A few of this county's restaurateurs attempt to scale the peaks--far more, of course, are content to wallow in the valleys, and these we can ignore at our leisure. But the interesting truth is that, for all our mountains, we never have had a mountaintop restaurant.
The Carmel Mountain Ranch Country Club, whose dining room is open to the public, actually does occupy an eminence. The view in all directions extends to yet-untrammeled mountains, all of them stony and wild. The drama of the setting is lessened somewhat by the ocean of houses that slopes down from the club on all sides in regular waves of gray and brownish-umber roofs. The residences, of course, supply the raison d'etre for the club, which also offers private golf facilities.
The dining room now serves only lunch and Sunday brunch, although the dinner bell probably will be rung as soon as the surrounding population swells sufficiently. The lunch menu is quite sufficient for the present. Although brief, it is a surprisingly well-considered list that nicely matches the dining room, a formal, handsome, high-ceilinged place endowed with huge windows that draw in the distant mountains. The service is as gracious as the surroundings.
Chef Douglas Newberry, who served a local stint at The French Gourmet and has worked in country club kitchens elsewhere, writes the menu daily. It recently opened with a dressy cream of asparagus and continued on with a Caesar salad fleshed out with grilled chicken; a second, rather daunting salad of fresh fruits with granola and vanilla yogurt; grilled salmon in dill sauce; sauteed oysters with mushroom cream sauce and pasta; grilled shrimp in cilantro cream sauce and, most atonally, "blackened" chicken breast with roasted red pepper sauce. There were several other choices, including the sandwich of the day, in this case a vegetable-stuffed round of pita bread spread with avocado and herbed cream cheese.
The asparagus cream had an excellent flavor and body, and was likable for its classical presentation, which resulted in snipped asparagus tips being added to the bowl just before service. This soup is not difficult to prepare, although it rarely is done with grace.
The house salad, an a la carte option, was a simple but elegant arrangement of Boston and radicchio lettuces with fresh, crisp croutons and a sticky-sweet but tasty honey-mustard dressing. There was an old-fashioned "ladies lunch" quality to this dressing that jibed with the hats worn at some of the tables.
The entrees this particular day ranged in price from $5.50 (for the fruit salad) to $7.25 for a grilled beef tenderloin in brandy and tarragon-flavored brown sauce. The portion seemed almost unbelieveably generous at this price, which would have meant nothing had the dish disappointed. But Newberry turned out a quite credible variation on the standard luncheon tournedos , the meat properly cooked and the sauce quite nicely flavored--tarragon always is happy with filet of beef. A melange of sauteed squashes and a hum-drum mound of rice pilaf garnished the plate.
The cheese tortellini in a light cream sauce, finished with snipped basil and chopped tomato, likewise was virtually shoveled onto the plate. The flavor, however, was distorted by the simple fact that, while tomato sauce and cream sauce can be successfully blended, raw tomato and cream are not comfortable together. The pairing gave the dish an unfinished quality that, oddly enough, seemed to echo the skeletal house frames outside the windows.
The dessert tray is catered by an outside supplier and could offer a wider selection. The cakes all are on the filling side, and a dish of berries or diced mixed fruit would not be amiss.
CARMEL MOUNTAIN RANCH COUNTRY CLUB
14050 Carmel Ridge Road, Carmel Mountain Ranch
Hours: Lunch served Monday through Saturday; Sunday brunch.
Cost: Entrees from $5.50 to $7.25; lunch for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, $20 to $30. Credit cards accepted.