Planning an authentic tapas and paella dinner party in Monterey is no easy chore, but seven years ago it was nearly impossible. I recall spending a frustrating few weeks trying to source Spanish chorizo, Cantabria tuna, Bomba rice, smoked piquillo peppers, pimenton, a large paella pan and a half dozen bottles of Albariño and Tempranillo.

Last week I walked into Stone Creek Kitchen in Del Rey Oaks and broke into a mini flamenco when I saw all of the above items, and many others, on hand. What's more, it was Paella Friday. It seems you can stop by each week and pick up a pan of paella to go (keep the authentic pan and lose a deposit equal to the retail price).

In just 10 months, this kitchen store has proven to be so much more. One area of the 5,000-square-foot space at 465 Canyon del Rey Blvd. sells cooking equipment, gadgets, textiles and cookbooks. Across the room is a prepared-food section with fresh, seasonal creations for a quick lunch or elegant take-home dinner. Adjacent to that is another area reserved for specialty foods, both local products and imports from faraway lands. There's also a full-service, bustling kitchen with working chefs and a nearby communal table reserved for cooking events and demos.

In the eye of this hurricane are owners Linda Hanger and Kristina Scrivani, fast friends following a Valentine's Day paella feast Scrivani hosted a few years ago as marketing and community relations manager for Whole Foods in Monterey.


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Scrivani has traveled extensively through Spain and the Mediterranean, and paella has become a particular passion (she owns a 4-foot paella pan and wood-burning stand).

Hanger worked in publishing, and found a kindred spirit in Scrivani, who also wanted to leave corporate life. Each had been a customer at Clementine's (the space's former tenant), and when it closed they seized an opportunity to create a veritable foodie amusement park to call their own.

"It's truly a joy to be doing exactly what you should be doing," Scrivani said. "We make a good team, and our skills don't overlap."

Scrivani is the creative force. She grew up on a farm and had a long stint as a personal chef before working at Whole Foods. Hanger brings business acumen as the former chief executive of two publishing houses.

Together, they share a love for food and a need to please people.

"It's so gratifying to see people enjoying the food and appreciating what we offer," said Hanger, who alongside Scrivani puts in 13-hour days six times a week. "It's truly worth all the hard work."

Customers have responded to the down-home service and the inventive food churned out by Scrivani, who at times plays the role of mad scientist.

For example, to elevate pumpkin pies, she glazes them with Tahitian vanilla sugar. She reserves a few of these beauties, breaking them up and folding the pieces into an ice cream base (Ben and Jerry would be proud). She creates decadent thin sheets of chocolate, one called Fitness Marble (dark chocolate, dried blueberries, almonds, pepitas and a sprinkle of flax). She turns meatloaf into "cupcakes," with mashed potato puree as the "frosting." She makes mini strawberry pies in real pie tins (return the tin for a free cookie).

The deli case is full of fresh salads and at least nine veggies per day (they have farmer Dick Swank on speed dial). "Dick called me from the field one day and said 'I have 150 pounds of French radishes.' I sliced them in half, mixed them with heirloom carrots, tossed them in herb vinaigrette and little Big Sur honey and it was amazing. People respond to the simplicity of it."

The store is also a treasure trove of ingredients for closet gourmands everywhere: Anchovies packed in salt, Irish butter, romesco sauce, serrano ham, oven-roasted tomatoes. The choices are endless.

"It's a commitment of ours to introduce our customers to great food and then have those ingredients on hand for them to try," Scrivani said. "We want to inspire."

Toward that end, Stone Creek offers a "chef's table" experience at its monthly pre-fixe Dinner in the Kitchen, where Scivani hosts a casual dinner party as she prepares the meal in front of guests.

On May 25 the theme is "A Mediterranean Feast." The meal begins with a mezze platter of spiced fatayer (hand-held minced lamb pies), dolmas, olives, baby cucumber salad, flatbreads with housemade saffron hummus and roasted walnut muhammara sauces. The main course is wild salmon roasted in phyllo dough with baby spinach, and sultanas served over Greek orzo with sheep's milk feta, along with squash ribbons dressed in a light herb pesto. For dessert? Turkish coffee ice cream with pistachio cookies. Cost: $60. Call 393-1042 or visit www.stonecreekkitchen.com.

400° turns up the heat

David Fink's much-ballyhooed and controversial gourmet burger joint will open in Carmel on Wednesday, with a design, a menu and a philosophy that should put to rest any concerns the eatery will somehow destroy the cherished fabric of the village.

Little about 400° Gourmet Burgers & Fries should remind guests of a fast-food operation, the great fear among some provincial folk. Customers may order from the counter or receive table service in the comfortable dining room or on the dog-friendly patio. The 2,200 square-foot, 80-seat restaurant offers dramatic and contemporary design elements (including a woven stainless-steel wall and two-story tall windows) and a sustainable-leaning philosophy (biodegradable containers, low-voltage lighting and low-flow toilets).

Executive chef and partner Jason Balestrieri created the menu, featuring house-blended beef patties (Angus ground chuck and skirt steak), locally sourced produce, house-made sodas and shakes, assorted variations of fries and fresh salads. Wine and beer are available.

The name comes from the optimal temperature for searing burgers to create that tell-tale crust (Fink installed a custom-made cast-iron griddle for that purpose).

Hamburgers start at $7.95, but the price goes up with the customer's creativity. And, yes, there will be a veggie burger. Sides include house-cut Kennebec fries ($2.95), duck fat fries ($3.95) and zucchini fries ($3.95).

400° Burgers & Fries is at the corner of Mission and Seventh streets. It's open Sunday through Thursday from 11a.m. to 11p.m. Information or to-go orders: 244-0040, or online at 400degrees.com.

Tidbits

As Cooking for Solutions nears (May 18-20), those interested in its cause can bid now on exclusive wine-tasting tours, unique items and fabulous getaways on www.biddingforgood.com through May 21. Bidding stations will also be available during the Cooking for Solutions Gala, May 18, and the Sustainable Foods Celebration, May 19 and 20 ... Friends of Christopher Caul call him C-Squared (C to the second power). "This time of the year it's C to the third power," said the chef-owner of Christopher's on Lincoln in Carmel. "Crispy Chesapeake Crustaceans!" Caul once again is shipping soft-shell crabs from Maryland, and plans his usual preparation: panko-breaded, fried in rice bran oil and served atop jicama slaw with avocado and black bean salsa ... Get your fill of the famous thistle at the Castroville Artichoke Festival this weekend. More at www.artichoke-festival.org ... Only a few tickets remain for Santa Lucia Highlands Gala VI, a wine-and-food fest in the barrel cellar at Mer Soleil. Paradise Catering provides the food, with wine from the best SLH winemakers. It's Saturday, May 19, from 1-4p.m. Tickets: $85. Info: www.santaluciahighlands.com ... La Merienda is Spanish for "snack," but you can do much more than that at the annual celebration to celebrate Monterey's 242nd birthday. From 11a.m. to 3p.m. on June 2, the Monterey History & Art Association will host this colorful fiesta of delicious foods, wine, gallant dons, lovely senoritas, lively music and festive dance. Go to www.montereyhistory.org or call 372-4445.

Mike Hale is a food writer and blogger from Monterey. Write to him at grubhunter@comcast.net and read more at www.thegrubhunter.com.