Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Return Visit: Stokes - Monterey, Ca

What do you do when you return to a restaurant that you love? Why is it never as good as the first time? Dining out is nothing like sex, where the first time is painful and awkward, then it gets really good for a while before it gets boring and rote and you have to bring sex dwarves and tranny grapefruits into the relationship just to spice things up.

Do restaurants obey the laws of thermodynamics? Is entropy at work making it impossible for a restaurant to ever be better on subsequent visits and can only hope they can hold constant against it?

Or maybe we just idealize our first visits? Everything is interesting and new--flavors we haven't tasted before and on subsequent visits we taste the same quality, but it just doesn't hit us as strongly....

Nah, my vote's for entropy.

On that topic, HFF returned to Stokes, site of the inaugural review just over a year ago, and I figured we had no choice but to review it again.

Entropy was hard at work here.

The menu is just as expansive as before, with small bites/small plates/large plates/simple sides which is a great way to operate, giving customers the ability to decide how they eat without being committed to appetizer and entree versus tapas style.

I ordered a bottle of white rhone which was excellent--aromatic, crisp, and complex. Stokes' wine list, for all its selection, seemed strikingly lacking in diversity. French and California heavy, and within that very pinot noir and chardonnay heavy. Not uncommon for wine lists in general I know, but it just felt a little bit dated, given the contemporary style of the menu. I know a couple dozen Spanish, German, and Austrian wines (not to mention Italian and funkier domestic wines) that'd serve well with the Mediterranean-tinged menu.

We kicked off with two small bites and a small plate for our first course. Caramelized onion and olive flatbread was a glaring disappointment--the flatbread was room temperature and had about two pieces onion on it, though the olives were fabulous. Smoked trout with dill crostini was good, but the smoked trout was served with so much seasoning that it overwhelmed the smoked flavors. If you're going to take the time to house-smoke your trout, why the fuck would you want to overpower that flavor? The parsnip soup with spiced pumpkin seeds and guanciale was the highlight of the evening--rich and creamy without feeling heavy. The pumpkin seed allocation was generous and contrastingly complimentary and with cured pork being at the root of anything good the guanciale was the perfect addition.

Entrees were pretty good. My steelhead was overcooked for my tastes but not overcooked in the abstract sense. The marinated roasted beets and fines-herbes hollandaise sounded weird on paper but played with the fish in a good and funky way. Charlie's crispy pork shoulder was excellently prepared with anise reduction and a tiny dollop of apple puree. The only problem? Too much pork, not enough anything else. Given the mammoth of swine on the plate, a bit more sauce and sides would've been welcome.

We also got an order of braised fennel which was soft, tasty, aromatic and just a touch too oily. But good.

Last time we went to Stokes we got two desserts and made pigs of ourselves. This time, only one--a caramelized pear upside down cake that was not too moist, not too dry. Excellent closer paired perfectly with a glass of Bonny Doon framboise.

So there it was--nothing like the rave-inducing first visit but solid nonetheless. Still, there was a sloppiness that wasn't there a year ago (perhaps because it was a busy Friday instead of a lazy Sunday? Still no excuse.) and the same "problem" as before: too much protein, not enough everything else.

Stokes is still good, but growing increasingly disorganized.

Entropy ho!

1 comment:

charlene said...

next time we'll have to try Stokes mid-week and see if it's any different. also, our server was weird and i wished we had the manager at our table, again.
but good god, that was a lot of pork. good thing i heart pork.