The clubhouse at the new Carmel Highland resort hotel in Rancho Penasquitos can be a pretty lively place, as it was recently when a golf quartet noisily strolled through the lobby celebrating one fellow's just-won trophy.
This group was headed from the Terraces cafe to the Double Eagle bar; to make a safe guess, the talk in both these rooms turns mostly to past, future and--on occasion--present holes-in-one. But, between them, located behind a door tucked discreetly into an angle in the wall, is a much more quiet and circumspect room called Trents.
The windows in this roughly circular room look over the rolling course, and, if you arrive before sundown you can watch the golfers at play and vicariously participate in their bogeys and vexations. But the room also invites guests to exclude the outer world; the furnishings are elegantly dark and luxurious, the lighting muted and derived partly from the tiny flames that flicker in vase-shaped lamps on each table.
Trents' menu has its ambitions and seems somewhat fascinated by Southwestern and post- nouvelle California cuisines, although chef Terence McGill also turns to French classicism at times, as with the complimentary amuse gueules served when guests are seated. These recently took the form of bite-sized puff pastries (just one per diner) filled with a smooth and rather gratifying smoked-salmon paste.
Salmon in fact swims through the menu and illustrates the list's various allegiances. As an appetizer, it is offered both poached and chilled on a bed of chili mayonnaise (a Southwestern gesture) and raw and chopped as a California-style tartare. A three-pepper relish garnishes this dish. The entree list offers a baby Coho salmon with garlic-basil butter, and the evening's fish special also is likely to be salmon, offered recently in a very traditional French presentation that baked fish, spinach and mushrooms in a puff paste cloak and moistened the burnished loaf with a creamy butter sauce. The finished product was good but not brilliant.
The menu takes its furthest steps away from convention on the starter list, which offers cold duck breast in a Mandarin orange sauce; snails braised in white wine with Pernod and salsa-flavored butter; sauteed rabbit tenderloin in mustard sauce and a clever presentation of grilled shiitake mushrooms alternated on the plate with triangular toasts spread with goat cheese. Onion soup is offered a la francaise or in a Southwestern variant garnished with a green chili pepper crouton and peppered Jack cheese; the chilled potato-leek soup is much more refined and sedate, but heavier on cream (the texture is seductive) than on flavor.
The entree list offers hotel dining room standards but tends to treat them in out-of-the-ordinary fashions; examples would be grilled swordfish basted with paprika and olive oil, breast of duck baked under a pepper jelly glaze, veal loin medallions brushed with a honey-and-lime flavored cream sauce, and a veal chop garnished with roasted garlic, fennel and rosemary sauce. The "famous" pepper steak (a conceit on the part of the menu writer, since the place is too new to be famous for anything) has the distinction of being marinated but only lightly coated in cracked pepper, which gives the meat a good flavor. The steak is sliced before it hits the grill, however, and would be better were it cooked whole.
The kitchen evidently exhausts its energies on savory dishes, since the offerings on the dessert cart come from an outside supplier. The selection of mousse cakes is satisfactory but dull, except in the case of the "rocky road" version, a wildly rich confection that takes chocolate near its limit.
Carmel Highland Golf & Tennis Resort
14455 Penasquitos Dr.
When: Dinner served nightly
Cost: Dinner for two, including one glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $45 to $75 Credit cards accepted