May 11, 2015 – The matchbox size of their new Carmel restaurant doesn’t worry La Balena owners Anna and Emanuele Bartolini, who want readers of Edible Monterey Bay to be the first to know their plans for the hotly anticipated new place.
Set to open at the beginning of June, matchbox is just the right size for an eatery called Il Grillo or cricket in Italian. The name comes from the springtime Festa del Grillo in Florence, where Emanuele was born, and where chirping crickets are thought to bring good luck.
With only 48 seats itself, La Balena—the whale—will be the big sister to the little cricket with superstar chef Brad Briske at the helm of both kitchens. He plans to run food back and forth between restaurants, which are about a block apart, before meal service each day, making pasta at Il Grillo and doing slow-cooked items and butchery at La Balena.
“But there will be a lot more room to be creative and we’re increasing kitchen staff, so I’ll be free to do more of the stuff I love, like butchering, braising and making stocks,” adds Briske, selected best chef of 2014 by the readers of Edible Monterey Bay.
Like La Balena, Il Grillo will serve what Briske calls Monterey Bay Tuscan cuisine, inspired Italian dishes that make use of seasonal local ingredients, like stinging nettles or spot prawns.
But at the new restaurant, which seats just 18, the focus is on pastas in a mix-and-match format, with a “casual price point.” Il Grillo is located on Mission between 4th and 5th, a space occupied most recently by Pastries and Petals and for 18 years by the Alsatian restaurant Le Coq d’Or.
Briske will prepare a selection of up to seven fresh pastas daily, including a gluten-free option made from cricket flour. Yes. poor Jiminy Cricket, the restaurant’s namesake, will be on the menu thanks to organic cricket farmers in Oregon.
“Cricket flour is something that’s beginning to appear in cookies and pizza dough up in San Francisco and we thought we’d try bringing it to Carmel,” he says.
Diners will select a pasta and then choose from the sauce menu, to include vegan alternatives like pesto or mushroom, along with meaty options like Bolognese, ragú or the classic sausage/rapini combo. A polenta and sausage plate will round out the main course options.
In addition, the space includes a tiny patio, a four-seat bar and a deli case at the front of the restaurant that will display antipasti like squid or prawns in olive oil and platters of cheeses and charcuterie to whet the appetite.
Four carpaccio plates will be on the menu, including raw fish, octopus, beef sirloin and bresaola—Italian-style cured beef. Soups and salads will also be available.
Il Grillo will feature desserts from pastry chef Benoit Patel and homemade cookies by Emily Garcia who owned Emi’s Biscotteria in Pacific Grove and uses heirloom family recipes.
“The biggest impetus to do this was to gain more kitchen space and be able to do some exciting special events,” says Anna, who also hopes it will help handle some of the overflow from La Balena, one of the hottest restaurant reservations in town. “We hope people will alternate between La Balena and Il Grillo.”
Il Grillo will not take reservations and food will also be available for take out. It will be open from Noon to 9 or 10pm Monday through Saturday. Soft opening nights for friends and family will take place the first couple days of June.
Meanwhile, La Balena is dropping its Thursday and Friday lunch service and will continue to serve lunch on weekends and be closed on Mondays.
The new venue will also be used for private parties and large groups. “It gives us a space that’s unique, separate and intimate,” she says. The Bartolinis plan to expand their wine program and, with the help of sommelier Jay Madrid, begin holding tastings, seminars and wine pairing events at Il Grillo.
The owners and chef travelled to Tuscany in December to visit Emanuele’s family and collect ideas for the new restaurant. “It was awesome to see how the restaurants operate there,” says Briske. “Though it was more to experience the lifestyle and the culture, than the food.”
One thing he’ll never forget: the heavily tattooed chef came back with fresh ink. He got a three-inch whale tattooed on the back of his hand and positioned just right, so that when he wiggles his thumb the whale starts swimming.
Both the whale and the cricket are characters in the cautionary Italian fairy tale Pinocchio. We’re just wondering, now, where is Briske going to put that cricket?
Deborah Luhrman is publisher and editor of Edible Monterey Bay. A lifelong journalist, she has reported from around the globe, but now prefers covering our flourishing local food scene and growing her own vegetables in the Santa Cruz Mountains.