Thursday, September 30, 2010

“Look at that Place,”

I said to my Favorite Traveling Companion as we were standing looking at Monterey Bay. “Doesn’t it just scream tourist trap?”

Not only that, they distributed coupons for free appetizers in Tourist Bureau pamphlets and had a staff person stationed outside the doors handing out clam chowder samples. Normally, a place we would avoid. But wait. Free appetizer? So much for standards. Let’s hear it for “FREE.” So, lunch at The Fish Hopper Restaurant it would be.

“During the famous Cannery Row 'Steinbeck Era,' fish hoppers played an important role on the Monterey Peninsula. The fish hoppers, large square wooden boxes, were anchored off the shores of Cannery Row to receive the fish caught by Monterey's premier fishing fleet…Fishing boat captains guided their overburdened vessels to empty their catches into the fish hoppers floating in the Monterey Bay outside of each cannery. The fish were scooped into the fish hoppers…After being pumped into the cannery, the fish were weighed and then sent to the processing plants” (from the restaurant’s web site).

We were seated in a curved booth facing the bay and the first item I noticed was the white linen napkins on the table. Linen napkins in a tourist trap? Could I be mistaken? (Hard to believe.) Maybe this wasn’t a tourist trap.

Then our server, Manuel, told us that our coupon entitled us to either an order of the fried calamari or the grilled artichokes. Given that the calamari is over $10.00 on the appetizer menu, this isn’t a bad deal.

And we received a very generous plate of lightly floured and perfectly fried calamari pieces that also included the tentacles that I like so much. Then I made a mistake. I encouraged Chuck to try one of the tentacles. He liked it. He liked it a lot. Why do I keep doing this to myself? I should have learned by now. We both still give Scoma’s (San Francisco) the top prize for calamari, but the Fish Hopper’s is running a close second.

And the chowder promo worked on us. We both ordered a cup of their prize winning (I don’t remember what award – something like “Best of Monterey”) clam chowder. This would have been at home along the Maine coast – thick with potatoes and clam pieces, rich with cream, a hint of something I took to be salt pork, and – hard to believe – it came to the table steaming hot.

When looking at a menu, our first stop is always the appetizers. In addition to the artichokes and calamari, Fish Hopper offers: Dungeness crab cakes with mango chili sauce and red pepper aioli; prawns and scallops with mushrooms sautéed in a white wine butter sauce; coconut prawns with a spicy apricot sauce; and clams and mussels sautéed with white wine, garlic, tomatoes, butter, and herbs. But since we had already shared the calamari and had eaten the chowder, we both looked elsewhere.

Chuck, as has become his pattern, looked to the pasta listing. There he found: Seafood Pasta Monterey (sautéed fresh fish, scallops, and prawns with artichoke hearts, baby spinach, tomatoes, and fresh herbs in an olive oil garlic sauce over linguine pasta); Stuffed Jumbo Prawn Pasta (jumbo prawns stuffed with crab meat and served over angel hair pasta tossed with portabella mushroom, and tomato); Pasta Isabella (jumbo scallops, shrimp, clam meat sautéed with green onion, tomatoes in rich cream; Crab Ravioli with Prawns and Scallops served in a lobster cream sauce with baby spinach and garlic bread; and The Ultimate Seafood Pasta (scallops, prawns, and Dungeness crab meat sautéed in a cream sauce with Asiago cheese and served over fresh spinach fettuccini).

But his choice was California Crab Alfredo Pasta with Dungeness crab meat sautéed in a cream sauce with parmesan cheese and served over penne pasta. To me this was not a traditional Alfredo sauce since the parmesan cheese was used with the lightest of hands. But too much pungent and salty cheese would have masked the gently sweet flavor of the fish so not adhering to tradition was a good thing. The sauce was lightly creamy, not too rich, and let the Dungeness crab take the lead role.

I decided to try something entirely new (or new to me at least) and ordered the Sanddabs which came with garlic mashed potatoes and was garnished with sautéed spinach, carrots, zucchini, broccoli, and tomatoes.

The Monterey Fish Market web site describes sanddabs thusly: “The Pacific Sanddab is a wonderful little fish found in great abundance off our California coast. One of the most numerous fish along the West Coast, the Sanddab in chameleon-like fashion is able to change color and pattern to match a sand, gravel or shell rubble bottom and thus go unnoticed by prey…Seldom is the Sanddab discussed in cookbooks and only rarely is it seen in restaurants or seafood markets. A fish that is plentiful, cheap and delicious as well as being one of the most underutilized species in the Pacific Ocean. How can this be? The answer in one simple word is ‘bones.'”

Because of their mild flavor, it is recommended that sanddabs be prepared as simply as possible. Mine were lightly breaded and then grilled and there was nary a bone to be seen. Someone knows how to clean a fish. It seems that sanddabs are especially popular in the Monterey Bay area and can be found on a number of restaurant menus.

After chowder, calamari, pasta and sanddabs, who could be hungry for dessert? We could and shared a piece of warm chocolate bread pudding that came with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream. This was a very interesting bread pudding in that the “custard” was almost mousse-like making this a light—even if rich—dessert.

According to the restaurant’s web site: “The Fish Hopper Restaurant serves seafood from sustainable sources, harvested by methods that do not harm the environment. We proudly follow the guidelines of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program.” Pretty good for a restaurant that I mistook for a tourist trap.

Yes, this counts as that “more interesting food out there” that Chuck (and I) was looking for and earns our ultimate 5.0 Addie score.

(Photo Above: Just below The Fish Hopper was this scene on McAbee Beach.)

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