Friday, July 6, 2007

Article published Jul 5, 2007
Hospitality at its finest
Food writer RICARDO A. DIAZ takes a break from burgers and decides to class it up

Lately I have been stuck in a rut. It’s nothing too bad, but the allure of burgers and french fries have been sucking me in and I haven’t been putting up too much of a fight.

So it is time to class it up a bit and rub elbows with the more refined palettes, to look at menus in Italian and French and wonder how they say “french fries” in those languages (it is “pommes frites” and “patate fritte,” in case you were wondering).

But I have a feeling that my eyes won’t be looking for those trigger words this time around, because from what I hear this place leaves nothing to be desired. I am in Carmel and I just sat down at da Giovanni on Lincoln Lane, not far from the busy tourist strip of Ocean Avenue but in a world all its own.

This is something I have missed while on my recent string of burger joints — not that those places are not hospitable, every one has had good service, but at da Giovanni it is hospitality at its finest. Here the servers’ first instincts are not to get you ordering but to put you at ease, to discuss the menu or anything you might be transitioning from at that moment.

I file in with the rest of the crowd coming in from a day in Carmel, and even though the restaurant has a wine list as long as my arm, I have to pass (but a number of da Giovanni’s private reserve labels are calling my name). I need all of my wits about me if I am to get out of these woods tonight.

The owner, Firok Shield, works the room and stops by my table to answer a few questions. With all the good things on this menu, it would be good to get a little advice on where to begin.

“People who come here who know, know that our cannelloni is wonderful,” Firok says. “It is not on our menu but it is almost always one of the specials. We have to have it a lot because people come in just for that. We start with ground filet mignon, add some ricotta, spinach, and then we bake it in red and white sauce.”

And he is not kidding; you see those plates of cannelloni at just about every table.

But the good stuff here is not limited to the cannelloni.

There are many good ways to start at da Giovanni, but this is one of the rare places that always has carpaccio on the menu. It’s thinly sliced filet mignon, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and freshly shaved parmigiano reggiano. Add a few drops of lemon juice and you have the beginning of a beautiful meal.

Next I decide to try the linguine de Sardinia, with jumbo tiger prawns sautéed in southern Mediterranean spices.

Those fresh prawns leave me with no regrets, but I can’t help but look with longing eyes at my neighbor’s crab and smoked salmon ravioli, served in a champagne cream sauce with shallots and topped with baby scallops. It’s hard to look at that plate and not want a taste.

But it’s now time for the decision of the main entrée, and the Chilean sea bass is calling my name. So is the rack of lamb.

“I get people in here who buy gift certificates to give their concierge as a gift for recommending this place,” Firok tells me. “… You know, some people play golf for fun, others collect money, but I love doing this. It is no show; it is my passion.”

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