January 14, 2020 – With upwards of 50 eateries in a square mile, Carmel-by-the-Sea has one of the highest restaurant-per-capita rates on the continent. But among such a deep reservoir of restaurants there is nothing remotely like Carmel Belle and its mix of counter convenience and organic-ingredient-driven fare, which is precisely why Meghan Rasmussen and her family have been loyal customers for years.
Now, with former owners Chloe and Jay Dolata training their focus on Elroy’s Fine Foods, a forthcoming upscale boutique grocery just over Carmel Hill in the former Monte Vista Market, Rasmussen and Dolatas are finalizing a deal for the Doud Craft Studios spot.
“We had other offers,” Jay Dolata says, “but this one was the best for [Carmel Belle].”
While Rasmussen does mention a hope to expand things like rotating specials, dinner events, wine pairings and baked goods on offer, the overriding priority is to cultivate everything that has made Carmel Belle a community institution. Her husband Lokman Balaban is working closely with longtime manager Matthew Talley, who will continue to run operations. Every employee who wants to stay will.
“And there will certainly not be a change to the model, [main] menu or the values they’ve put into it,” Rasmussen adds.
The aforementioned menu covers a lot of ground without sacrificing smart sourcing. There are robust salads (including the housemade mozzarella and roasted tomato or the free-range rotisserie chicken with avocado, tomato, bacon and blue cheese), rustic sandwiches (think meatloaf with house ketchup or prosciutto La Quercia), comfort classics (quinoa mac ‘n’ cheese!), breakfasts (truffled egg toast and stone-cut oatmeal), juices (Applejack and Dr. Feelgood) and smoothies (Purple Rain and Johnnie Cashew).
While they don’t plan on changing it, they do look forward to adding some tapas and mezze-style Mediterranean dishes that have been hits when they host at home, citing star Israeli-English restaurateur-chef-cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi as an inspiring influence.
Rasmussen and Balaban met while working in restaurants in Baltimore before relocating to Monterey so Meghan could take a job at the Naval Postgraduate School. She’s since moved on to Middlebury MIIS, where she works in securing and managing grants and sponsored programs. Meanwhile, they’ve kept their eyes peeled for a potential restaurant project.
Both inherited an appreciation of time spent in the kitchen as a family—and home-cooked healthy meals—from their respective parents and are extending it to their two kids.
EMB talked with Rasmussen as her family’s dreams of owning and operating their own restaurant come closer to fruition.
If there’s no Carmel Belle in Carmel, how is the city different?
Oh gosh. It’s hard to imagine. It sparkles inside the building and, from what I understand, is an anchor of an eating spot going back multiple generations. Joan Baez used to play back there! We’re feeling very lucky to carry on what Chloe and Jay have done.
How did you know Carmel Belle was the place for you and your family to help lead into its next era?
Over several years, we’ve eaten at Carmel Belle and enjoyed its casual feel and good food without a fuss. Having a young family, we’ve appreciated the family-friendly atmosphere.
What makes Carmel Belle special?
Carmel Belle is a welcoming place with an open plan, yet it’s also cozy and a bit hidden tucked off Ocean Avenue. You can stroll through to grab a juice or coffee. Or meet friends for a nice sit-down meal. It’s flexible, accessible.
What are you most excited about as you take the reins (as early as Feb. 1)?
Continuing Carmel Belle’s strong reputation and adding some of our own ideas—ideas we’ve been gathering from travels and from hosting friends and family at home. A lot of it is small touches—a little biscuit with your coffee like they do in Europe, for example—and foods that we’ve served [at home] that have been a hit: tapas and dips and small dishes like fresh fish and squid we get at the Wharf that day and throw on the grill.
How important is it to Carmel to have an organic-ingredient-driven spot like yours? How important is the casual counter-service element for a community like this one?
Very important, especially given so many local organic providers and new ones popping up all the time. It’s a chance to support them. The counter-service is also very important for neighbors, people working in Carmel, and other visitors. It’s a unique restaurant where you can be happy in a rush or if you have time to spare.
What are your priorities for the first few months of opening?
For customers to see a seamless transition.
What changes—minor or major—are you most excited to apply?
We won’t be making major changes but there is room to add new specials, more baked goods, wine pairings, dinner events, an expanded beer-and-wine list, etc. We’ve already started receiving minor suggestions from customers and are looking forward to trying them out. After a lot of tedious steps and paperwork [with the sale], the fun part is now when an idea pops in our heads, we can put it down on the white board.
Speed round time. What are some of your favorite items on the menu?
The mushroom melt. The California Punch [juice, with apple + beet + carrot + orange]. Our kids love the BLT.
What does healthy and tasty food mean to you?
My husband and I both cook this way at home. It’s a long tradition in both of our families to prioritize local, fresh ingredients in home cooking.
If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
If you could only take one condiment on the space shuttle, what would you blast off with?
Vinaigrette. Or Carmel Belle’s housemade aioli!
Who are one or two of the chefs you draw the most inspiration from?
Yotam Ottolenghi has great flavor combinations and we can get a lot of the vegetables he uses locally. Over the weekend made sweet potato with cool sauce, creme fraiche and lime. He has lots of cookbooks, some with long recipes, but that means you can improvise.
How do you define success?
Returning customers–locals known by name and visitors making it a tradition to stop at Carmel Belle whenever they’re in town.
More at carmelbelle.com/