The gin fizz poured tableside turns a stunning shade of violet before your eyes.
It comes as no surprise that a restaurant channeling the romance of granite sea cliffs and salt spray would serve food almost too pretty to eat. Monterey is, after all, a beautiful distraction that arrived just when we needed an escape