Monterey/Carmel: Rio Grill

Monterey/Carmel trip, December 2021
We did a quickie weekend trip to Monterey with our friends M&C. Left on Sat a.m. and came back Sun p.m., so only dined out a few times.

Here’s review #1, Sat lunch:
Rio Grill
101 The Crossroads Blvd., Carmel, CA
Cuisine: Californian

Review Date: December 18, 2021

Rio Grill is part of a local mini-chain, whose owners also run Tarpy Grill and Montrio. The owners bought all three restaurants in June 2020 when owner Tony Tollner decided to retire. Altho we would have liked to return to Sur at the Barnyard, Sur no longer opens for lunch, so we chose Rio instead. Located in the complex that holds two separate shopping malls – which for all intents and purposes are treated by everyone as one big open-air mall – Rio is a pleasant space and fairly sizable by today’s standards. The customer service is very good, reasonably well trained and cheerful. It’s popular with locals, and very similar to Sur at the Barnyard which is on the other end of the twin shopping centers.

There was a special soup of the day, listed on a chalkboard as we walked in. The waiter did not volunteer any specials information, although I’m sure if we had asked he would have explained. Both Spouse and M thought the soup sounded intriguing, and both ordered the cup size.

Black Bean and Pork Belly soup.
This was an excellent black bean soup, one of the best we’ve had. The beans were tender and flavorful, and the pork belly was chopped up and delicious. Garnished with thin deep-fried tortilla strips.

Haystack Onion Rings, Guajillo Ketchup.
A nicely sized heap of very fine, thin-sliced onion rings, in a batter that clung but wasn’t overly heavy. The ketchup was quite spicy; none of us felt it was needed.

House-Cured & Smoked Pork Belly, Brown Sugar, Jalapeño Glaze.
There are two small slices to an order, so we got two plates for the table to share. C and I liked this very much, but Spouse had to skip his slice as it was a bit too fatty for his taste. The glaze was fairly sweet but not cloyingly so. Not very spicy, and well browned to a nice crustiness without being burnt.

Roasted Beet Salad, Red and Golden Beets, Mixed Greens, Raspberry Vinaigrette, Candied Walnuts and Point Reyes Blue Cheese. Ordered with options: avocado, grilled salmon.
I ordered this as my entrée to share with Spouse. As it turned out, he had sufficient veggies on his plate that we didn’t need to share any greens. The salmon was overcooked – my bad, I didn’t specify medium-rare. The avocado was a full half of a small sized one, in line with the quantity of other items in the salad.

Not a memorable plate: nothing wrong, but nothing interesting either. Wedges of plain red and yellow beets placed around the edge. The mixed greens were not remarkable – neither super-fresh nor tasty. The tiny blue cheese crumbles were scant and the vinaigrette hardly noticeable. On one hand, I liked that the salad wasn’t overdressed as so many kitchens do. Unfortunately, the tasteless dressing failed to pull all the ingredients into a cohesive whole. It was the kind of thrown-together salad you’d plunk on a plate to fill space and add some color – an afterthought instead of an attraction. I ate the fish, avocado and the beets, but left a third of the greens.

Wood Grilled Striped Baja Bass, Banana Tamarind Salsa, Risotto taters stuffed with Pepper Jack Cheese, Herb Buttered Broccolini.
Spouse chose this. Like me, he forgot to tell the waiter to cook the bass rare, so it came on the well-done side, although he said it wasn’t as bad as my salmon fillet. The risotto version of “tater tots” was nicely executed. Jack is not his favorite cheese but whatever brand of pepper jack this was, he was fine with it. The broccolini was very well executed, in a generous serving that was a true Italian al dente, just starting to soften around the edges.

Soy-Marinated Skirt Steak, Truffle Honey Roasted Butternut Squash, Green Beans.
C ordered this. She has become fond of skirt steak. The steak was quite good. The squash was good, but overshadowed by the green beans, which were young, tender, and like Spouse’s broccolini, cooked a perfect true al dente.

Grilled Prawn Penne Pasta, Leeks, Sweet Peas & Bacon, Creole Cream.
M picked this entrée. The penne had a tasty spicy tomato-cheese sauce enriched with light cream, so it was quite rich. This was a generous serving, so she put most of it aside to bring home tomorrow.

Olallieberry cobbler, vanilla ice cream.
This was delightful, but it wasn’t a cobbler at all. It was an olallieberry mini-pie, which came in its own individual iron skillet, a charming presentation. The fruit was that ideal sweet-tartness. The dessert was served warm, but the berries remained mostly whole so the texture was excellent.

Hot Ghirardelli chocolate, mini marshmallows.
Spouse and C both ordered this, but were disappointed. It was made with water, not milk, and was overdiluted to boot. Spouse expressed his suggestions for improvement to the manager, but as usual we were careful to do this after the bill was paid. We dislike being comped on food we have eaten.

When we first sat down, we were all very excited to see mulled cider on the menu, but the manager quickly came to the table and apologized, saying they didn’t have any to offer today. Spouse and I stuck with water, but C asked for an iced tea. She received a tall glass of ……something. It was a pale greenish-gold, so it might have been green tea. She said it was flavored, but she couldn’t tell what it was flavored with. Needless to say, she wouldn’t recommend ordering an iced tea here.

“Californian cuisine” is a generalized category which mostly implies updated comfort food with some Italian-American standards. Rio Grill is as much a local burger restaurant as it is a pasta-and-small-plates eatery, similar to Sur at the Barnyard/Carmel, which we prefer to Rio.

We liked Sur very much on our last extended Monterey/Paso Robles trip, so much so we ate there twice. Rio Grill, however, is a half-level below, although the service quality is similar. Unfortunately, Sur is no longer open for lunch, but at least we know Rio appears reliable for pastas and steak, if not for salads or (maybe) fish. Not a destination for foodies, but good for a mixed group, especially if you have a few people who aren’t the adventurous sort!

Four people, lunch: three starters, one entrée salad, three mains, one dessert, three beverages, with tax but without tip, $278.