March 16, 2021 – Food and travel writers love to wax poetic about Carmel’s hidden “gems”—little spots off the beaten path cherished by locals and awaiting discovery by eager travelers. But for Judith Lalor, the real gems are the patrons who venture down winding walkways into these concealed courtyards, the adventurous epicures looking to find the neighborhood nooks.
In the coming weeks, she and her husband Kirt will open Village Gem Restaurant in the space that was formerly il Grillo in Carmel’s Village Court, creating a new neighborhood spot that encourages diners to slow down and savor the village’s cozy charm. “Good food is important and life is too short to drink bad wine,” she says, “so in the spirit of celebration, playfulness and gratefulness, I like to bring a smile to someone’s face.”
Lalor, who was born in England, relocated to Monterey last April, just as the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down. “I thought the best use of my time would be to create a job for myself, throw myself into something hugely creative where I can meet locals and contribute to the community,” she explains. “Hospitality is my passion, so when I found a space available in [this] cute little cozy oasis, I decided to get started with a new creation.”
Lalor is no stranger to restaurants—she’s a seasoned pro of dining and hospitality in two of the country’s top metropolitan markets.
In 1997, she opened her first restaurant—a jazz and supper club—in New York’s Times Square. There, she also started a record label specialized in jazz and big band swing. Fifteen years later, she sold her jazz club and moved to Chicago. In 2014, she opened The Little Gem Cafe, a European-style bistro in Oak Park. “I named the restaurant after the guest—[they’re] The Little Gem.”
“I like to care for people and I am a good listener,” says Lalor. “I’m inspired by people—all kinds of people.” She finds her conversations with diners especially rewarding. “I’m curious about their likes and dislikes, what they’re reading, how things are going, what their take on life is, what they have been through and what they’re looking forward to. I like to cheer people on and encourage them.”
In November, Lalor and her husband signed the lease on the space on Mission St. between 4th and 5th to begin crafting her new culinary concept—this time named the Village Gem. “The ‘gem’ is the guest, but also the space,” she adds. “The size, the look, the feel of the restaurant is so darling, a little safe haven, a small, unpretentious, cozy, warm and inviting dining room for afternoon tea or a romantic dinner.” She’s smitten with the location. “It’s a little gem—a treasure to be found.”
Despite a global pandemic and juggling operations at Little Gem Cafe more than 2,000 miles away, Lalor dove into refreshing the space to make it all her own. “Fortunately, I have an amazing staff in Chicago,” she says. “My staff have worked with me for years. They’re people I trust and who I have empowered and who I take good care of.” While she’s been focused on construction on the Carmel outpost, chef Martin Mondragon and team have handled day-to-day operations in Chicago with her guidance and supervision behind the scenes.
After renovations that include new kitchen equipment, a remodeled dining room and expanded seating on the courtyard, the space vacated by il Grillo last fall will pivot from Tuscan tradition to contemporary cuisine.
And while Lalor may be a recent Carmel convert, she’s got a veteran of the city’s dining scene in the kitchen—chef Jason Balestrieri.
“For the better part of a year now I’ve been laying low and searching for the right opportunity in the middle of a global pandemic where there weren’t many opportunities to begin with,” he says. Balestrieri has worked closely with Lalor to dial in cuisine and operations at the Village Gem. “We’re bouncing ideas off each other almost daily.”
Village Gem marks a homecoming to Carmel for Balestrieri, who was executive chef and partner at Carmel’s Cantinetta Luca for 11 years before departing in 2016 to launch combination butcher-sandwich shop The Meatery in Seaside with Kevin Hincks two years later.
Balestrieri parted ways with The Meatery in October 2019, beginning his longest stint outside the kitchen, well, ever. “Prior to leaving The Meatery, it had been 30 years straight being in a kitchen somewhere, either back in my hometown of Milwaukee or down in Los Angeles or here on the peninsula,” he says. “I’m happy to have the opportunity to get back in the kitchen, cook some good food, have some fun and enjoyment—it’s something I’ve missed in the last year and a half.”
Village Gem will debut with an all-day menu served from noon to 7:30pm Wednesday through Sunday. As the new restaurant gets settled—and pandemic restrictions relax further—look for dedicated lunch and dinner menus. Lalor teases afternoon tea, reflecting her British heritage, and Balestrieri promises eventually weekend brunches too.
“We’re inspired by local people and regional flavors,” explains Lalor. “We like a modern approach to traditional dishes.” Lalor and Balestrieri will work with local farms and businesses for thoughtfully sourced vegetables, meats and seafood. Lalor considers the cuisine contemporary American. “‘New American’ is a melting pot,” explains Balestrieri. “In a very casual way, it’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that.” Or as Lalor puts it, “We don’t want to limit our range of offerings.”
Balestrieri’s opening menu includes a crispy chicken sandwich, a burger, pork schnitzel, grilled king salmon, grilled chicken and more. Lalor promises “heart-healthy” lighter bites too, like crab cakes and smoked salmon. Salads include local greens with apples and spiced pecans or beets with citrus and avocado. Other vegetarian options include a grilled artichoke appetizer and an entree of roasted vegetables with fregula sarda pasta and tahini.
And yes, some of Balestrieri’s signatures still grace the menu. There will be charcuterie—sourced from his favorite purveyors at first, but eventually made in house—hand-cut pasta and steak, reflective of Balestrieri’s time at Cantinetta Luca and The Meatery. But the chance to cook new flavors excites Balestrieri. “It’s an opportunity for me to explore cooking at a global scale, which I didn’t do for 11 years at Luca, but I did do while I was in LA prior to moving to the peninsula.”
Once the team settles in, expect the menu to change frequently, reflective of seasonal bounty but also the flexibility afforded by the small kitchen. “I have my sights on being able to switch it up and just have some fun and utilize the best of what we have in this area according to seasons,” says Balestrieri.
Lalor plans an accompanying beverage program that’s “simple and sophisticated.” The wine list will be tightly focused. “Without a huge wine cellar we’re limited to what we can store and serve,” says Lalor. The list will feature a Champagne, a prosecco, a rosé, eight white wines and eight reds. Selections will be drawn from California, Italy, France and Germany. A handful of beers, juices and sodas, plus “a couple surprises,” will also be available.
In the meantime, the Lalors and Balestrieri are giving the Village Gem its final polish and plan to open soon. Visit villagegemcarmel.com for news on its opening.
Village Gem Restaurant • Mission Street, between 4th and 5th, in the Village Court, Carmel • 831-250-7811, villagegemcarmel.com