Ally
5th Avenue between Mission Street & San Carlos, Carmel, CA 93921. (The city of Carmel does not use house/building numbers).
(831) 625-0501
http://www.casanovarestaurant.com

Last week, Mr.S. and I ducked away for a romantic getaway to Monterey. We booked a couple of nights at the Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa and relaxed. We slept in, ate great food and acted like two kids playing hooky. The hotel had this great outdoor fire pit where we cozied up to at night and watched the lights across the peninsula and listened to the soothing surf.



While we were in town  we went and checked out the Monterey Bay Aquarium (neither of us had been there in years). Mr.S. petted a stingray but I was too chicken to. I did say hello to this guy though:


A 11 lb. spiny lobster! Of course, I didn't tell him (her?) that I was picturing him grilled with a side of butter. We also spent some time gazing at the jellyfish exhibit (my favorite). I could spend hours in that room. There's something just so serene about the jellyfish with their translucent bodies floating against the blue background.





Speaking of food, for dinner we stumbled upon a lovely restaurant in Carmel. It looks like a quaint, little European country house from the outside but the inside actually goes pretty far back and they have two patios, one in the front and one in the middle. The restaurant is called Casanova's and it's quite romantic. We liked it so much, we ended up going there for dinner two nights in a row. The first night, we sat inside by a window at a cozy little two-top. The atmosphere with it's dim lights and rustic interior made us feel like we were in some small, intimate ristorante in Italy, I loved it. Our waiter, Alejo was fabulous - his service was polished and professional from start to finish and he was quite knowledgeable about the menu. After perusing the extensively long wine list (it's over 100 pages long with wines up to 5k and they employ multiple wine stewards), I started with a glass of the Domaine La Remejeanne Côtes du Rhône. It was okay- a bit spicy but pleasing to the palate. As we perused the menu (which was a mix of French and Italian inspired country-fare), our waiter brought over some fresh breadsticks with a tangy tapenade. For an appetizer, Mr.S. and I went with an order of their signature Gnocchi Casanova. These delicate little pillows of spinach in a heavenly Parmesan cream sauce were pure gastronomic bliss. The dumplings just melt in your mouth...and the sauce, oh the sauce! It was so rich and delicious, we set aside our manners and dipped a few breadsticks into it after we polished off the gnocchi. For dinner, Mr.S. ordered seared scallops with black truffle risotto, spring pea and carrot ragu and beef jus. He gave me a bite and it was wonderful. The scallops had a nice crispy sear and the risotto was creamy and perfectly cooked, it also had a bright aftertaste that I really enjoyed. For my entrée, Alejo recommended the Mount Meadows lamb rack with artichokes, caramelized onion, garlic and potato puree and jus and I went with that. I wasn't crazy about the artichokes and would have preferred another vegetable but overall the dish was delectable and well balanced- the lamb was tender and juicy, cooked to perfection and I absolutely loved the savory caramelized onions. Although we were quite full, we decided to splurge with some after dinner drinks and desserts. Mr.S. got an Americano, which they brought out on a charming little antique tray with a mini milk bottle for the creamer, a chocolate and a small biscotti (FYI: he's a huge coffee snob and he loved their brew). I went with one of my favorites-  Macallan 18, neat (which I saw made our server's eye twinkle). For our dessert, we got the tarte aux bananes and the beignet platter. The tarte aux bananes was composed of a vanilla custard, caramelized bananas, homemade vanilla whipped cream, caramel sauce and a crunchy graham cracker crust. It was delightful, no heavy burned banana taste or cloying sweetness. Now I have a real soft spot for beignets so I was hoping that Casanova's version wouldn't disappoint- and it didn't. When I bit into the lightly fried beignets, they were nice and crispy on the outside and soft and airy in the inside. Mmm! It also came with three "dipping sauces" - crème anglaise, chocolate sauce and a citrus marmalade on the side which was a nice touch. Alejo checked back on us regularly, didn't rush us and paced our courses perfectly. Ever leave a restaurant and have a happy afterglow for hours afterwards? That's how we were that night after our dinner at Casanova's. This restaurant delivered that night on ambiance, service and food. 5 stars in every category across the board. It felt like a truly memorable dining experience and the perfect place to take someone special; however...

I wish I could say when we came back the next night that it was the same, but it wasn't. This time we asked to be seated outside and maybe that was a mistake. We were seated at a small table, jammed up next to a tree on the patio/garden. The tables were so close together that I felt I was elbow to elbow and back to back with the other diners. It was quite cramped. Additionally, the music was so loud, I felt like Mr.S. and I were shouting at each other across the table. The topper though was that our waiter, Steve, was terrible...absolutely terrible. Maybe it was coming off of having flawless service from Alejo the night before but I found Steve's service to be bumbling, obtrusive and at times rude. Off the bat, he seemed PO'd that Mr.S. ordered sparkling water and I wanted a raspberry mojito (it was hot on the patio) and kept trying to push us to order wine. When we wouldn't budge, he stumbled off, pouting (yes, pouting!). Service was unbelievably slow from start to finish. When Steve came to take our order, he didn't ask what we liked, he just hurriedly pointed out what he liked in a sharp manner that made me feel like I was being barked at by a drill sergeant. Mr.S. and I decided to order a full order of the Gnocchi Casanova, instead of just an appetizer order, to start with this time since we liked it so much. Our drinks didn't come out until our appetizer was set on the table and then we had to ask for breadsticks and tapenade. (At this point, our waiter was making us feel like we were putting him out and we were obviously not a priority for him.) For dinner, Mr.S. ordered the same scallop dish that he had the night before. I, however, opted to order the Fresh Catch, which was described as fresh halibut, smoked mushrooms, and fiddlehead ferns with ricotta gnocchi. What I got was grouper and no fiddlehead ferns. As he's setting down my plate, Steve informs me out of the blue that they're out of halibut and they've substituted grouper, he says nothing about the MIA fiddlehead ferns. Um, I'm not sure why he couldn't have told me this BEFORE he was placing the dish in front of me? I'm a bit livid and annoyed at this point but I'm stuck, if I make a fuss and send it back, Mr.S. will either have to eat his dinner solo or sit there and wait for mine while his gets cold. I kept the stupid grouper but I was quite disappointed about Steve's bait and switch. (Note: the fish was cooked quite well, I liked how the skin was crispy and it wasn't overcooked. The sautéed greens that replaced the fiddlehead ferns were a bit bitter and boring, they didn't do much for me.) For dessert, we split the crème brulee (which was a nice size serving and not too sweet) and Mr.S. has another Americano. Steve doesn't check back on us so we have to flag him down to get more creamer. He does walk by a few minutes later to plop the check on the table though. Mr.S. places his credit card in the bill holder and sets it at the edge of the table. We finish dessert at a pretty leisurely pace and then wait another 15 minutes, Steve never comes by. Finally, in a fit of exasperation I take the check to the hostess up front , explain how we've been waiting and have her run it so we can leave. There's no afterglow after this particular dinner, in fact I think our waiter is a giant ass and definitely should not be working in fine dining. His service didn't lack because the place was busy or because he had a big section, it lacked because he was an awful waiter and wasn't motivated to provide good service. We tipped but only out of a feeling of obligation, I really felt that it wasn't deserved in the least. I've honestly had better service at Chili's. On the way back to our hotel, we stopped by Carmel Beach and watched the last bit of the sunset. The cool, smooth sand felt incredible between my toes, calmed me down and brought me back to vacation-mode.

So as you can see, I'm torn on recommending Casanova. The rustic charm and fabulous food really won me over, but the experience can be outstanding or extremely disappointing depending on who your server is.

* Patio is dog friendly
* Reservations (for dinner) highly recommended
* Supposedly there's a secret little special table in the back (private room) that was brought from France. Vincent Van Gough used to sit at it when he dined at Auberge Ravoux in Auver-sur-Oise.
* Menu changes seasonally
* Casanova will allow you to tour their wine cellar if you ask

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