Restaurants & Bars 8

A tale of two restaurants: Passionfish and The Old Bath House in Pacific Grove

svL | Jan 23, 200508:03 PM

Attracted by the warm and sunny weather on the Monterey Peninsula, my wife and I just spent a couple of days in the Carmel/Pacific Grove area to do a little hiking, biking and, of course, eating.

We've been going to Passionfish for many years, even when it was called El Cocodrillo and had a Latin American slant. Over the years it has become more and more oriented toward fish and seafood and now I would classify it as primarily a seafood restaurant. Thursday's dinner was no exception, and the menu (which changes daily to reflect the freshest available ingredients) is about 70% seafood. This does not mean that meat and poulty dishes are neglected and some of the best duck dishes I've ever had have been at Passionfish. This time we had sturgeon and ono fish dishes and both were very, very good. However, the appetizers stole the show. The crabcake and the local Monterey calamari were just outstanding, especially the calamari, which is very popular with the knowledgeable clientele and often sells out by 8 pm. This is the best calamari I've ever had. Extremely tender, it was coated in a very light batter and accompanied by a cilantro and rice vinegar dipping sauce. By desert time we were quite full, so we just split a creme broulee, which was fine, but not as impressive as the apps.

Passionfish has an Asian fusion theme in their side dishes and sauces but it is done with a light touch. It reminds me of Cafe Katie, the fusion San Francisco restaurant, although Cafe Katie has more elaborate

Service, which has been somewhat spotty on past visits, was excellent this time. Our very competent waitress, a casually dressed young woman, was quite knowledgeable about the food and the wine, although I wouldn't say she knows as much as a sommelier would about wine.

Ah, yes. The wine. Passionfish should have an alternate name, Passionwine. That would describe the restaurant perfectly. They are serious about their fish and use only sustainable seafood, and are passionate about wine and try to come up with interesting and hard-to-find wines at fair prices. The 400-item wine list is a serious document and takes a while to study. The emphasis is on California wines, particularly strong on expensive Napa and Sonoma wines. The list is good on other areas of California, except for Lodi and the gold
country. French, Australian and Italian wines were well represented, but not so Spanish wines. Despite the perception of "only a few dollars over retail," markups are all over the map. In general, I would say that prices are about 30% over retail, but there are relative bargains at many price points. Passionfish seeks out good and interesting wines and often that leads to $100+ bottles at the retail level. I wish they had more wines in the $25-$35 range. After all, it is a midprice restaurant foodwise so there should be more midpriced wine. If you bring your own, corkage is $20 but Passionfish donates $10 of it to the Sea Turtle
Restoration Project.

Overall, it was a very satisfying experience once again. Passionfish is a creative and innovative restaurant. It is at the top of its game and it gets a good response from its appreciative clientele. On Thursday night it was about 80 percent full most of the night. A couple of days ago a poster on this board
said that Passionfish is "passe." Nothing could be further from the truth. It is not a view restaurant, but people go there for the food, the comfortable ambiance and the very commendable wine policy.

The next night we went to The Old Bath House. We considered going to Fifi's or The White House but decided on OBH because it had gotten good reviews on this board (ironically, that same poster who didn't like Passionfish has been relentlessly praising OBH) and it had some rarely seen dishes on the menu.

The Old Bath House is definitely a view restaurant. It looks out over Lovers Point over the Monterey Bay. The view is good even at night (assuming no fog). The room is quite dark, intimate and cosy. All the two-top tables are at the picture windows and get the full view. It's a perfect first-date or wedding anniversary restaurant. I bet it sells out months in advance for Valentine's Day. On Friday night it was about half-full with couples of all ages, sitting there googoo-eying each other.

It turned out to be an old-fashioned restaurant, straight out of the fifties or sixties. The very formal captain led us to our nice table with a view, thanking us profusely for choosing the restaurant. Our
"I'm George and I'll be your waiter tonight" waiter (it would have to be a man, of course, in this type of restaurant), was very smooth. He looked like a combination of Don Ameche, David Niven and Wayne Newton
and was definitely a professional. All the staff were extremely respectful. I haven't been called "Sir" this many times in my life. The busboy looked scared.

The menu looks like it hasn't changed in at least ten years. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact, some of the dishes were excellent. Mostly it was surf-and-turf kind of stuff. Lobster, filet mignon, rack of lamb, salmon, duck. That sort of thing. They have a fairly new chef and he does a lot of reduction
sauces to intensify the flavors. However, don't confuse this place with El Bulli. In the old-fashioned tradition, everything is super-rich and loaded with cream and butter. They do have dishes that are hard to find these days. They had a great lobster bisque, maybe the best I've ever had. And for desert, they
have fantastic souffles -- chocolat or with Grand Marnier. Other dishes were less succesful and rather boring. The lamb was quite fatty, and the salmon tasted fishy The waiter said it was farmed Canadian salmon (that raised my eyebrows) because wild salmon is out of season right now.

They have a good but rather expensive wine list. Wine glasses are of the Libby variety. Considering what they charge for the wine, that's poor. Corkage is $20 which is high considering the low quality of the stemware.

This is an expensive restaurant, with the main dishes around $30. If you order before 6 pm, there is a 4-course prix fixe for about $30, a very good value. When we paid the bill, the waiter gave us a $20 coupon for our next visit, which I thought was kind of tacky. They probably mail those coupons to the locals all the time.

It was an interesting, kind of a "blast from the past" experience but I would not repeat it. Life is too short and there are many much more interesting and creative restaurants to visit. Like Passionfish.

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