When I first saw Passionfish, I was hoping that the food there would be as good as it used to be at El Cocodrilo--Julio Ramirez's wonderful tropical American eatery that once occupied the same space on Lighthouse in Pacific Grove (just west of Monterey). In fact, Passionfish was even better, and more creative. I was amazed and impressed.
First, the wine list was obviously put together by someone with a passion for wine. Every page of the list featured rare and unusual bottles, and there were comments about some of the choices. Nor was this the standard Chardonnay, SB, Cab, and Merlot listing that limits the wine drinker to the standard and predictable. I counted 5 Viogniers on the list and there was a Marsanne available by the glass. In addition to full bottles and wine by the glass, there was an excellent range of splits also. The first night I had a great half bottle of Fess Parker Viognier, which was excellent, while my friends had reds. The second night we shared a bottle of 1995 Chateau Masur-a wine I had read about many times, but had never had an opportunity to taste. It was superb, and at $42 for a fabled, imported, seven year old red, I thought the price was more than fair. In fact all the wines, except perhaps for those available by the glass, are priced for wine lovers. They even were featuring some wines at $10 over cost one of the evenings we were there.
But as good as the wine list was, the food was the real star at the restaurant. Over our two visits, we got to sample a good range of appetizers and salads. The seared pepper crusted tuna with wasabi slaw and ginger vinaigrette ($9) was amazing. As good as the tuna carpaccio was that I'd had a few days earlier at Bistro Laurent, this was better. The three large slices of tuna were dark red and thickly cut. The wasabi slaw (made with jicama and a few pea shoots) was a nice touch as well. Chilled capellini with Passionfish sauce and Fanny Bay oysters ($5) featured three impeccably fresh oysters and a few strands of capellini brought together with an incredible sauce. While the dish was small, the flavors were superb. The fish soup with spinach-ricotta dumplings ($5) was a delight to the eye. The rich golden orange colored broth, full of diced carrots and fish chunks with a drizzle of fine olive oil was a perfect contrast to the greenish dumplings. And it tasted better than it looked, the rich broth and fish pieces set off by the cheesy dumplings. My only complaint about any of the starter courses was that the green salad with asiago cheese & basil dressing ($4) had more cheese than I would have preferred (but the greens were wonderful, as only lettuces in the summer in the Monterey area can be).
The main dishes were even better. While Helen thought that the papparadelle pasta with asparagus, asiago, and prosciutto ($11) was just OK, I thought it tasted fine, though it was the least impressive of the main courses we sampled. My friends were so impressed by the Baja escolar ($18) that Steve had the first night that they both had it on our second visit. The rich fish was perfectly cooked, and its richness contrasted by a topping of sliced, stir-fried baby bok choi and a truffled citrus-soy sauce. A perfect combination. In addition, the oven finished (hence crusty) green onion risotto, which accompanied many of the main courses, was here wrapped in Napa cabbage leaves--like some sort of Asian/Italian cabbage roll. The first night I had the Hawaiian mahi ($16), not because I'm a great fan of mahi, but because of the spicy Vietnamese dipping sauce and pea shoot-jicama salad promised as accompaniments. It was certainly the best mahi I have ever eaten, a nice thick slice that went perfectly with the dipping sauce. I thought the jicama-pea shoot salad was also creative and tasty. Like the escolar, the mahi also came with that crusty risotto, not wrapped in cabbage leaves, which I thought was richly flavored and a nice contrast of creamy and crunchy textures. On our second visit, my friends wanted red wine again (that's all they drink) and I didn't want to have my own wine as on our previous visit, nor did I want to have a cabernet with fish, so I opted for the duck confit ($16). And I'm glad I did. The duck (two leg quarters) was perfect--falling off the bone tender with a great crispy skin, and its flavors were perfectly matched by the Tasmanian leatherwood honey sauce. Yum. The duck was accompanied by a chard and caramelized onion stir-fry (another winning blend of tastes) and paprika gratin potatoes (which went well with the duck, but imho made the whole dish a little too rich). I know, I know, don't order duck and then complain about richness.
Anyway, any 'hound visiting Monterey or Carmel needs to get to Passionfish. This place has some of the most interesting and tasty food I've run across in years. The menu is changed daily, to ensure that items are fresh and available. In addition they use Coke Farm as a source for at least some of their produce, which explains the quality, and freshness of the greens etc., as Coke Farm was my favorite organic vegetable grower when I lived in Monterey. Even though Asian and other international flavors are used, this is more than some chef's attempt at a fusion restaurant. The focus is on presenting wonderful food, not on trying to cook unusual food. While the ingredients may seem eclectic, the culinary skills of the chef keep each dish focused on taste. For those interested in how a restaurant looks, I must admit that the décor is just ordinary (paper covering the tables, for example), but the waitstaff is friendly and helpful, and the prices, considering the quality of the food, are low.