Passionfish, Pacific Grove, California

701 Lighthouse Ave
Pacific Grove, CA 93950
(831) 655-3311
Date of Visit: Friday, March 6, 2009
Time: Dinner - 10:00 PM
Server: Holly
Number of Diners: 4

Food Quality: 8
Service: 7
Ambiance: 7.5*

*We were there very late, just before closing, and there was one large, very drunk, VERY noisy table full of people - to the extent that the waitress had to pause for gaps of comparative quiet to talk to our table. The one diner (hopefully) sober enough to drive did apologize halfheartedly on their way out.

Having been in a meeting until 9:30 PM we needed to find a decent restaurant that was open. Fortunately Passionfish in Pacific Grove was open until 10. A semi-quick 15 minute drive from Carmel and we were there, 10 minutes before closing time. The hostess/waitress, Holly, assured us our party of 4 were welcome. There was one large table with about 10 folks noisily finishing their desserts and wines, and the rest of the small room was empty. We were promptly seated and drinking San Pellegrino ($3.50). Holly brought menus and informed us the specials were all on the card, which changes frequently. I perused the wine list, shocked at the prices. I asked Holly, and she told us that Passionfish charges retail (i.e. winery list price) for every wine. And the selection was amazing. Check it out by downloading the pdf from their wine list page. I was drawn to the Dashe Cellars L’ Enfant Terrible, Potter Valley ’07 for $30. It was listed as an "Un-Zinfandel." Holly told me the "Terrible Child" was a very unique Zin that was light and would not overpower the fish. I was intrigued and ordered it, only to discover they had run out. We settled on the Gunn, New Zealand ’07 Unoaked Chardonnay for $20, and it was a rare treat for two of our party. They had never had a chardonnay that tasted like grapes instead of just vanilla and oak. It was so good (and so reasonable) that we had two bottles over the course of the evening.

We all ordered salads to start. Fish was the reason for being there, and our party of four chose one Sturgeon, one Sablefish, and two wanted Mahi-mahi. We also had San Pellegrino ($3.50) with the wine. The long day called for desserts for all and coffee for some. It was quite a feast, so without further ado...

What we had with menu descriptions...

Butter lettuce garden salad with mixed organic greens $8

Shredded Brussels sprout salad with Kurobuta ham and mustard dressing $8

Baked gorgonzola, golden chutney, candied pecans & curried butter lettuce $10

‘Quinault’ Sablefish crusted with pepper/wasabi slaw/ginger vinaigrette (pictured at left) $22

Sturgeon/coconut rice/zucchini fritters/red curry vinaigrette $23

Hand lined Mahi (pictured at right)/black pepper-rum sauce/cucumber salad/green onion rice $23

Fresh local berry ice cream $6

Mud Pie $6

Panna cotta $6

Creme brulee $6

As is the norm for the area, the salads are amazing - due to the readily available, fresh, local produce from nearby fields. Passionfish goes the extra mile with extra adornments (cheese, dried fruits, nuts, radishes, onions, etc.) and homemade dressings. All of the excellent salads disappeared quickly. One standout was the Brussels sprout salad. Warm and tender, the shredded sprouts blended nicely with the grainy mustard vinegarette to form the best cole slaw in the universe. The very rare an expensive Kurobuta ham made a wonderful accent.

The Sablefish was excellent - properly cooked with an herb crust, appropriately sauced, with interesting sides. The fish was tender, flaky and delicate. And the "slaw" was slivered Watsonville apples in a slightly spicy wasabe slaw dressing. I loved it, though I was the only one at the table who did.

The Mahi-Mahi must have been good as well, since both portions disappeared rapidly, before I had a chance to taste them. It was generously doused in a chopped tomato relish, which I might have thought would be overwhelming, but the diners had no complaints.

The Sturgeon (pictured at left) was the weakest of the three, moist and nearly overcooked, slightly mushy. Compared to the other dishes, even the colors were muted. Still it was quite passable, and the rice and fresh vegetables carried the day for this entree.

The coffee was passable, and the desserts were fresh and generous. The Mud pie was a tower of death by chocolate, offset with a delicious homemade vanilla ice cream. The other desserts were acceptable executions of the standards.

Locally there is an informal rivalry between Passionfish and Fish House. For creatively prepared fish and unusual, tasty side dishes, Passionfish is the clear choice. For plain, unadorned, fresh fish, the edge goes to Fish House. Throw in the retail priced wine and plethora of choices, and the tiebreaker goes to Passionfish. One note - all fish at Fish House is wild caught. Passionfish is vocal about sustainable resources, so most of their fish is farmed - tasty, but potentially less healthful than the wild versions.

Passionfish - RECOMMENDED for a fresh, fancy-preparation fish dishes and outstanding wine values

Highs: Wine selection and retail pricing, fresh fish fancy style
Lows: Room can be murderously noisy when full, aggressive with food politics

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Range - San Francisco, California

842 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 282-8283

Date of Visit: Saturday, March 7, 2009
Time: Dinner - 8:00 PM
Server: Jonathon S.
Number of Diners: 2

Food Quality: 9
Service: 9
Ambiance: 7.5*

*To be fair, the ambiance is not quite comfortable and not at all quiet, but the place is very cool - in a good way.

And now for something completely different. San Francisco is not New York City, and despite the chip on the shoulder of some, that's a good thing. It's a microcosm of much that is good (and a little that isn't) about NYC. Sure, you can't get a decent bagel at 3AM within walking distance of most places in San Francisco, but who really gives a damn about that? If your answer is, "Anybody that IS anybody," please delete this blog from your list of things to read in order to save time for early morning bagel munching! But I digress... This blog entry is about great food in a fun city.

Our long weekend's itinerary had space in it for only two restaurants in "the City." We chose Range in the Mission District for our first evening. This area used to be unsafe after dark, but prices in blighted areas have attracted entrepreneurs, and the neighborhood has improved dramatically. While we hoped to arrive for an early dinner (which should have been easy even without reservations) our Saturday had not progressed as expected, having delayed us in Carmel past noon. A late lunch at In-N-Out and an afternoon visit with a friend in Morgan Hill, an aborted attempt at wine tasting at Guglielmo (doing quite well despite the economy), and a pre-dinner workout in the hotel fitness center had delayed our arrival into San Francisco until the prime time dinner hour. We were on a casual schedule, so entertaining ourselves for a couple of hours while awaiting a slot for a 10PM dinner was an acceptable workaround. One of the reasons I'd selected the place was that they were open late - until 11PM or later. We decided to park near Range to find nearby random sources of self-amusement. Luck of the Irish was in full force, and we found free street parking half a block from the place without hassle or incident. We walked past the front door at two minutes before 8PM, peak of dinner rush hour. The place was crowded as expected, but no line out the door or anything. I started to continue on, but my companion suggested checking inside just to see what was up.

We ventured in. The restaurant is very stylish - granite bar, stainless steel tables and chairs, black lacquered woods, glass shelves with chrome brackets, and retro fixtures and appliances. The cool color scheme added to the hip-cool ambiance. The place was noisy inside, fully of happy patrons, and a cheerful hostess greeted me. I led with my best foot forward, "I know you're jammed and we don't have reservations. Since you're open pretty late, can you tell me a good time to come back for a shot at a late dinner?" She smiled and told me that the dining room was pretty full for the evening, and that she had a waiting list for bar table seating. She added, "If you're hungry, you can try to grab a bar seat as they open up, but I don't feel that for you." I laughed and asked, "You're not FEELING it for me? How do you feel about the table wait list?" She quickly explained, "No, no - I don't FIELD that for you. But since you ask, I'm not FEELING it either, at least not any time soon." I assured her that we were not in a hurry, and asked to be added to the wait list. She apologized that it might be as much as 45 minutes as I gave her my cell phone number. I asked, "Dinner's worth the wait, isn't it?" and she assured me it was indeed. I thanked her, and we continued our stroll. I commented that 45 minutes was nothing - to which my partner fully agreed. We found an Irish pub across the street and used their restroom, after which we examined the appetizer menu and beers on tap. We had just decided to walk around a couple of blocks and return here for a beer when the cell phone rang. It was my friendly hostess, Amanda at Range, and she said there was a table open RIGHT NOW if we were interested. I assured her that we were, and by 8:10 PM we were seated at a high-top for two (pictured here) with a liter of San Pellegrino ($6) being poured for us. Whether it was Irish charm, Irish luck, or both, it was awesome - take THAT, New-Age Guy!

We sat at the last table toward the back of the bar area, at the opening of the hallway to the main dining rooms with its rack of coat hooks on the wall - all full. The hostess who seated us pointed out the coat hooks on the wall under the table, a welcome addition for our jackets. There was a tiny sideboard on the opposite wall of the hallway, and people congregated there while waiting to pounce on bar seating. My seat put me next to them and in the path of every server and bus-person dashing between the bar and the dining areas. I took it all in stride (as did the staff), and we became familiar with each other through the next 90 minutes of bumping and dodging each other. I was happy for the lightning quick seating and opportunity to sample the cuisine, as well as the new options of late night dessert that were now open to us, so I had no complaints. Range was opened in 2005 by Phil and Cameron West, a husband-and-wife team. Phil brings back-of-house experience from Bacar's kitchen and Cameron has front-of-house covered from her days at Delfina. It is worthwhile to note that Range already has a Michelin Star, putting it in company with some of the area's greatest eateries, such as Berkeley's Chez Panisse, The Dining Room at Ritz Carlton San Francisco, and Bouchon in Napa Valley.

Seated with a great view of the bar we were able to take in all the activity there. The center of the back-bar was dominated by an authentic, 60s-vintage, lighted, multi-tiered, glass-front refrigerator with rotating shelves - half with bottled beer and half with tall glasses. It turns out that this was a blood bank fridge in its former life - very cool and well suited to its new duties. The bartenders were quite busy making elaborate concoctions of which juice squeezed out of an enormous bowl of fresh fruits was the prime ingredient. A peek at the cocktail menu plus the labor input we were observing proved that these drinks might actually be worth the $9.50 price tag. I told Jonathon, our waiter, that we were starting with some "frou-frou" drinks. I was drawn to the Third Rail, but ultimately chose the Blood Bank. My companion picked a Vin de Pamplemousse, which turned out to be deliciously tart with a hint of mild spice. The Blood Bank was at once spicy, fruity, sweet, and tart - absolutely worthwhile. Someone has taken great pains to develop interesting concoctions with fresh and exotic fruits and liquors. There being no specials to contemplate, we consulted with Jonathan about the merits of menu choices and wine pairings. He advised us efficiently and impartially, asking good questions, and making specific recommendations. Since I settled on lamb and my companion wanted fish, he recommended the 2006 Jean-Paul Thevenet "Vielles Vignes" Morgon Beaujolais for $49, heading off my cocked eyebrow with assurances that it was in no way a Noveau Beaujolais. He was spot on - the wine had a light ruby color with mild raisin an cranberry aromas. It's mouth feel was smooth balanced with flavors of tart cranberry and the dark cassis. No tannin at all, but rich and mildly fruity - complementary to the lamb and not overpowering to the fish. It even added a little pop to the excellent appetizers.

What we had with menu descriptions...
(the menu is also very cool, including the deliberate failure to capitalize words)

Vin de Pamplemousse - square one vodka, arneis, grapefruit, vanilla, lemon 9.50

Blood Bank - gosling’s black rum, walnut orgeat, blood orange, lime 9.50

purée of asparagus soup with sour cream and breadcrumbs 8.00

parsnip purée with a poached farm egg and black truffle butter 14.00

petrale sole with shaved fennel, fingerling potatoes and a grain mustard sauce 24.00

pan roasted lamb sirloin with butter beans, radicchio di verona and lucques olive tapenade 24.00

cheese plate: crottin de champcol- pasteurized french goat’s milk cheese with housemade panforte 8.50

While the food was amazing, I must lead off with a word about the service. Amanda, the reservation hostess, the seating hostess, Jonathan our waiter, the bartenders, the bar waitress, and numerous bus-persons attended to our every need before it even became a thought or question. Glasses were filled and refilled, bottles and dishes brought and removed, crumbs swept, napkins folded, every nuance attended seamlessly by the entire team. There was no assignment of duties or egos - any passing employee who saw something that might need doing simply did it in passing, and would have done so invisibly had I not needed to bump and dodge most of them frequently due to my seating spot - a fact that frankly added to the sport of the evening. The front of house team was seamless and perfect. This was a special treat for denizens of Utah, where service with a scowl is an upgrade in many places, even high-end ones. Let's discuss each plate in turn:

Asparagus soup - Fresh pureed and warmed rather than cooked - it was like an explosion of green and cream in the mouth. The dairy added to the mouth feel and creaminess while the bread crumbs provided some delicate crunch. I felt my vitamin counts go up as my palate was teased with the freshness of it all.

Poached farm egg - The fact that many chefs are discovering anew some old world peasant foods with modern preparation techniques is a boon to society. The parsnip puree was something better than mashed potatoes could hope to be, providing a lovely cushion for the perfectly poached, fresh, organic egg. Truffle butter added a hint of earth to the dish, which was a blend of solid and liquid textures to delight the senses. Confessions of an egg lover - I could eat one of these every day for the rest of my life.

Petrale sole - As fresh as it cold Pacific nearby, it was delicate and flaky. I'm no fan of fennel, but the conservative application plus the grainy mustard contributed an earthy background that played into the fingers of the Beaujolais masterfully. A solid home run.

Lamb sirloin - The weakest of the players by the thinnest of margins, it was still excellent, fork tender, beautifully bold in flavor, complemented adequately with olive, arugula and beans. The latter were an experience all on their own, clearly fresh, local, and organic. I had no complaints at all, and the lamb did pop a little with the Beaujolais. I would order it again.

Cheese plate - The three cheeses were substantially different and all delicious. My companion had asked for regular coffee to accompany hers, while I had elected to stick with the wine. I was shocked when the coffee had not appeared within thirty seconds after the cheese, and quickly caught Jonathan's eye. Busy as he was, he was never more than 60 seconds out of range, nor too distracted to observe if he was being sought after by any patron. I simply asked, "Coffee?" and the man visibly winced. I know the look - it's the expression of someone who NEVER makes mistakes or forgets anything remembering that something was overlooked. I waved off his apology with a smile, and the coffee with cream and sugars appeared on the table within 30 seconds, and never appeared on the check at all.

This was as close to a perfect dining experience as I have had in two years.

We followed our excellent dinner and cheese course with something that would have been unthinkable ten years ago - a stroll around San Francisco's Mission District at 9:30 PM. The area is on the cusp of rediscovery, sporting an odd mix of bombed-out crack houses, boarded-up movie theaters, creepy discount and used-item stores, seedy liquor stores, and Popeye's Chicken equally peppered with cool clubs, upscale restaurants, many trendy retro decor and clothing stores, and a few Central American banks. With the rough economy, it's difficult to guess which direction the area will take - progression or regression. The street was populated with young, trendy club-hounds, couples of all types seeking food, drink, or other conventional entertainment, and a few (clearly well-fed) homeless types - all non-aggressive. On Mission Street itself we stumbled across a place called Foreign Cinema, at first glance an art film theater, but actually a restaurant that shows films. Being a fan of both, I had to check it out. Another very cool place, the entrance appeared to be a long hallway to the theater, but was actually an enclosed area between two buildings, the back rooms of which had been converted to the restaurant's use. At the farthest reaches is an open courtyard, partially roofed and canopied, with a movie playing against the whitewashed back of the building on the next block. Very cool, very secure, and completely fascinating. We did not have a chance to eat there, but it looked like a winner based on observation of the diners and the food on their tables. You can check out a good review of the space and brunch on Hass's excellent NSAaM blog on Foreign Cinema and an adequate review of the Foreign Cinema's food on Foodnut's ad-cluttered blog. I noted they were showing PI, an excellent black and white film by Darren Aronofsky that won a Director's Award at Sundance in 1998 (before they became completely full of themselves and useless). Since no sound could be heard, I asked the very friendly hostesses if it were even possible. They laughed and pointed out the obvious fact that the film was more for atmosphere than watching, and added that a few of the tables had drive-in type speakers for those who wanted to listen. An interesting concept, apparently well-executed and "cool." We may have to try it on our next visit to the area.

Though I rarely recommend other reviewers, Haas also likes Range and lists it as a favorite - a rare accolade from him. I did not read his review until after my experience, and it's very informative. Check it out: Haas on Range (unsubtle pun intended)

Range - UNCONDITIONALLY RECOMMENDED for a worthy, inventive meals, excellent service, and unusual cocktails - all at reasonable prices

Highs: Cool place, people, and patrons; ever-changing, inventive food; top quality ingredients; stellar service; creative and refreshing cocktails
Lows: None, but you may get the worst table in the house if you don't reserve (at 8PM on a Saturday)

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Cafe Cruz - Soquel, California

Cafe Cruz
2621 41st Avenue
Soquel, CA
(831) 476-3801

Date of Visit: Friday, March 6, 2009
Time: Lunch - 1:00 PM
Server: Lisa
Number of Diners: 2

Food Quality: 8
Service: 8*
Ambiance: 7

*Service is an 8 with elements of 5 for occasional visitors and 10 with elements of 5 for regulars - the place is so overwhelmingly friendly that frequent long gaps between server visits are easily overlooked, but it would be inaccurate not to mention them.

Time for an Ego confession before the review. This is my favorite restaurant in the United States, period. That said, it is far from the best restaurant in the U.S. How can it be my favorite if not the best? It's a lot of little things - fresh, local, often organic meats, produce, and the like. Comfortable, bustling atmosphere, unpretentious on every level. Consistently good (not great) food - American standards with a Northern California flair. Decent wine list, good beers on tap, and always friendly. When I lived in the area we would hit this restaurant nearly monthly - not enough to be called regulars, but as often as we could for a decent meal. It was always worth the 40 minute drive each way from Gilroy. Special occasions? Not here. We could go to San Francisco or other "special" places. Cafe Cruz provided us with reliable and consistent high-quality, food, beer, and wine at reasonable prices in a comfortable atmosphere. Any time I visit the area, this place is at the top of the list for "must-do" dining. Our schedule on this trip only permitted one visit for lunch, and it was like putting on a comfortable pair of shoes. It just felt - easy. You can always count on Cafe Cruz to take great ingredients and combine them competently without damage.

Cafe Cruz is located in Soquel, which is just south of Santa Cruz. It's definitely a locals-only place, not near the water for tourists or downtown for the college and "cool" crowds. It's in an old building across the street from the local Super K-Mart. Parking is non-existent, half shared with a nameless Chinese place behind the building. The structure itself is a labyrinth of small dining areas, a bar and adjacent table seating, a featured gas-fired rotisserie with rotating spitted chickens and other fowl, an outdoor open-air patio, and a heated, covered outdoor courtyard. I have never counted, but I'd speculate there are at least 50 tables scattered about the place. The bar is small, noisy, and always jammed wall to wall with happy locals chattering about the workday while catching whatever game is on TV. Tables are set simply with tablecloths covered by white butcher paper. And it has an all-copper bar and showplace kitchen area with 4 seats, installed before such things were cool or commonplace. One or more of the chefs nearly always will ask about your meal when you walk past to visit the restroom or exit the front door.

Visiting on a Friday later in the lunch period, the main dining rooms were full, and the bar tables seemed overrun by people with small children, so we gladly accepted covered courtyard seating under the heaters. There was a large table set, and we took one of the five 2-person tables next to it. A couple with a (very sick) baby were behind us, and another couple a few tables down. The large table slowly filled with eight or nine women and one man. "Who invited HIM?" I asked softly, eliciting a giggle from my dining companion. We were pleased to see our server was Lisa (pictured here in a circa 2000 photo and unchanged today), who had been with the restaurant since opening, and had served us many times in the past. There was no reason for her to remember us, and she did not, but still greeted us warmly and treated us like long lost friends - the normal atmosphere for the place. I believe it was Lisa who told us many years ago that one of the desserts (the lemon bar) was prepared by one of the waitstaff and brought with her to work fresh daily. They discontinued the practice later, outsourcing to a local bakery, but it's that kind of place - where anyone would pitch in to make it successful.

We ordered our standard San Pellegrino liter ($4.25) and heard the specials. Learning that they had Seabright Brewery's Amber Ale on tap, we both ordered one of those as well - passing up Anchor Steam, Newcastle, Heinekin, Paulaner Hefeweizen, Guinness, and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale also available on draft. I reminisced that Seabright, a local brewery in Santa Cruz, was one of our favorite post-beach hangouts in days past. The decent and affordable wine list (with 15 by the glass) also beckoned, offset by the fact of a 40 minute drive to Carmel for a meeting that had already started at 1PM. We had opted for the lunch and a late arrival at the meeting in order to work Cafe Cruz into the schedule! They had an interesting special of fresh ahi tuna organized somehow into a taco salad. It looked very tasty on the large table near us, but we were wanting lighter fare in smaller portions for our afternoon repast.

What we had with menu descriptions...

Happy Boy Farms Organic Baby Green Salad (Large) - Granny smith apples, crumbled Gorgonzola, glazed walnuts & raspberry vinaigrette $13.50

Organic Baby Green Salad (small) - balsamic vinaigrette or creamy Gorgonzola port dressing $6.50

Three Cheese Spinach & Artichoke Ravioli - roasted red bell pepper cream sauce $14.95

Each table is started with a sliced sourdough baguette served with herb-infused olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and fresh chopped garlic (prepared daily). The concoction makes a hot-spicy garlicky nectar readily absorbed by the excellent bread. Lisa brought us a second round of bread and garlic after taking our order. The salads were, as anticipated, prepared from fresh, local, organic greens. The Happy Boy salad was generous in size and perfect in presentation. The small salad really "popped" with the Gorgonzola port dressing. The pasta was also very good - warm, creamy, and redolent of fresh spinach and artichokes both procured from farms less than 20 miles away. The roasted bell pepper cream sauce was mild with a strong hint of sweetness. The hoppy Seabright ale made a great complement to the simple meal. It was a wonderful, albeit all too quick, homecoming for us.

We wanted to bring our friends back for dinner the very same evening, but the meeting in Carmel was scheduled to go until 9PM and likely to be later. I asked Lisa when closing time was for a Friday night. She went to check and reported that they planned to close around 10. I mentioned that we were hoping to bring a few friends back, but the schedule would be tight and late arrivals might not be welcomed. Lisa (without checking) assured me that if I called with a party of four or more at 9:30 for a 10PM arrival, they would without question stay open for us. Perhaps it's the rough economy, and perhaps it's also just that kind of a place. While we might ultimately have made it happen, the meeting was so exhausting that none felt up to the 80 minute round trip. So we all will have something to look forward to on our next visit.

Cafe Cruz - UNCONDITIONALLY RECOMMENDED for a friendly and comfortable Northern California lunch or dinner experience if you are relaxed and unhurried - not recommended for the demanding, up-tight, or time-limited diner

Highs: Friendly environment, reasonable prices, reliable preparation, stellar ingredients - fresh meat, fish and pasta
Lows: Parking, occasional periods of absent service

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

First Awakenings - Pacific Grove, California

First Awakenings
125 Oceanview Boulevard
Pacific Grove, CA
(831) 372-1125

Date of Visit: Friday, March 6, 2009
Time: Breakfast - 8:30 AM
Server: N/A
Number of Diners: 2

Food Quality: 7
Service: 6.5
Ambiance: 5

If you snoop around the web a bit, there is a very rare and clear consensus that the best breakfast in the Monterey area may be found at First Awakenings in Pacific Grove. This tiny, uber-wealthy community, called "P.G." by the locals, is where John Steinbeck lived while he wrote many famous works of fiction and non-fiction, including one about nearby Cannery Row. Often confused with Monterey, the town is sandwiched between the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Pebble Beach Golf Links. There are many fine restaurants and expensive Bed & Breakfast Inns located there, and it's a quiet place to hang out for locals looking for something upscale. It's a stunningly beautiful place - the image one brings to mind when thinking of Pebble Beach, so I decided that FA in PG would do for our breakfast this day. I was somewhat taken aback to discover the restaurant is located within the American Tin Cannery shops, a faux-restoration collection of designer label shops and other tourist traps. I decided to at least check it out before moving on to our second choice eatery. At this early hour on a Friday, everything in the mall was closed except this place, and it was packed to the rafters with locals - a very good sign indeed.

With the luck of the Irish we hit it just as several tables were departing, and we were seated immediately. It has about 20 small tables inside and a large patio outside, unused for breakfast even in the temperate PG late winter. The waitress brought coffee immediately and allowed me to use my own bottle of water, as they had only tap water available. We took quite some time perusing the extensive menu, which the waitress explained by pointing out real examples being consumed at neighboring tables. The crepes, skillets, pancakes, and huevos rancheros were well represented, with some pictured here. We opted for something more reserved to preserve room for at least one other meal that day!

What we had with menu descriptions...

Crêpeggs A thin, sweet crêpe combined with fluffy whipped egg. Served with homestyle potatoes and an English muffin.
Turkey Dill - Diced turkey, mushrooms, chopped spinach, onion and Monterey Jack cheese folded in our crêpegg. Topped with diced tomatoes, our award-winning hollandaise sauce and fresh dill 8.99

Our Omelettes We have devoted our lives to this art form. Served with homestyle potatoes and English muffin of course! If you like it hot, add jalapeños - 79¢
Veggie - Fresh seasonal vegetables, savory cheese, sour cream and chives 8.99

Vegetarian Sausage Links - Low-fat, low cholesterol 3.29

We both chose to pass on the home fries and their associated bulk and calories. The egg dishes and crepes were excellent, light, and fluffy as they should be. The veggies and fruits were fresh and delicious. Coffee was decent and plentiful, since a full pitcher of the stuff had been left on the table for our use. The veggie omelet had broccoli, spinach, onion, and chives. The turkey dill crepe was lightly seasoned with fresh dill and was both unusual and remarkable. The veggie sausage was passable, if a bit dry. Next time I might try the turkey version, available for the same price. We lingered over each bite, pausing only to dash out and feed the parking meters (which begin duty a 9AM). I even donated a quarter to feed the meter for a BMW K1100 motorcycle parked near me - my biker good deed for the morning!

First Awakenings - RECOMMENDED for a hearty and/or healthy breakfast - also open for lunch, sister location in downtown Salinas

Highs: Good ingredients, fresh food, casual upscale without pretense
Lows: Feeding parking meters from 9AM daily

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego

Fish House - Monterey, California

Monterey's Fish House
2114 Del Monte Avenue
Monterey, CA 93940
(831) 373-4647

No Website

Date of Visit: Thursday, March 5, 2009
Time: Early Dinner - 6:00 PM
Server: ???
Number of Diners: 2

Food Quality: 5.5
Service: 7
Ambiance: 5

In the interest of full disclosure, this is not my first visit to the Fish House, nor the second, or third. My previous visits number well into double-digit territory over the past 20 years. When we lived in the area (Gilroy), we probably ate here half a dozen times per year. So while I really wanted to love the place, the review is pretty neutral. Like the mole on Cindy Crawford's face, could it be the little flaws that give the Fish House its particular charm? For first-time visitors to the restaurant, we need to make clear which place is the subject of the review. The restaurant is a strictly locals-only type of place, called Monterey's Fish House, north of town, not close to anything but a bowling alley. It should NOT be confused with "Monterey Jack's Fish House and Sports Bar," an entirely different business located near Cannery Row, and one that caters to a primarily tourist crowd. What's the difference? Fish House is jam packed every night of the week with repeat-business locals. Monterey Jack's is jammed whenever the tourists are plentiful, with not a lot of repeat business needed. So the focus is very different, and clearly our Fish House has earned and sustained its loyal following.

The Fish House was a house at one time, but has been morphed into a tiny restaurant and grill for at least 25 years. It still feels like eating in someone's home, and it's run like a family business should be, with each and every employee from hostess to dishwashers greeting each customer like a family friend at every opportunity. Service is oddly impersonal despite the overt friendliness, perhaps because family needs no introductions. It's also by necessity, as the place is jammed to overfilling whenever they are open. It's also important to note that two things are a waste of time at the Fish House - reservations and the menu - the former because they never rush patrons despite the crowds, and they try to seat everyone that shows up somewhere if they can, reservations or not. The place opens at 5PM and closes when they start to run out of stuff, and reservations don't really guarantee you anything. The menu is nearly useless, as good as it is, because the fresh seafood is procured locally every day and varies based on the season, the catch, and the market prices. So the menu should be viewed as entertaining reading until a server comes and recites a dozen or more specials from memory.

All of this makes dining at the Fish House an exercise in patience and a journey into chaos. If you want prompt seating, fawning service, and a quiet meal with friends, this is NOT the place for you. While you may not be seated at a table with strangers, the tables are so tight that you are effectively together. We were seated at a table by the wall, about 6 inches from the next table with a single diner. When discussing the menu, it was natural (and welcome) for him to join in and discuss the finer points of what he had just finished eating. Shortly he paid his bill and left, to be replaced by a retired farmer from Hollister and his son-in-law. The older man had brought them there specifically for the barbecued oysters. Soon active conversation developed between us concerning the food, current events, and the younger man's plans to accompany a group of doctors to Central America to provide charitable medical services to indigent villages there, to be followed by a couple days of radical surfing. Only in California...

The raison d'etre for a trip to the Fish House is FRESH fish and shellfish, simply prepared, grilled over an oak fire. A few things are standard fare here: Cioppino, grilled baby octopus (when available), and barbecued oysters. Two of the three are pictured here (click on any pic in the blog for a larger version), and the oysters are indeed the stuff of legend. We are avoiding shellfish at the moment for health reasons, but have sampled all three in the past and can verify their excellence - for those who like to eat that sort of thing. If you have never tried barbecued oysters, this would be the place. They also have a selection raw on the half shell for traditionalists. Other "perpetual specials" include steamed clams or mussels and an amazing rack of lamb. The server's list of specials for that Thursday included a number of shellfish dishes and several fresh-caught fish.

What we had with descriptions...

Keep in mind that the menu is not the star here, and the specials are not written, so I have to go from memory for the dishes we ordered. Fresh fish was available oak grilled, pan cooked with veggies, blackened, or with a honey-walnut herb crust and white-wine/mushroom sauce. We decided on house salads, an antipasto platter, and two fresh fish choices.

1L bottle San Pellegrino $6

Mixed organic greens - house dressing $5.95

Antipasto Appetizer $7.95

(special) Fresh Ahi Tuna - blackened $22.95
accompanied by fresh vegetables and pasta marinara

(special) Fresh Mahi Mahi - with honey-walnut crust $22.95 (pictured at right)
accompanied by fresh vegetables and pasta marinara

Our server, whose name we never knew, was courteous and prompt, staring at the ceiling as he struggled to recite the specials at this early hour. He really never made eye contact with either of us, but his impersonal touch was more than offset by the busboy who came by every three to five minutes to refresh water, bread, wine, and to sweep away dishes and crumbs. We started with sourdough bread and butter to lead to the San Pellegrino and house salads. We had arrived a few hours earlier from Utah, and we were hungry. And we found that the salads were amazing. Not because of the variety or types of ingredients, but because of the freshness. Most of the salad greens in the Western US are grown in the Monterey Bay area and Salinas Valley. Everything on our plates was from less than 20 miles away and had been growing in a field a couple of days earlier. The difference is stunning. When we lived there, we became accustomed to it. Living in Utah, we are accustomed to week-old produce picked too early. Salads in this area should not be overlooked - they are on a different plane.

Thoroughly refreshed, I looked over the wine list, trying to guess which local, unknown vineyard would have that hidden gem. The waiter recommended Joullian Sauvignon Blanc ($30) from the Carmel Valley to my request for something dry. It was not at all dry, but went well with the fish. Having eaten here many times before, both of us decided to abandon our standard fare and branch out. Past visits opened with steamed mussels followed by fresh fish grilled on the open flame. Occasionally a rack of lamb. But this time we went with blackened tuna (on the enthusiastic recommendation of the single diner next to us) and fancy crusted and sauced mahi-mahi. They were quite frankly disappointing, and we should have known better. To take a perfect piece of fresh fish and "fancy it up" is something they do because locals insist on it, but it was a tragic waste - a needless dumbing down of good ingredients with superfluous extras. The wood-fired or pan-grilled choices are the only ones that should be considered for the fish, and next time we will remember that. The veggies were fresh and perfectly pan-tossed al dente, and the pasta was a tasty, if unnecessary side dish. We left a $20 tip for a $100 meal and waddled to our hotel to collapse for the night.

Locally there is an informal rivalry between Passionfish and Fish House. For creatively prepared fish and unusual, tasty side dishes, Passionfish is the clear choice. For plain, unadorned, fresh fish, the edge goes to Fish House. Throw in the retail priced wine and plethora of choices, and the tiebreaker goes to Passionfish. One note - all fish at Fish House is wild caught. Passionfish is vocal about sustainable resources, so most of their fish is farmed - tasty, but potentially less healthful than the wild versions.

Monterey's Fish House - RECOMMENDED for fresh, wild-caught fish or shellfish, simply prepared

Highs: Excellent fresh ingredients, intimate setting, friendly staff and patrons
Lows: Loud, chaotic, temptation to mess up perfect fish with fancy preparation

Bon Appétit! - W. Ego