MONTEREY, Calif. -- The hardest part about dinner at Fresh Cream was finding our way there.
Perched on the second floor of an unassuming office complex near Fisherman's Wharf, the restaurant is across a footbridge from the Heritage Harbor parking garage. But once we make it through the maze of buildings and up the stairs, the evening takes on a deliciously serene quality.
Five intimate dining rooms, all filled with natural light during the day, reflect the winking lights of Monterey Harbor once the sun dips below the horizon.
In this tranquil aerie above the tourist bustle, the waiters show an informed grace with the menu and with customers. Attentive service is clearly a point of pride at Fresh Cream; regulars at a reserved corner table receive a warm welcome from the restaurant manager, but it's a testament to expert handling that we don't feel any less welcome.
Our server asks if we have questions about the menu, then gives us ample time to peruse its offerings. We order martinis -- the house version comes with a ripe red strawberry perched on the rim -- but note the smart presentation of the rich, varied, and much-decorated wine list.
Strong on California wines but with a selective offering of French bottles, the book is organized by varietal; outside corkage fee is $20. Additional kudos for the choice wine selection come from the couple at the corner table: "We usually bring our own bottle, but we never do when we come here."
Each table is placed strategically for a view of the harbor, and there's plenty to look at after we order. But distractions from inside the dining room offer stiff competition. An amuse-bouche arrives from the kitchen, chef Gregory Lizza's caviar tartlet: a dollop of crême fraîche on a pastry shell, with red onion and flying-fish roe. And a murmured exchange from the diners seated two tables away goes along these lines: Woman No. 1: "That is so good." Woman No. 2. "Mmmmmm."
When our food arrives, we are not disappointed. The lobster ravioli are robust and explode with flavor, presented with stripes of lobster butter and Riesling beurre blanc, as well as two small Belgian endives topped with lumpfish and flying-fish roe, which add an essential spareness to an otherwise rich appetizer.
The sauteed scallops arrive lightly browned, sitting atop creamy lemon caper beurre blanc, dill fettuccine, artichokes, mushrooms, and sweet fennel. I don't typically adore cream sauces, but this is just enough, with regard to flavor intensity and quantity, to pique and satisfy.
The rest of the meal proceeds in a blur of indulgence. A sprightly dinner salad of mixed greens, tomato vinaigrette, pancetta, bacon, and asiago cleanses the palate before the main event: snow-white halibut atop a base of whipped potatoes, ringed with sweet onion sauce, cabernet wine reduction, and olive oil, and garnished with an orchid and two slim scallion antennae. The fish is delicate yet meaty, and the flavors of the onion sauce and the wine reduction swim together in an unusual but beautiful way.
Then there is the matter of dessert. We watch the progression of soufflé au Grand Marnier, tarte Tatin, and double vanilla crême brulée, but choose to finish with smooth, flourless dark chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream on a brilliant red raspberry coulis.
On second thought, perhaps the hardest thing about dinner at Fresh Cream is leaving.
Fresh Cream, Heritage Harbor, Suite 100C, 99 Pacific St.; 831-375-9798. Entrees $27-$39.