French / Italian

I wouldn’t think of visiting New York and not having dinner at The River Café; I wouldn’t go to Chicago and not have dinner at Girl and the Goat; in Sacramento it’s Biba, in San Diego it’s de’ Medici Cucina Italiana. And, now, in Carmel-by-the-Sea there’s Casanova fully worthy of being included in this lofty company.

Casanova is a complete package: a charming and unique old house, the feel of which has been preserved through numerous expansions and renovations, a well-conceived and imaginative menu, cooking that layers and weaves the flavors of fresh local ingredients, and service that is thoughtful, friendly and efficient.

The Casanova experience begins at the sidewalk in front of a building that resembles the look of a small French or Italian country inn. Tables are set on the front porch on both sides of the entrance.

We entered a softly-lit, cozy front dining with just four tables flanking a small reception area. Could the place really be this small – two tables on the porch that wouldn’t be available in bad weather and four tables inside. From the reservation desk I could look into a kitchen that was far too busy for so small a place. We requested one of the window tables in that front room, not knowing what was beyond.

A narrow walkway alongside the kitchen opens into a large, festively decorated covered patio. While the front room is sedate, the patio is alive and abuzz. Steps at the back lead to a downstairs area divided into two additional dining rooms with a wood burning fire.

We selected Casanova for dinner at the recommendation of a trusted friend who spoke glowingly of the food but said nothing to prepare us for the ambiance of the place.

Through the years I’ve learned certain menus give off an inescapable message that you are about to experience something extraordinary. They exude confidence in the items on offer and describe rather than disguise the dishes. The Casanova menu passes that test.

Dinners at Casanova are three courses and the menu revolves according to the availability of fresh local ingredients. The night we were there the antipasto plate served for the table consisted of a sundried tomato and olive tapenade, a selection of olives, roasted eggplant, pickled onions, a goat cheese spread, mortadella and thin toast points, rosemary crisps, and bread sticks, all house made. That was the easy part – no choices, same plate for everyone at the table.

From there things got complicated. I read the menu at least half a dozen times trying to narrow the list of inviting options to the second course and entrée I would order.

Seconds included a delightful spinach gnocchi in Parmesan sauce, delicious heirloom tomatoes with creamy burrata, and my elixir of choice: a duo of foie gras, one as a mousse and the other seared with fresh red cherries. Exquisite.

For the entrées we faced a choice that included: fresh ricotta ravioli with sweet peas and shaved carrots and fennel; grilled Colorado lamb chops with carrot puree, a mint and pine nut crust, and locally grown vegetables; linguini alla scapesce with lobster, scallops, mussels and shrimp with a sauce of white wine, Meyer lemon, chervil and crème fraiche; cannelloni Romagnola with slow braised short ribs and a country style tomato sauce; and pan seared fillet mignon with mushrooms, fingerling potatoes, and a split marrow bone.

Desserts included warm chocolate cake with house-made Armagnac ice cream, a lace-top pie filled either with ollallieberries, or strawberries and rhubarb, Bavarian profiteroles, crème Brule, or a whole caramelized apple with a puff pastry in a vanilla caramel sauce with cinnamon ice cream.

Dinner prices at Casanova are determined by the choice of entree. There are supplementary charges for a few of the second courses. Dessert and coffee are extra.

If the dinner menu seems decidedly more Italian than French, take a look at the website and scan the lunch menu. Croque monsieur, cotelette d’agneau au thym (grilled lamb chops), or burger Provençale – French enough?

From 3 to 5 every afternoon you can sip some wine along with a tasting of artisanal cheeses and seasonal fruit, or drop in for coffee and an early dessert.

For Sunday brunch the regular lunch menu is expanded to add a Bohemian Breakfast of two poached eggs, apple-chicken sausage, sweet and sour braised red cabbage and roasted potatoes, or eggs benedict, or French toast constructed of homemade brioche bread and served with caramelized apples.

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