Who knows what Kirk and Cathy are up to right now, but this is ed from Yuma - just back from two weeks in Monterey - and I want to share my experiences at one of my very favorite restaurants. This post is part one. If Kirk lets me go on, I will discuss salads and appetizers in part 2 and entrees in part 3.
Some background: before I became ed from Yuma, I was once ed from Monterey, where I lived for a dozen years. These days, Monterey is my favorite vacation spot, and I still have friends in the area, including a very nice couple - obviously tolerant of eccentricity - who let me stay in the spare bedroom at their condo. For the last several years, I have enjoyed a couple of weeks escaping the searing summer weather in Yuma and savoring the beautiful scenery, the cool ocean breezes, and the wonderful restaurants in the Monterey area. While I do some cooking in their kitchen and sometimes Steve and Helen prepare meals as well, Monterey and its adjacent communities (Carmel, Pacific Grove, Seaside, Marina, among others) have numerous tempting restaurants that cater both to locals and to the innumerable tourists who flock like seagulls every summer to this beautiful part of the central California coast. Never much good at resisting temptation (which partly explains my lack of marital success), I willingly succumb to these alluring eateries and usually have 7 - 10 restaurant dinners at various spots during my stay. While I like to try new places as often as I can, every year I must have at least two dinners at Passionfish, at the corner of Congress and Lighthouse in Pacific Grove. Let me try to explain why.
One main reason is evident in this photograph:
At first glance, this picture of a glass and a bottle of wine look pretty ordinary. Of course, the stemware is fine quality crystal (fairly common in good restaurants in the area), but it is the label on the bottle that is of most interest. The grape variety, Arneis, is a relatively rare grape in the Piedmont region of northern Italy where it is originally from. Even rarer, this version comes from a California vineyard, and to be honest, I had no idea that anyone had planted this grape anywhere in California. By my standards, this is an unusual wine ($30), but such unusual wines are common on the broad and well-chosen wine list at the restaurant. As someone who grew tired of Chardonnay many years ago and someone who loves infinite variety (which also partly explains my lack of marital success), the list at Passionfish, with its pages and pages of excellent and unusual white and red wine choices, is, for me, as much fun to read as the latest issue of "Funny Times."
What makes the wine list even more special is that Passionfish sells these wines at retail prices, the same price that one would pay for the identical bottle in a wine shop, if one frequented a wine shop good enough to have such an unusual wine. For example, this bottle of Marilyn Remark 2004 Marsanne (another rare grape varietal, especially in California) is on the wine list priced at $30. I saw an identical bottle at a local specialty grocery priced at $31. Another great tasting and unusual white wine is this estate bottled Gruener Veltliner from Schloss Gobelsburg in Austria, another $30 value. The only real problem with the wine list is selecting which one or two bottles to drink.
The last two pictures also illustrate another strength of the restaurant. Soon after being seated, diners are served several warmed pieces of the very best bread that I have eaten in years - if not ever. Accompanied by whipped unsalted butter, each slice is a sheer delight. The warm bread is so fresh that it has that just baked taste and smell. Although not a sourdough, the bread has a thick and supremely crunchy crust that crackles when bitten and contrasts with the soft bready interior, which has a slightly moist, dense fine crumb. The bread's quality can be seen in the evenness of the tiny air pockets in the bread, no empty bubbles of air in any piece. In my opinion, the San Francisco Bay area and the Monterey Bay area produce the best bread in the entire United States. Nonetheless, the bread at Passionfish stands head and shoulders above any other that I remember. My waking thought the morning after my first meal at Passionfish this year was not about the incredible entrée or the outstanding salad or even the unusual bottle of wine I had consumed the night before. No, I woke up reliving the taste and textures of this wonderful bread.
This next photo, an appetizer of seared ahi accompanied by wasabi slaw ($9), illustrates other reasons for my passion about Passionfish:
My friend Steve has long loved seared ahi and has often ordered this dish at Passionfish. Every time I have had a taste of his nearly raw tuna, I have been impressed by the freshness and quality of the fish. In addition, this dish illustrates how the chef utilizes culinary fusion - often very effectively. In this dish, for example, we have a Japanese influence in the nearly raw tuna, the use of wasabi, and the topping of seaweed salad. But the word "slaw" with its Dutch roots reminds us that various cold salads are part of the American and western European traditions as is the use of tart green apple. Similarly, the menu bristles with terms like ravioli, spaetzle, charmoula, goat cheese, lemongrass, tostadita, medjool, risotto, Kurobuta etc. The kitchen clearly enjoys playing with various flavors and culinary traditions and recognizes no boundaries or borders. Of course, such cooking is risky, but it is also intriguing and challenging.
What is equally impressive about this dish (like many others on the menu) is that it has evolved over the years. If memory serves, the first two or three times that Steve ordered the dish, the tuna was crusted with black pepper and the slaw was julienned jicama lightly coated with a wasabi flavored coleslaw dressing and topped with pea shoots. In last year's version (as seen in the photo), the ahi was crusted with a fennel seed rub, and the jicama and pea shoots were replaced by julienned green apple topped with seaweed salad. This year, the appetizer was absent from the menu altogether. In other words, the chef is constantly experimenting. He refuses to rest on his laurels, and his menu is constantly morphing. The menu not only changes over the years, but many items change week to week, and most days additional specials are available. One of my local friends suggests that the chef must go home every night thinking about ways to change and improve the food.
The wide range of ingredients and constantly changing dishes also make this restaurant a magnet for those of us who are fascinated with and passionate about food. On my first visit this summer, my meal began with a fried oyster salad with citrus-soy dressed arugula ($8):
This wonderful salad combines the nutty flavor of arugula, the tang of the dressing, and the succulent flavors of cooked oysters, while it contrasts the textures of the greens with the crunchy exterior and the soft, moist, and tender interior of the oysters. As I was taking this photo, a woman seated at the next table asked why I was taking pictures, and I gave my usual answer that I put the pics on my computer, which allows me to savor the meal again and again. She then asked if I was a Chowhound and mentioned that she went to the site often. I confessed I was, and after chatting with her for a minute or two, I went back to enjoying the salad.
Then my entree, sturgeon with Nueske bacon, sweet corn, banana potatoes, & tomato vinaigrette ($20), arrived at the table:
While this dish may look like a busy mess, the balancing of flavors is incredible. Nueske bacon is heavily smoked with applewood, so the equivalent of one or two slices gives the whole plate a smoky flavor which balances perfectly with the sweetness of the corn which itself is balanced with the tang of the tomato vinaigrette, all the flavors centered by the firm waxiness of the banana potato slices and the mildly fishy flavor of the sturgeon. As I was savoring this wonderful concoction, the same woman from the next table leaned over and told me that there was another Chowhound at the next table over who was taking pictures of her food as well. When I went over and introduced myself, it turned out to be tokyoastrogirl (her blog is called Tuna Toast) who had ordered exactly the same meal as I did. Small world - but more evidence of the sort of restaurant Passionfish is.
While this culinary creativity sometimes works so well that it can leave a diner almost breathless with admiration; sometimes it can lead to mistakes (read the various comments, particularly Melanie's, at this Chowhound post for evidence). Similarly, since the menu is constantly changing, a customer looking for an old favorite may well come away frustrated. I still remember a halibut dish that came with broth containing vegetables and little gnocchi. It was tasty and unusual, and I would like to try it again, but I have never seen it repeated on the menu.
The restaurant has two other failings in my mind. Sometimes, particularly on weekend evenings, Passionfish gets uncomfortably loud. There seems to be little effort at noise abatement as most of the walls and ceilings are hard surfaces. In addition, eating an excellent meal and drinking bottles of very reasonably priced wine certainly fuels conversation. And once the noise level reaches a certain threshold, everyone has to TALK VERY LOUDLY in order to be heard across the table. At this point, all the conversations in the restaurant have to rise to a higher sonic level, and the din becomes deafening.
The second major shortcoming of the restaurant is its view. Many people come to the Monterey Peninsula for the incredible natural beauty of the area, but outside of the beautiful food (and perhaps your attractive companion(s) at the table), a diner's views at Passionfish are restricted to an office plaza or a Shell station. So I suggest one go walk in the afternoon at Point Lobos for the scenery - and eat that night at Passionfish for the food.
Passionfish, 701 Lighthouse Ave, Pacific Grove CA 93950, (831) 655-3311.