I’ve been spending extra time in Half Moon Bay this month, a mere 30 minutes from my coastal hometown of Pacifica. I attended the pre-opening for the much-anticipated Sam’s Chowder House – located right on the water with beautiful views and lovely interiors – focusing on seafood, and of course, chowder. Give them a few weeks to "get it all together" and Sam’s may well become a destination restaurant for locals and travelers.
I was excited to be a judge for the second annual Chefs’ Challenge and Grand Tasting, at the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay. Traffic was a little slow, but once I checked into the cozy Old Thyme Inn, 779 Main St., 650-726-1616, oldthymeinn.com, I began to feel less stressed. The 1898 Princess Anne Victorian is operated by Rick and Kathy Ellis, a charming couple. I was shown to my Mint Room, a spacious room with pale green walls and a sky blue ceiling, hardwood floors, a “remote” fireplace; an old-fashioned bathtub, lace curtains, hypo-allergenic down pillows and a featherbed. I knew I would be enjoying my night here.
Located less than a block away, one of my favorite restaurants was open and still serving Sunday Brunch. I dropped in for a light lunch of Duck Confit and Spaghetti Squash Fritta ($13.00) and a cup of coffee. The frittata was out of this world – adorned with Frisee Chicory and Black Mission Fig and Toasted Pecans. The figs added a nice touch to the already well-prepared frittata. I noticed a family of 6 nearby had ordered 3 Cinderella Pumpkin Pizzas for the children. I’d love to bring my 3 year-old granddaughter, Maggie, to Cetrella’s, just for that.
I arrived at Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay for a meeting with the other judges and to go over details for the Chefs’ Challenge, "Battle of the Sexes." The sold-out event packed almost 400 people into the Grand Ballroom after a one-hour wine reception. The stage was set up like the "Iron Chef" competition on the Food Channel. The other judges: my friend, Gene Burns, radio host of "Dining Around," on KGO radio; Robert Bath, a New Zealand wine importer from Napa, Christian Rassinoux, Executive Chef, The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, George McNeill, Corporate Executive Chef, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. and Jean Banchet, Maître Cuisinier de France (French Master Chef.) We were introduced to the competing chefs, a very distinguised foursome: Laurent Manrique (Aqua executive chef) and Gerald Hirogoyen (Piperade and Bocadillo executive chef/owner), Melissa Perello (Fifth Floor) and Elizabeth Faulker (Citizen Cake,)
Host, TV personality Liam Mayclem (Eye on the Bay, KPIX) announced the "secret ingredient" – and with great fanfare, the doors finally opened, and a goat was escorted through, to the squeals, shock, and amazement of the audience. After much laughter, a cart of goat cheese was hauled in, the real secret ingredient.
For exactly an hour, the chefs worked hard to prepare an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert. Liam and others, such as Hubert Keller (Fleur de Lys owner/chef) constantly badgered the chefs with questions, some sillier than others. The audience clearly enjoyed every minute. When it came down to judging, Robert and I fell in love with the men’s Scallop Duet — Seared Scallop, a ‘bridge’ of lentil salad’ and Scallop Ceviche. As much as we respected the women chefs, Robert and I agreed their gnocchi dish was heavy-handed with salt, and the gnocchi was not that tasty using a secret ingredient.
A "Grand Tasting" followed the competition. Over 20 restaurants and wineries participated, offering samples of their fine food and wine. Some memorable food came from Myth, Bacar, Ritz Carlton Battery Park, Faz, Slanted Door, Las Vegas Burger Bar, and Cosmopolitan, to name a few.
As if that wasn’t enough, there was a party afterwards for us judges, chefs, the media, food purveyors, and the hotel management. Food and wine stations covered the Ritz Carlton Spa grounds. I could not pull myself away from the freshest Oysters on the Half Shell. I tasted perfectly roasted pigs cooked in a portalbe ‘imu,’ grilled langostinos, the primest of prime rib, grilled and roasted red and yellow peppers and asparagus. I was among the stars – I hung out with Hubert and Chantal Keller (owners of Fleur de lys); Arnold Wong, (owner/chef, BACAR); Charles Pham (Slanted Door); Sean O’Brien (Myth.) What a night! Then it was time to catch some zzzzz’s back at Old Thyme Inn.
The next morning, on my drive back to Pacifica, I stopped by the Fish Market right off of Main Street, on the way to Highway One. I bought some fresh clams, a fresh crab, and some swordfish. Then, since it was on the way home, I decided to swing by Sam’s Chowder House for some takeout of Clam Chowder, and Lump Crab Cakes. When I got back to my home kitchen, I prepared lunch for my office assistant, Tina. She thought I was cooking for six people.