34 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY june 13-19, 2024 www.montereycountynow.com Chef Ricardo Aguilar wants to show off the feature that drew him to his new post, Valley Kitchen. Instead of leading the way into the restaurant, however, Aguilar strides out the door and hops in a golf cart. The chef is an avid golfer and the resort property, Carmel Valley Ranch, includes a scenic course. But Aguilar pulls into a different patch of hillside. “I try to get to this garden as often as possible,” he says. “Every time I come out here I feel born again.” Aguilar apologizes for the reverent tone, even as he cuts back a fresh young artichoke and almost swoons at the flavor. “Yesterday I took out most of the chard,” he says, pointing to another small plot. “This is some of the best Swiss chard I’ve seen in my life.” The reverie continues at a patch of fava beans, which he offers raw, as if any other presentation would be an affront to nature. “I don’t want to cook them,” Aguilar explains. When he was a young line cook years ago, Aguilar worked for famed Bay Area chef Thomas Keller. He shakes his head at the memory of Keller becoming lyrical as he described the beauty of fresh produce well tended. At the time Aguilar was dismayed by poetic virtue Keller lauded to the vegetables. Now, however, it brings a smile. “I find myself in a position of, ‘I’ve been the idiot all this time,’” he says. A veteran of such stellar as Keller’s Bouchon of Beverly Hills and the upscale Japanese destination Nobu, Aguilar is versed in fine dining technique and quality ingredients. But with access to the Carmel Valley Ranch garden—along with honey from its apiary, cheese from its goat milk and salt cured onsite—Aguilar finds a well of inspiration. A baby artichoke salad tossed with some greens and dressed with lemon juice, truffle oil and parmesan intends to take your senses on a journey between what nature enhances and a chef’s deft measure of flavors. “You will not like it on the first bite,” he warns, noting that it takes the brain a moment to process what is going on—the dour weight of truffle oil as ballast for the peal of citrus; the briny tang of the cheese calming the bitter dart from kale. And just when you believe the artichoke has been burdened by all this commotion, it rises with a bright and grassy glory. “You will like it on the second bite,” the chef observes. Indeed, the salad becomes irresistible. This is preparation with intention and balance, where every ingredient and every flourish of technique plays a role necessary to the experience on the palate. “I want you to look at the food we serve and say ‘I could do this at home,’” Aguilar says. “I want it to be like watching a professional golfer—make it look easy.” But it’s not easy. Oh, a weekend duffer can use the same clubs, the same ball and study the pro’s swing in great detail. The shot, however, will end up on a different patch of fairway. The tuna poke taco cases the plush savor of line-caught ahi in the malty calm of a wonton shell. The combination is primed and ignited by a drizzle of aji amarillo aioli. To prepare the rudimentary pasta dish cacio e pepe, Aguilar’s team carefully shaves the yolk from freshly cracked eggs. The aim here is not authenticity, but simple excellence. Aguilar arrived at the property in November. Since then he has changed the entire menu, apart from a favorite beet salad. Such a drastic swap will always cause some grumbling, as regulars lose their routine dishes, and the chef admits the task was daunting. Yet he is seeing rewards as his style catches on. Two weeks after some customer dismay after he dropped short ribs from the menu, its replacement, braised beef cheek, sold out. “My goal was to cook for my parents,” Aguilar says, describing a couple with standards. “I feel like this restaurant would please them. The simple things will be done to a higher level.” The chef is soon back to the garden. “It’s not about excess, it’s about bounty,” he says. “I’ll show you a strawberry that will blow you away.” Valley Kitchen is at Carmel Valley Ranch, 1 Old Ranch Road, Carmel. 625-9500, carmelvalleyranch.com. First course When he is not in the kitchen, Chef Ricardo Aguilar can often be found in the gardens of Carmel Valley Ranch. for the passion…Pacific Grove restaurant Passionfish has become a dining destination and a leader in sustainable seafood over 27 years under ownership of Ted and Cindy Walter. Now a sale to Char Bar LLC is pending, with the deal possibly closing in July. Check for updates at montereycountynow.com/ eat_drink. Pair It On…If you love tapas and great wine, I have good news for you. Sea Stars Catering and Albatross Ridge are throwing an evening of Mediterranean tapas with wine pairings on Friday, June 14 from 6:30-8:30pm. Join them at Albatross Ridge’s Monterey tasting room for passed bites like seafood arancini and mussels on the half shell. Guests also get a bottle of Sparkling Piquet to take home. $125. 316 Alvarado St., Monterey. 241-6994, albatrossridge.com. Pour It On…The Monterey Wine Festival is here. The event takes place Saturday and Sunday, June 15-16, from noon-4pm. It’s a weekend full of local wine and small bites from near and far. Saturday attendees can get their share of chowder at the chowder competition and can vote for their favorite. $79-$99. 1 Portola Plaza, Monterey. montereywine.com. Cook The Books…Chef Cody Alias of Ad Astra Bread Co. is the next guest at Monterey Public Library’s Books & Cooks series. Learn about sourdough among the stacks on Saturday, June 15 from 2-4pm. 625 Pacific St., Monterey. 646-3933, investinmpl.org. Afternoon Delight…Robata Grill & Sake Bar is now open for lunch so you can get your afternoon fix of their extensive menu with classic Japanese dishes and sushi. With so many amazing offerings. it’s a good thing there are now more hours for you to try them all. Now open 11:30am-8pm Tuesday-Saturday. 3658 The Barnyard, Carmel. 624-2643, robatagrillcarmel.com. Visit Sicily…Get a taste of Sicily this summer at Paluca Trattoria. Chef Sal Tedesco has added some special items to the summer menu that are reminiscent of those he ate growing up in Sicily, but with a little local love. Think fresh Monterey ingredients in Sicilian meatballs, seafood pasta and lobster ravioli. 6 Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey. 373-5559, palucatrattoria.com. By Jacqueline Weixel morsels eatanddrink@montereycountynow.com “Every time I come out here I feel born again.” Eat + DrinK Nik Blaskovich Garden Days Valley Kitchen’s new chef, Ricardo Aguilar, draws inspiration from the property’s produce. By Dave Faries