While Kirk and Cathy are no doubt eating well and will soon share their experiences with you, this is ed from Yuma again. This time I am writing about a scrumptious meal I had while on vacation in Monterey.
We all know (or have heard of) someone who is a fanatic about his/her barbecue. It has to be beef (or pork), it has to be ribs (or brisket), you have to use oak (or hickory or applewood), it has to be smoked for 8 hours (or 12), the dry rub has to be composed of the following spices (what ever) , the sauce must be based on tomato or molasses or mustard, and it has to be sour or sweet or spicy hot or etc. etc. Well, I like barbecue in general, but don't care that much about how it is prepared, as long as it tastes good. On the other hand, I am a fanatic about prime rib because there really is only one right way to prepare it. And today, almost all restaurant "prime rib" is crap.
First, prime rib needs to be made with prime or higher grade beef. That's what the term prime rib originally meant. However, these days, a restaurateur may legally call any standing rib roast a "prime rib." Calling it that does not make it really prime rib, no matter what the law says. Second, a serving of prime rib needs to be cut off an actual roast in an oven. Today, the vast majority of restaurant prime rib is roasted to very rare and then pulled out of the oven and left to cool. When a customer orders prime rib, the waitperson will ask, "how do you want that done?" As soon as you hear those words, you should get up and run out of the restaurant as fast as you can. What those words mean is that they will cut your slab of beef off a cooled roast and then reheat it to the degree of doneness that you specify. Sorry folks, that is not prime rib; that is LEFTOVERS! Reheating a piece of prime rib ruins it for human consumption (or at least, my consumption). It muddies the taste and destroys the texture of the meat. It becomes chewy, not silken tender. Third, a prime rib needs to be very slowly roasted at a low temperature. As most barbecue fanatics are aware, long cooking at low temperatures causes the fat cells to melt into the flesh and makes all of the meat very tender. This is what real prime rib should look like:
Because I am such a fanatic about prime rib, I have largely given up ordering it when I go out to eat. My life has been full of enough disappointments without more lousy prime rib. So why were Steve and I walking into the Whaling Station, John Pisto's flagship restaurant in the Cannery Row area of New Monterey, looking for prime rib? There are two simple answers. First, Helen had had an early dinner because she had to work the next morning, so Steve and I were free to go out, be manly, and gorge ourselves on meat. More importantly, the previous year as I was walking around reading menus (doesn't everyone walk around and read menus?), a sign next to the Whaling Station's menu proclaimed that each night the restaurant had one slowly roasted prime rib roast, and when that roast was consumed there was no more prime rib that evening. As I read that, my heart skipped a beat (I'm sure it had nothing to do with the projected cholesterol). It sounded like the prime rib at the Whaling Station was worth a try.
After we sat down, we made sure the prime rib was available, and then I asked the question, "how is the prime rib done this evening?" The waiter responded that the roast had already been cooked 12 hours and that it would be rare to medium rare at this time. Exactly what I wanted to hear. We placed our orders, and it was all I could do to keep from drooling onto the table in anticipation.
While not as good as the bread at Passionfish, this was excellent Monterey Peninsula bread. We actually ate very little of the bread because our first courses showed up soon afterwards.
Steve had ordered a bowl of clam chowder ($6.95):
Like prime rib, I have been eating clam chowder virtually all of my life, and I know how it should taste. As soon as I took this picture, I quickly dipped a spoon in and savored the soup. The broth was rich with clam flavor and smooth and creamy to the tongue. No gloppy, floury paste here. Most clam chowders get their texture from potatoes and/or celery. In this chowder, while potatoes were present, the main textural elements were the numerous pieces of chewy clam. This was certainly one of the clammiest chowders I can remember eating - or, rather, tasting, as Steve inhaled the bowl so fast that I couldn't slide another spoon into it.
I ordered a wedge salad with blue cheese dressing ($7.95):
In general, I eat iceberg lettuce rarely as it has very little flavor and provides only crunch in a salad. However, its nearly flavorless crunch is a perfect foil for an excellent blue cheese dressing, which this was. The wedge of crispy fresh lettuce was totally covered in dressing, which also pooled around the lettuce on the bottom of the plate. Served with a steak knife, the salad seemed to expand as I cut into it, pieces of lettuce and chunks of cheese tumbling down onto the plate. It was rich and heavenly. Like prime rib and clam chowder, blue cheese dressing is another childhood favorite. My mother cooked in and managed a basic blue collar American food restaurant when I was growing up, but she used to brag that her blue cheese dressing was better than that served at the country club in town. This dressing would've made my mother proud. It had a a creamy richness, great flavor, and numerous chunks of blue cheese.
There was more to the salad than just the lettuce and dressing as you can see in the picture. Radish slices, cucumber slices, thin ribbons of carrot, and chopped green onion provided nice color contrasts. The accompanying garlic bread was equally outstanding - crunchy, buttery, and full of garlic flavor.
Nonetheless, no matter how good the soup, salad, and wine, they were merely the opening act at this culinary concert. The headliner arrived next:
As high as my expectations were, this piece of rare prime rib exceeded them. Since Steve and I had ordered the smaller prime ribs ($29.95), I was pleasantly surprised to see an attached rib bone. The beef was fork tender, richly flavored, and wonderfully juicy. As I write this, I am starting to drool again as the memory of the meal comes back to me.
While the prime rib was the star of the show, the rest of the plate made a contribution to the wonderful meal as well:
The spinach was just barely wilted and full of green spinach flavors. The few bits of bacon in the spinach were overwhelmed by the leafy goodness of the vegetable, but the chef's careful touch showed off in the freshness and intensity of the spinach taste. In my picture, it is hard to see the rich and creamy mashed potatoes, bursting with buttery goodness, because they are hidden under thin shards of deep-fried potato. Those shards added a nice textural contrast with their thin strips of crunch to the creamy goodness underneath. In the background, there is a ramekin of beefy and slightly salty
au jus, just in case the prime rib was not rich enough in flavor, and another ramekin with two preparations of horseradish, if one wanted a spicy touch to the meal. While I tried both horseradishes and the au jus, the prime rib was good enough by itself.
The triangle of super chocolatey cake was decadent indeed, and the presentation was very pretty, but I found it the least impressive part of the entire meal. I am not saying that this was a bad dessert, but it is a desert that I have had equally well prepared in several other places. Of course, it is just slightly possible that I was so stuffed and satiated and delighted and satisfied and happy with the savory courses that no dessert could have made me feel any better.
Although this post has been focused on prime rib, I should point out that The Whaling Station also serves a large variety of prime steaks and seafood dishes. The tuxedoed service was attentive and inobtrusive. While definitely not an inexpensive dining option (though not as expensive as the neighboring Sardine Factory), I suspect that anyone looking for an upscale meal in the Cannery Row area would do well at The Whaling Station.
After looking at an early draft of this post, Kirk called me "a prime rib Nazi." Maybe he's right. Nonetheless, most of the time that I mention prime rib to my friends who care about food, they often ask why I waste my time on such a meal. What has happened to these people (I think) is that they have gone their entire lives without ever once having had real prime rib. After eating lousy "prime rib" a few times, most people with functioning taste buds stop ordering it - and for good reason. But I think that if you experience the sinful goodness of outstanding real prime rib, you might well become a prime rib Nazi too.
Whaling Station, 763 Wave St, Monterey CA 93940, (831) 373-2460.