This is Kirk's wonderful food blog, mmm-yoso!!! Every once in a while, he lets Cathy or me (ed from Yuma) do a post. Today, I want to write about eating like a tourist in Monterey.
One of us first meals that I can remember eating after I moved to Monterey many years ago was at a restaurant on Fishermen's Wharf. Believe it or not, I never ate another dinner at the Wharf, one of Monterey's major tourist attractions, for the rest of the time that I lived in the city. Why? Because no self-respecting local eats at Fishermen's Wharf. All the locals know that the food in the Fishermen's Wharf area is not especially innovative and will usually cost 25 to 50% more than the same meal purchased elsewhere.
However, as a regular on Chowhound, I have learned that not every person is as intrepid as Kirk, who we all know would happily ride public transportation in a strange city for an hour and a half just to sample an especially authentic version of papaya salad with salted blue crab. Many visitors to Monterey aren't looking for the very best restaurant, if eating at that restaurant involves following complicated directions and driving through strange towns. Also, many visitors to the Monterey Peninsula are spending $250 a night for a motel room, just so that they can look at the beautiful bay instead of the cornfields or industrial landscape they live in and work in regularly. Therefore, they want to eat at one of the tourist restaurants with a nice view.
This past summer, as a public service, I decided it was my duty to try the two reportedly best restaurants in the Fishermen's Wharf area. The first place that Steve, Helen, and I sampled is actually located on the commercial wharf, the far less touristy wharf located about 100 yards eastward from Fishermen's Wharf
When we arrived at the restaurant, it looked like the restaurant had vanished, leaving just its sign:
In fact, this restaurant is slung down below the level of the wharf, providing diners with a unique sea level perspective on the yacht harbor, full of various boats bobbing and rocking from wind and waves. A few years ago, my friend Chris and I had stopped here for an afternoon cocktail, and we were very impressed with the view. Unfortunately, on this visit, the sun was shining brightly through the windows, so the restaurant lowered its blinds and whatever view we might have had through the slats was obscured by the glare (which is why there is no beautiful picture from inside the restaurant of the yacht harbor boats at anchor).
While far from the best bread I was served on this visit, the sliced sourdough from Palermo bakery would provide a visitor with a nice introduction to Monterey sourdough, the slightly tangy crumb being surrounded by a decent, if not overly crunchy, crust. For locals, the bread was nothing special, but if I were visiting from Iowa, I would have been very impressed.
The next item that arrived at our table was a bottle of Esprit de Beaucastel ($36.50), one of my favorite California white Rhône style wines:
Although Steve was quick to note that the wine list had no vintage dates on it, I thought it was generally a good and inclusive list for a tourist restaurant. For example, a bottle of Vermentino was listed for only $24. While the wine list is not nearly as extensive nor as well priced as the one at Passionfish, prices were fair enough, and there were enough choices that I had trouble making up my mind.
That evening, the Sandbar and Grill had signs up advertising the availability of Dungeness crab. It seems that the harvest last summer had been poor, and the restaurant claimed to be one of the few places in town serving fresh crab at this time. As someone who grew up eating Dungeness crab, I had to start my meal with the crab cocktail ($11.50):
Even though that was a lot of money for an appetizer, I was not disappointed with the quality and quantity of the crab:
There were several large leg and claw chunks like this one in the cocktail. The crab meat was sweet and succulent. My only complaint, and it is a minor one, is that the cocktail sauce was pretty ordinary; I'm sure I could make a better one at home. If I were to order this dish again, I would request the sauce on the side.
The appetizer was followed by a cup of clam chowder ($4.95) and a Caesar salad ($4.95):
The salad was, in my mind, pretty sorry. While it was sprinkled with grated cheese, there was very little creamy dressing for the fresh romaine leaves. The chowder, on the other hand, was tasty -- a much better chowder than the standard pasty glue pots full of salty clam base that are often called clam chowder and served in tourist restaurants. Clams, celery, and potatoes added textual variation to the flavorful and creamy broth. The use of bay leaves added an herbal dimension to the flavor. I was also extremely impressed by the coarse, spicy, and flavorful fresh black pepper our waitperson ground onto the surface of the soup. It seems strange to me to comment about the quality of the black pepper, but to be honest, this pepper was extraordinarily tasty and made a major contribution to the chowder.
Our main courses showed up next. Helen opted for the crab Louie ($18.95), and her salad was a beautiful thing, topped with a flavorful mass of impeccably fresh Dungeness:
Steve ordered the ahi salad ($16.95):
Both salads were accompanied by wedges of hard-boiled eggs and rather ordinary supermarket tomatoes. I was impressed, however, with the mixture of greens used. The base for both salads was chopped romaine, which provides body and crunch. But both salads also contained delicate Salinas Valley greens, which provide taste and color variations. Helen's Louie dressing was a creamy version of this classic, with decided spice and tomato flavors. While Steve pronounced himself happy with the lightly dressed ahi salad and quickly gobbled it up, I thought the ahi itself was not as fresh and pristine as I would've liked. Not bad, mind you, but certainly not sushi quality fish.
For my entrée, I ordered a favorite specialty of the Monterey Bay area, sand dabs ($18.95):
Sand dabs are a tiny species of sole (or perhaps flounder) unique to the central and northern California coast. The version that the Sandbar and Grill was good if not outstanding. The seven or eight little filets were very fresh and had a light and sweet flavor. The light breading on them was okay, but not crunchy. Rather than being sauced, the dabs were served with a lemon wedge and an excellent homemade tartar sauce, its creamy mayonnaise smoothness studded with tangy capers and bits of chopped onion. The side dish, linguine with vegetables and a little touch of olive oil, was nothing special although it matched well with the fish.
I really wasn't sure what I would find when I decided to go eat with the tourists. I have to admit that my experience at the Sandbar and Grill was better than I expected. Even without the view, and even with a couple of items that were not as good as they should have been, my overall experience was positive. This is certainly not the finest dining on the Monterey Peninsula, but the food was good and the service was attentive if a bit obtrusive. I guess it is somehow fitting for me to try a couple of tourist restaurants since, hard as it is for me to admit, ed from Yuma is now a tourist, not a local anymore, in Monterey.