Indulging in pleasures of Big Sur Coast

Mushroom ice cream? No way.

Diners at the Pacific’s Edge restaurant at the Hyatt Carmel Highlands can survey the Big Sur Coast as they enjoy cuisine from the Monterey Bay and nearby Salinas Valley farms and wineries. Photo by Jerry Ondash

But when I finally taste the creamy, just-sweet-enough concoction, I am a believer. Chef Matt Bolton has worked a miracle as far as I’m concerned, both with dessert and all that has preceded it, including accommodating my gluten-free needs.

We are enjoying a Meet the Farmer luncheon at the historic Hyatt Carmel Highlands’ Pacific’s Edge restaurant, so named because of the legendary view of the Big Sur Coast. The luncheon is staged several times during spring and summer to showcase locally grown food and, of course, those who grow it.

In this case, however, it’s not a farmer; it’s a forager.

Paul Huntington shares his favorite book on mushrooms with guests at a recent Meet the Farmer luncheon at the Pacific’s Edge restaurant at the Hyatt Carmel Highlands. The busy forager often walks great distances to find mushrooms for area restaurants and keeps the location of his treasure a secret. Photo by Jerry Ondash

His name is Paul Huntington — “I was born a forager,” he says — and he mingles among today’s guests, talking about his “crop” of mushrooms and the many varieties he supplies to area restaurants. But he aims to keep secret the locations around the Central Coast where he collects the interesting looking funghi, some of which are artfully displayed on a nearby table. Today’s multi-course lunch has been created around Huntington’s booty which includes chanterelles, trumpets and candy caps.

It’s all superb — I know what I like when I taste it — but let’s face it; I’m no foodie. Thank goodness there’s one to my right. She is Elaine Hesser, self-described newly minted food writer but long-time foodie, who lives in nearby Salinas. Newspaper and blog readers valley-wide enjoy her musings and wisdom about the area’s restaurants and the abundant Salinas Valley farms and wineries.

“I think this is one of the most interesting and delicious luncheons I’ve had in a long time,” she declares. “The chef really cares that we know about what we are eating, and he created all the recipes just for this lunch.”

This basket of chanterelle mushrooms was one of several on display at a recent Meet the Farmer luncheon at the Hyatt Carmel Highlands. The events showcase local and organic food, fish and wine from Monterey Bay and Salinas Valley. Photo by Jerry Ondash

The Monterey Peninsula is a foodie Mecca, Hesser explains, “not only because of the bounty of Monterey Bay, but because of the farms and vineyards of nearby Salinas Valley. Fresh lettuces, broccoli and other produce from the fertile fields round out local meals, which are washed down with wines from several distinct growing regions along the Highway 101 corridor.”

We don’t have enough time nor money to explore all of this Foodie Heaven, but we do get to enjoy a bit more of it at the TusCA Restaurant at the Hyatt Regency Monterey.

“We showcase wonderful sustainable seafood specials every night,” says Chef Johnny DeVivo, whose goal is to “elevate the concept to fresh pastas and fresh sustainable seafood, and to train the staff on farm-to-table concepts.”

DeVivo comes to TusCA by way of La Vegas and Southern Utah, and can make filleting a 25-pound halibut look like child’s play. The flavorful, cooked-to-perfection roasted halibut, lamb and risotto are testament to his talents.

This four-sided fireplace in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Monterey is a favorite gathering spot for guests, especially on weekends when jazz concerts are a regular attraction. Photo by Jerry Ondash

“I think what makes TusCA unique,” he says, “is that we are a hidden gem in Monterey with a beautiful atmosphere and cutting-edge techniques.”

After dinner, we head to the contemporary and comfortable Fireplace Lounge with oversized, quadruple-sided fireplace. As on most Friday nights, there is a jazz combo providing a reason to stay, and the lounge is packed. Most revelers are business travelers and conference attendees, but come summer, this Hyatt Regency, one of Monterey’s oldest hotels, morphs into a family-friendly destination. Kids love the grounds’ giant chess board, shuffleboard, ping pong and Camp Hyatt, and a 2009, $65-million renovation gave birth to the mind-quieting Accista Spa for the grownups.

A family gets a kayak lesson on Monterey Beach, a five-minute walk from the Hyatt Regency Monterey. Photo by Jerry Ondash

Later, as I wait for my masseuse in this mini-oasis, another woman relaxes on a nearby couch. She appears to be asleep, but pops up just long enough to tell me that “I have four kids and I treat myself to a day at the spa twice a year. The quiet is as good as the massage.”

Later my husband and I take the five-minute walk to Monterey Beach and watch visitors and locals and their many dogs enjoy the wide, clean expanse of sand and the gentle surf. It’s the perfect place to learn to kayak and paddle-board or to just enjoy the unusual warmth of a March day.

E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at eondash@coastnewsgroup.com.

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