In the hours before our meal last week at Passionfish in Pacific Grove, California, my father was visibly anxious. I suppose he had reason to be. The last time we went there together I was disappointed by the experience. The dinner commemorated the long-overdue completion of my Bachelor’s degree and my expectations were high. They were high because in the five years that I have been a Passionfish devotee, I had never had a bad – or even sub-par – meal there. So when my seafood stew was, well, wrong, (I can’t bear to discuss it again, but you may read about it here) I guess I kind of lost my composure. I don’t recall being unpleasant while we were still in the restaurant, but I’ve blocked a lot of that evening out.
The night before our most recent meal at Passionfish, I had a couple of glasses of wine, and wondered out loud and at length at the strategy I should take upon my return to the scene of this great letdown. I had over eleven months to think about it, yet had not come to a decision. The crux of the problem was this: If the same menu item that was a disaster last December was offered to me again, should I take it, thus giving the kitchen an opportunity to atone for past wrongs, or should I choose something else, perhaps safer, thereby increasing the likelihood of having a satisfying experience and mending my strained relationship with a favorite restaurant?
It was clear on the ride over that my family didn’t quite grasp the full extent of my (admittedly slightly dramatic) quandary. I can’t believe you’re so worked up over one meal, Mom puzzled; and then Dad asked with genuine worry in his voice, Are you going to say something that gets us thrown out of the restaurant? I told them that I am the nicest critic I know, that I have only ever written two mean things about anyone, and that of course I would behave myself in public. None of these assurances had any visible effect on my parents.
Our meal at Passionfish, I am delighted to report, was positively fantastic and I feel completely at peace with them once again.
We had a crab cake over lime relish to start, and barbecued shrimp with lemongrass slaw and spicy Vietnamese sauce. The crab cake was just like it ought to be – mostly crab, fried crisp, and carefully seasoned. I didn’t taste the shrimp, but their accompaniment was without question the best thing on the table that night. The slaw tasted like daikon with pea shoots and the Vietnamese sauce was so flavorful and spicysweet without being too much of either. Together they gave me pause – the crunch and tang of the slaw, the spice of the dark sauce drizzled over… As soon as I finish this piece, in fact, I am going to draft a letter to Chef Ted, in which I will beg with as much dignity as I can muster for the recipe.
For our entrees we chose – and I snagged a menu so I could get it all accurate here, mind you – Mahi with a black pepper-rum sauce, cucumber salad and green onion rice, Alaskan sablefish crusted with pepper in a wasabi slaw, and ginger vinaigrette, Maine scallops with a tomato-truffle butter and a thyme risotto custard, Tilapia with thyme mashed potatoes and garlic-balsamic vinegar butter, and Duck confit with a honey reduction, chile gratin potatoes, and braised fennel.
My plate was the tilapia, but I tasted it all, swooning ever more with each bite. While it is true that some dishes (the scallops, the tilapia) were more fantastic than others (the sablefish, the mahi), it is wholly unfair to say that anything was rotten. To my mind, the latter two were under-seasoned and therefore underwhelming in the flavor department. It’s also darned near impossible to seriously compete with well-prepared scallops (in tomato-truffle butter, for heaven’s sake!). Everything on the table was extremely well-executed. The fish on my plate was cooked to a medium doneness, which makes for a moister, more flavorful piece of fish. The garlic-balsamic butter, which I was half-expecting to think was objectionable, was absolutely delicious, and mixed so well with the herbalicious spuds and the tender (but not overcooked) snap peas. I forced myself to eat slowly and savor; it wasn’t easy. I can’t think of how they might have improved the plate, in fact.
The duck at Passionfish, I should say, is also the best duck I have ever had. It is a thing of dreams, the sort when you wake up and are depressed all day because what you dreamed was not real. Except this duck is real, it is just 700 miles away. It is a leg and thigh seared over high heat to caramelize the outside, and then slow-roasted for hours until it is tender and succulent and barely hanging on to the bone. It has never not been on the menu and I would order it every time I go, were it not for those gratin potatoes (I think cheese is icky) and the dazzling array of seafood offered with accompaniments that I actually want to eat. If you ever go to Passionfish with me, you will almost certainly be encouraged strongly and at length to order the duck so that I can have a bite without having to contend with those cheesey spuds.
If thoughtful, well-crafted and delicious food weren’t enough to make the trip to California especially for a meal at Passionfish, you should also know – and you might if you read Bon Appetit Magazine – that the Walters and Passionfish are advocates of sustainable seafood, dedicated to serving meals that are healthy for their customers and for the environment. Like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Cindy and Ted were doing this before it was cool, and now get serve as guides for newer chefs and restauranteurs who will undoubtedly hop on to this very important wagon. Indeed, the global community of cooks and eaters – not to mention all of the fishies in the sea – are lucky to have them aboard.
When I lived in Pacific Grove, this was the restaurant of choice for my gang of friends whenever we had any occasion to mark, and for when we just felt like celebrating our collective love of good food, wine, and each other. It is such a tremendous relief for me to have had another dinner at my beloved Passionfish, and for that dinner to have met their – and my – high standards. And though my parents clearly relished their meals, they were much more pleased that I was given no reason to utter remarks that would have gotten us thrown out of the restaurant.
701 Lighthouse Avenue
Pacific Grove, California 93950
Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch