Monterey/Carmel: Pocket Bistro

Monterey/Carmel trip, December 2021
Here’s review #2, Sat dinner:

The Pocket Restaurant
Lincoln St. between 5th and 6th Avenues, Carmel-by-the-Sea
Cuisine: California/Italian

Review Date: December 18, 2021

Pocket has a good-sized outdoor dining area, where quite a few people were braving the chilly temps with the help of propane heaters, but we chose inside. Monterey County visitors should note that it is not required to show vaccination cards to dine in, nor is there any requirement for distancing tables. There is only a mask requirement for indoors, regardless of business.

At Pocket, similar to most new restaurants, the tables are ridiculously crowded together, to the point where Spouse and I were obstructing the major aisle and our friends had barely enough space to avoid banging seat backs with the next table behind them. Neither comfort nor quiet is a consideration at these Instagram-driven restaurants.

We were hoping for a good dinner, but ended up with the usual so-so percentage. What was good, however, was very good indeed. Like many places today, it’s going to be a crapshoot depending on what you’re ordering.

The good:

Burratina: imported burrata cheese, balsamic, salame picante, EVOO, tapenade, arugula, cherry tomatoes, crostini bread. Very, very fine and dead simple. Everything was in just the right amounts, with superb quality. Attractive and delicious.

Rack of lamb: mashed potatoes, green beans, balsamic au jus. Of the entrées this was by far the best. The lamb was generous in portion and perfect trimmed/cooked. Sauce was ideally balanced and scant–just enough to flavor but not overpower. Potatoes were good. Beans were unpleasantly half-raw and inedible.

Chocolate torte: vanilla ice cream, salted caramel sauce. This was not a torte. It was a fallen chocolate souffle, and a really good one, with a wonderful crisp crust and meltingly soft interior. The caramel sauce was just a schmear, and lovely with the ice cream. The souffle was perfect by itself.

Also good: the iced tea, which was The Real Thing, for which Pocket gets an extra point – made from double-strength black tea, not tannic, well iced. Shared a glass of the Talbott Vineyards Sleepy Hollow Pinot Noir, which was very good. Service by the waiter was good, but the busperson was exceptional.

Not so great:

Grilled Octopus: Spanish octopus, microgreens, Japanese yaki sauce. Massive serving – three entire legs, highly unusual for this costly cephalopod. Pacific octopus is cheaper, but less tasty (and also less endangered). The yaki sauce was housemade and very high in fresh ginger, with spicy orange chile oil. The octopus was barely cooked despite the crispy surface. The meat had a soft, chewy texture, closer to raw/slimy than I cared for. I ate one arm but declined any more. Spouse was happy to finish off the two larger arms.

Pappardelle Bolognese: wild boar, Calabrese sausage. Spouse and C ordered this. The pappardelle, long wide ribbon pasta, was undercooked to the level we mockingly refer to as "California al dente ". It really could have used another 30-45 seconds in the pot. Spouse said the sauce was okay, but milder than he likes to have his sauces. It lacked the robustness he was expecting.

Gnocchi: potato gnocchi with black truffle cream sauce. This had good gnocchi but way too much truffle oil was used. We could smell the truffle oil before the plate was even set on the table. M rated it as good, but it would have been far better with a more restrained execution.

Winter cake: vanilla cake, cookie crust, white chocolate mousse, whipped cream. M said the mousse filling was overwhelmed by its cake/crust. It was cakelike on the sides but on the bottom it was actually tough, as if flattened down with pressure. It was almost comical trying to punch through a fairly solid mousse – it had the heavy texture of a NY cheesecake – and the bottom crust, using spoons. Any cake that needs a fork and knife can’t be considered a success, so this wasn’t.

It’s hard to position Pocket in our ratings of reviewed restaurants. Walking out afterwards into the blessedly quiet evening, my first reaction was “No, I wouldn’t go back.” But in writing the review, it’s clear that about 40% of the experience was quite good, in fact. But you can’t be sure, walking in, what their good dishes are. I suspect it’s the kind of restaurant that one needs to visit a few times, find out what the kitchen really excels at doing, and stick with just those types of plates.

If you started with the burratina, ordered the rack of lamb and Pinot Noir, and finished with that chocolate faux torte, you’d rate this restaurant a perfect 10.

OTOH, if you were faced with slimy octopus, pasta overdosed with artificial truffle oil (hardly any brands of truffle oil have been found to be authentically flavored with actual truffles), and the leaden winter cake, you’d rightly rate Pocket as maybe a 2 or 3, at most.

So we’d have to say…well, maybe we’d go back. At least, if nothing better was open. But hopefully it would be warm enough that we could sit outside, so we wouldn’t have to feel as if we were flying the cheapest coach seats on an overbooked airflight.

Four people, dinner: two starters, four mains, two desserts, four beverages, one glass of wine. With tip but without tax, $260.

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