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Carmel Belle: Scrumptious & Organic Café & Larder | Carmel, California

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These days, even if you are traveling, or getting take out almost every day because – like me – you are either sans kitchen, or with only a half kitchen, there is no reason to not eat well both in flavor and in content; and certainly not on the West Coast! Which is why, among all the good restaurants in Carmel and surrounding area, Carmel Belle has become my go-to place.

Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy a lovely sit-down meal at those other good restaurants, but when I need to stay focused on work, and just can’t deal with yet another same-same blah meal from the Whole Foods buffet bar – which is not cheap, by the way – I prefer to get something to go, usually enough to last me a couple of days. That is where Carmel Belle has become my “savior”, and not just because their food is so fresh and good, but because everything there is organic, and they do not use – or even own – a microwave!!!!! Do you have any idea how many kudos they get just for this last thing? Gazillions!

 

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Carmel Belle is located within a covered courtyard surrounded by an array of lovely shops. Above you can see the entrance from San Carlos street, while below is the view that opens up to you when you enter through the archway next to Kris Kringle on Ocean Avenue. On the left is the main breakfast/lunch order counter, while further back and to the right is the coffee & juice bar, as well as the pastry and dessert display. In the middle you can browse their incredibly well curated larder offering the best of local products, from hot sauces to sea salts, from extra-virgin olive oil to elderberry syrup. When I say local, I mean from the Carmel-Monterey area in particular, but also California in general. Here is where I originally found that wonderful elderberry syrup and cordial by Carmel Berry Co, which I featured in the Treasures for the Holidays post of about a month ago.

 

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Image above: breakfast/lunch order counter.

Image below: coffee shop & juice bar.

 

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I had heard of Carmel Belle already last June, but had not managed to get to it. In part, I admit, that was because the person who suggested it had also suggested another place, which I had indeed tried only to discover it was barely average. Yes there are average places also in Carmel. How was I to know their second suggestion would be fantastic?

When I arrived in October, Ann, my landlady and neighbor, also told me about Carmel Belle and showed me a take-out menu. Already from that I knew they would indeed be good. I tried them out and I was hooked.

 

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At Carmel Belle you order at the counter and either take it to go (like I do), or get a number to take to a table with you, and when the food is ready, they will come find you. The seating area is rather spacious, with some in the front by the counters, some in this lovely back space with a fireplace, and some outside tables on San Carlos street.

And when you order your food to-go, everything is packaged in eco-friendly containers. More kudos, cheers, snaps, points, or whatever else you like!

 

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I have not photographed everything, but so far I have enjoyed three of their soups: the Vegetable Minestrone (image below right), the Clam Chowder (twice) and their Roasted Tomato Soup. Needless to say, but I am saying it anyway: they make soup from scratch every day. The Roasted Tomato is their regular, plus they make an extra one that changes daily.

The soups are served with some seriously good fresh bread. And seriously good is also the bread used for their sandwiches, so much so that I asked who is their bread baker. And the answer was….. Il Fornaio! I knew Il Fornaio as an Eye-talian restaurant, but not as a bread bakery – though that is what the word fornaio means (literally: person who operates the baking oven, no matter what you bake, but usually referring to bread baking), and that is what Il Fornaio bakeries are first and foremost in Italy.

 

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Below is their Blue Cheese, Candied Walnut and Apple Salad with Greens and Lemon Vinaigrette ($5.50 petite; $9 regular). I have also loved their Avocado, Market Vegetable and Shaved Farmstead Cheese Salad with Arugula and Lemon Vinaigrette ($5.50 petite, $9 regular). Both salads were scrumptious, and my body loved the healthy side of things.

 

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I love sandwiches, but when grilled sandwiches are on the list, the cold ones disappear, at least they do for me. On my first visit at Carmel Belle, before even placing an order, my question was: “Do you actually grill your warm sandwiches, or do you heat them in the microwave first and then put them under the press just to show the grill lines?” When the answer was: “We do not even own a microwave.” I did a jig! Really, I started jumping up and down in excitement, as my recent experiences with “grilled” sandwiches had been dismal.

I have thus been working my way down their list. So far I have loved each one, and I am talking about those in the photos: Mozzarella & Prosciutto La Quercia with market Vegetable on Country Toast ($10); and The Best B.L.T. with Avocado ($11 + $2 for avocado); but also their Ham, Fontina & Pear with Honey Mustard on Country Toast ($12). That is as far as I got with the grilled sandwiches, all absolutely delicious! When your basic ingredients are good, you can’t go wrong.

 

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Not pictured, but also thoroughly enjoyed: their Quinoa Mac ‘n Cheese with Beemster Goat-gouda Sauce ($10). Perfect for people who need to eat gluten-free, this mac ‘n cheese was surprisingly good. Though it holds up to cooking really well, I think quinoa pasta would be rather on the blah side, but they used the perfect cheese for the sauce, so it was delicious.

Their Yukon Gold Smashed Potatoes with Sea Salt, Fresh Herbs, Lemon Vinaigrette & Crème Fraîche ($5) were an outstanding side. And when they write smashed, they s is there on purpose. The boiled potatoes are simply pressed until they break and that’s it, no mash in sight! I actually loved that!

There is more, of course, and you can see the full menu here, plus daily specials, but I don’t know if I will make my way through everything. Besides, it is always good to leave something for another time. Not that I need an excuse to return to Carmel. Now, something else that makes me happy about Carmel Belle: even though it is available and can be added to just about anything, there is surprisingly little chicken on their menu. More kudos for not giving in to what seems to have become the national food of the United States!

And before I forget: you can indeed enjoy your meal with a glass of red or white from a selection of quality California wines.

 

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I have not yet tried any of their breakfast offerings, because my morning to-do list has become quite a bit longer, and by the time I manage to be done and get out, it is past their breakfast time – which ends at 12:00 pm on weekdays, and 1:00 pm on weekends. Will have to make a point to get to breakfast before I head back north at the end of the month.

I have, however, enjoyed several fabulous lattes, which, along with those at La Bicyclette, are the best in Carmel. They also make a top notch London Fog, though they don’t call it that way, and I order as an Earl Grey tea latte with vanilla syrup. I have also enjoyed one of their desserts, and a glorious brioche with vanilla custard – which is a favorite, and I pick one up whenever I find one, miraculously left there just for me from the morning breakfast rush. Alas, this does not happen as often as I would like, but maybe that is a good thing.

 

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Although they bring in breakfast pastries from the fantastic Parker-Lusseau bakery in Monterey, the Carmel Belle team bake their own desserts. How could I resist something called Chamomile Buttermilk Pie ($6)? Of course I couldn’t. I don’t know if I would recognize the chamomile flavor without knowing it was in there, but I would have certainly noticed the lovely floral tones in this tender and delicious slice of pie. I could have passed on the popcorn topping, as it was unavoidably chewy and gummy after sitting on the moisture-rich cake. The blackberries were perfect with it.

 

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There is only one item that I did not enjoy by Carmel Belle: their polenta. The premises are good: a bowl of Anson Mills Polenta ($6) to which you can add Truffled Mushrooms ($3), a Poached Egg ($2), Roasted Tomatoes ($1), Creamy Goat Cheese ($2), or all of the above ($5). I ordered it with truffled mushrooms, of course, and was really looking forward to it, especially since I know how good Anson Mills polenta is, having tried the yellow variety at SHED in Healdsburg. Instead it turned out to be blah and watery. It needed a little more salt and a little more thickness. It actually tasted as if someone had added hot water after cooking in order to correct either thickness or salt. I did express this to the girl at the order counter on my next visit, but I have not dared order the polenta again to find out whether it was a one-off or not.

And I couldn’t exactly stomp into the kitchen and say: “Hey, I was born and raised in the polenta region of Italy, I have been making and eating polenta all my life, as has my family for generations, and on top of that I am a former chef, so you have to listen to me!” Samantha’s “you don’t know who I am” routine is not my thing. So I offered my thoughts and left it at that, especially since everything else is so absolutely perfect.

 

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I am sure you have figured that, when in Carmel, Carmel Belle is not to be missed. However, before I close this post, I want to share with you the Carmel Belle philosophy as stated on their website:

“Carmel Belle proudly sources its ingredients from farmers and purveyors that practice sustainability, and provide honest, high-quality products that taste really good. Our meats are hormone-free, grass-fed/free-range and humanely raised in California. Our produce is largely organic and purchased from local farmers’ markets, farmers, and/or distributors that support small farms. So please join us, and eat good food knowing that we would never serve you anything we wouldn’t serve to our own family.”

 

Now, this a philosophy that should be embraced by every restaurant – and all of the really good ones do, I am happy to say – but also by all of us in our own home kitchens. I know many of my friends and readers do, too.

 

CARMEL BELLE

Doud Craft Studios, San Carlos btw. Ocean and 7th, across from the Wells Fargo Bank – Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

ph: 831-624-1600   |   website

 

 

If you have enjoyed this article and you are exploring Carmel, you might also enjoy these:

 

And just beyond Carmel:

 

 

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