Passionfish: I told my friend Chris that Passionfish was, all things considered, my favorite restaurant. Not my favorite in Monterey, nor my favorite seafood place, but my favorite overall. Their large and reasonably priced wine list, healthful preparations, interesting menu, caring service, and wonderful tasting food are perfect for a 'hound on a budget like me. This visit we started with deep-fried baby artichokes, served with a tasty roasted red pepper sauce intensely flavored with smoked paprika. Our other appetizer was scallop ceviche, two large sea scallops, each sliced into three slices, in a light lime infused ceviche. Subtle and perfect. For main courses, I had a great flounder dish, highlighted by sun-dried tomatoes and sweet potato dumplings, all brought together with a nice sauce. Chris ordered the sea bass on couscous, which was in a light herbal sauce. For desert, we shared a dish of fresh fruit (strawberries and white raspberries) with ice cream in a cabernet reduction sauce. I thought everything was very good. Chris's only complaint was that the "couscous" was not the tiny grains of semolina that Chris learned to love in North Africa, but larger pearls about the size of tapioca.
Robert's White House in Pacific Grove: Robert Kincaid, founder of Fresh Cream, has moved his White House restaurant into a beautiful old Victorian in Pacific Grove. The décor, wallpaper, and overall atmosphere were outstanding. I had two meals here on my visit. The service was as good as anywhere I went to on the peninsula, and both nights Robert Kincaid was clearly in evidence, paying attention to the small details of the restaurant. Diners get to choose three separate courses from a prix-fixe menu. The first night, with Steve and Helen, may have been one of the best meals I've ever eaten. The second, with Chris, was good, but not as spectacular. For first courses, I had the lobster ravioli, one large ravioli stuffed with no perceptible filler, just tender, flavorful lobster-the whole of which was perfectly sauced. It was so good I had it both nights. I also got to taste the salmon and shrimp cake, which was very good, and Chris was particularly impressed by the two sauces, one a light herbed sauce and the other a slightly sweet (perhaps honey flavored) sauce. On the first visit, I had an outstanding second course (which did cost extra), a Crab Louis inspired dish, very simple, focused, and redolent of outstanding Dungeness crab flavor. There was a small mound of crab, one leaf of romaine lettuce, and a perfect, light, flavorful adaptation of a louis dressing. On the second visit, we tried the Hungarian goulash soup. It was the best goulash soup I've ever eaten-and that was a favorite soup of mine when I toured Europe many years ago. Robert's version had chunks of veal and potato (unlike most versions I had in Europe which were generally pureed). But the best part was the incredible flavor of paprika in the broth. Outstanding. This may seem like an odd comparison, but the dish reminded me of a great posole, such was the intensity and concentration of flavor. However, another second course on the second visit was the most disappointing dish of either visit. It was a shrimp and artichoke dish that featured several outer leaves of artichoke with a small portion of small, impeccably fresh bay shrimp in an olive oil sauce. The artichoke leaves were tough, there were not many shrimp, and the dish required the diner to pick up oily artichoke leaves with the fingers to scrape off the small amount of goodness at the base of the leaves. The dish would have been so much better with an artichoke heart. Main courses were consistently good. The first visit I had Robert's signature sole dish, served with beurre blanc sauce. His presentation features a whole grilled fish that is deboned at the table by the server. Except for her missing a bone or two, it was perfect. The second visit I had a very good grilled Monterey Bay Wild King Salmon darkened with a nice herb rub, and Chris had halibut cheeks, which were lightly floured and grilled. Both of these dishes came with wonderfully prepared spinach (that was full of spinach flavor) and mashed potatoes. The halibut cheeks had a light halibut taste and a slightly rubbery, stringy texture that our server compared to lobster. One nice feature of The White House is that diners are given several choices for each course of a three course a fixed price menu that is only $24. At the same time, my only major complaint is that there are always additional items (including the sole and the crab louis) that cost an additional "eleven to eighteen dollars" as our server phrased it. So someone who substituted a special item for courses two and three, for example, might well end up paying sixty dollars for his/her meal. I have to say, however, that for food as good as I ate the first time, sixty dollars is not unreasonable. The wine list, while well chosen (I loved the Nobilo Sauvignon blanc from New Zealand that I had both times) was very limited. A corkage charge of $15 or $20 was available though.
Taste Café: I had both a lunch and dinner here and was both pleased and impressed. For lunch I had a great crab cake sandwich, while a friend kept raving about his grilled shrimp salad. For dinner, Chris and I shared an artichoke soup as a starter. I found the soup savory and flavorful but not as overwhelmingly artichoked as other versions of the soup that I've eaten in the past. For the main course, Chris loved her salmon in parchment, and it was in fact her favorite meal of the trip. The wild Monterey Bay salmon was surrounded by tasty vegetables like mushrooms, peppers, and zucchinis, flavored with herbs and olive oil. My swordfish was perfectly prepared, the mushroom sauce was excellent, and the au gratin potatoes on the side were outstanding.
Massaro y Santos: Melanie has recently reviewed this place so well that there is little that I can add. Chris and I loved the halibut that she ordered, and we also both could not get enough of the wonderful grilled veggies that came with the main courses. My sand dabs were fine, moist, fresh, and flavorful. I would have liked a bit more crunch to the breading. The clam chowder was as complex and flavorful as I remembered. And the view was spectacular, ending with the reflections of a sunset over docked sailboats on Monterey Bay.
Stokes: I have reviewed Stokes elsewhere on this board. It was really the only truly disappointing meal of the trip. Honestly, the presentations seemed clumsy and the service ordinary.
Fifi's: I only got to Fifi's for one lunch, but it was my best lunch of the trip. Chris had a flavorful grilled veggie sandwich, highlighted by some excellent goat cheese. I had a first-rate cup of French onion soup and a half order of a shrimp and avocado salad that put the shrimp artichoke course at The White House to shame. Next visit I will go here for a dinner.
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