Monterey's Fish House
2114 Del Monte Avenue
Monterey, CA 93940
Date of Visit: Thursday, March 5, 2009
Time: Early Dinner - 6:00 PM
Number of Diners: 2
Food Quality: 5.5
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