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Passionfish Pacific Grove: Thank you, Hounds!

Having gone to various other meeting-group selected dinner places for the rest of the weekend, on advice of the Pack Mind, me and de Chowspouse went to Passionfish on Saturday.

Thank you, thank you thank you hounds and hound-ettes; this was possibly one of the two or three beat restaurant meals I've had in a VERY long time; certainly one of the two/three best in California, going as far back as, say 1975...

The ONLY questions I have are (a) how can they afford to do it (and why haven't the managers of the overpriced places on the Carmel and Monterey tourist circuit simply lynched them?) and (b) how can I make sure they get just enough biz to flourish, but not so much as to mess them up?

Crab cake starter: like a completely different dish than I've ever had anywhere else, left or right coast; a pillow of crabby goodness with so little "binder" in it that it threatened to disintegrate into its puddle of fresh tomato garnish when I tried to pry the spouse off a bite. Spouse's moroccan salad less remarkable, but still very tasty..

My trout with rum/pepper sauce and cucumber salad: while i've had trout that was "pretty good chow" before, this was the first in a long time that rose to "cuisine" levels; ditto spouse's "fish stew w/ gnocci" , which was a couple of notches above anything in the boullibaise/cioppino (spelling is off, I know) category that she's run into outside of Europe.

Wine pairings, including dessert wine, were perfecto, and those who know their wine pricing policy, YOU ALL KEEP QUIET ABOUT IT.

wow. Our only concern, at the end of the meal was whether we could, say, jog down to Carmel and back, to burn calories, and make it back before they closed for the night to try the REST of the menu. Ah well, next time...
Service was enthusiatic without being annoying, attentive without being overbearing, and when I stopped to tell the proprietress how much we'd enjoyed the meal, she APOLOGIZED because they were apparently running SHORT-STAFFED last night by a flu virus.

again: wow.
r gould-saltman
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  1. I was there Saturday night as well, (for the umpteenth time) and since we were with a group of ten and still had very good service without any long waits or missteps, I am amazed to hear you say that they were short staffed! (we were the big group that took over part of the very back room, we tried not to be too noisy but hopefully you all weren't back there with us :-))

    anyway, the menu has changed a bit in format since I was last there, with a section at the top of small pre-appetizer bites...including pork belly, which I almost tried, and oysters in a carrot-ginger mignonette, which I did, and which were terrific. (3 oysters for $6). I also had the pulled lamb, which was very good. You'd think that with such a big group we'd have tried most of the menu, but most of the group seemed drawn to the grilled wild Alaskan King salmon, hubby among them (he said it was excellent). Hubby and I also split an order of the mussels and they were out of this world; in a spicy tomato sauce with a bit of cilantro. Other hits at the table included the stew with gnocchi (which I have had before, and I agree that it is an excellent choice), asparagus fries, and halibut.

    However, I do have two complaints: 1.) after promising my sister JanetofReno that I would try the bread pudding if they had it, to compare it to a version I ate Thursday night in San Francisco at Chenery Park, I was thrilled to learn it was on the menu, then vastly disappointed when our server described it: it was made with banana bread...since I don't eat anything with bananas, ever, alas, I didn't try it...

    and complaint number two: I was in a group of ten, and we still only had four wine drinkers (thanks in large part to the fact that this was a group of scuba divers and some of them were actually planning a night dive after dinner!)...so I didn't get to delve into that wine list nearly as deeply as we'd have otherwise done! :-)

    Seriously, this was the largest group I've ever been a part of at Passionfish, and they handled it beautifully. That back room is good for a group as it is relatively quiet and cozy. There is an automatic 18% service charge for groups and we added more onto that; well-deserved.

    2 Replies
    1. re: susancinsf

      The "short-staffed" info astonished me, though I may not have conveyed it above; I thought the service was leagues above that at Fresh Cream, three nights earlier. BTW, susaninsf, you-all may have snatched up the last of the salmon special, since in the time between describing it and coming back to get our order, our server was forced to reluctantly announce that the kichen had run out...
      I trust you managed a dessert; Chow-spouse, who generally has never met a bread-pudding she didn't like, also doesn't do bananas, so we made-do by splitting the espresso-mint mud-pie and a port. The TWO us us could barely finish that...

      1. re: silverlakebodhisattva

        oops; I really wondered if we were doing in the salmon special when so many of us ordered it. sorry about that...but yes, am happy to report that we did better on dessert than on wine: between various members of the group we tried the creme brulee, the strawberries in cabernet sauce with ice cream (my favorite, they must use local and ripe-picked strawberries), the mud-pie, and the chocolate tart with blackberry coulis...all excellent!

    2. Ok, so I'm going there next weekend - and now have to know what this wine pricing policy is all about! Pray tell!!!!! :-)

      2 Replies
      1. re: Newcomer76

        OK. if you keep it to yourself. Their wine-pricing policy: a couple of bucks above retail per bottle. Not "costco/ralphs on sale" retail, but also, not exactly costco/ralphs wines, for a little more than you'd pay at tour local wine store, and that's a couple of bucks above retail for anything from about 15-$20 per bottle up to $200!

        Ten or so wines by the glass, plus some dessert wines by the glass. A healthly list of 1/2 bottles; we had a perfectly fine Navarro Gewurtz, for about $15 for the half-bottle.

        FIFTEEN DOLLARS!!!! FOR A HALF-BOTTLE OF WINE THAT DIDN'T COME OUT OF A WINE BOX OR A GALLON JUG! YOU'D PAY THAT MUCH FOR JUNK WINE AT FREAKIN' OLIVE GARDEN!!!!!!

        I'll stop raving.

        INTERESTING stuff on the wine list. No somelier; no fancy crystal.

        now keep quiet about it.....

        1. re: silverlakebodhisattva

          The Navarro 2004 Pinot Noir, Méthode à l'Ancienne that we had as one of our bottles Saturday night was $30, or only $5 more than on the Navarro website (and of course, you don't have to pay shipping); Not sure which vintage your Gewurtz was, but I think the 2005 isn't available even at Navarro.....

          By the way, the list is nicely diverse in terms of countries of origin: nothing California-centric. We also tried a white from the Basque region, with an unpronouncible name....

          all right, I'll be quiet now...

      2. Thought I'd tag my report onto this thread. Tuesday night chowpal Felice and I had dinner at Passionfish, a first time for both of us. Heeding the advice oft repeated on this board, we decided to go for more variety of tastes ordering from the appetizer and salad menus and exploring the wine list. However, when we learned that local Monterey Bay salmon was on the menu, we added that to our plan of attack.

        Our first three appetizers: braised kurobuta pork belly, asparagus fries with aioli, and fried oyster salad.

        Image of appetizers:
        http://farm1.static.flickr.com/195/51...

        The pork belly was a big let-down after our server had raved about it. Also it's misspelled on the printed menu and on the website as "korobuta". This was shades of PF Chang's and bad Chinese-American food --- sticky sauce, too sweet, and extremely salty. The pork belly was tough and dried out on the edges and it was impossible to discern the special taste and texture of kurobuta underneath that sauce and handling.

        The first asparagus fry for each of us was a delight. But these deteriorated quickly as they cooled down. Best to share among a bigger party, and we left the last one on the plate. It's a great idea to panko and deep-fry asparagus like this. I found the aioli tasty but way too stiff. And, the asparagus stalks were not trimmed well enough, as the bottom 3" or so of the spears were stringy and tough. it seemed like the kitchen wanted them to be a certain length for the stacked presentation instead of choosing edibility as the trimming criteria.

        We both liked the oyster salad a lot even though it had far too much dressing weighing down the arugula and baby spinach. The big oysters were plump and intensely flavored and the batter itself was delicious and non-greasy. This was especially good with the glass of 2004 Inama Soave ($6) that we split.

        But after this lukewarm introduction, our fourth appetizer, oysters with cucumber relish, was absolutely brilliant. I'm glad we'd asked our server for a description or we might have passed it by with such unassuming nomenclature. Served in a soup bowl, the relish is pureed cucumbers with shaved fennel and bits of nori nestled under raw oysters. This was the essence of "yin" with cooling green tones and a little taste of the sea from the toasted seaweed ebbing and flowing over the sweet and briny oysters. The crunch of the raw fennel against the smooth creaminess of the mollusks was so enjoyable. This might be too subtle a dish for many but we thought the blend of flavors and textures was most masterful.

        Our entree had been split in the kitchen. We'd asked for the salmon rare, but since the normal portion was cut in two and then grilled, I found it overdone. However, Felice did note that the flesh was still quite sweet and also how skillfully it was grilled with just enough charry essence. The weird green sauce on top was far too concentrated and raw tasting and both of us scraped it off, another fusion attempt gone bad. The accompanying sugar peas were some of the best I've had, quite a feat this late in the season. Unfortunately, they were not stir-fried with the promised pea shoots but with bean sprouts, which I dislike and even more when they're overcooked and handled as clumsily as here.

        For dessert we split a mudpie. Enjoyable, but not remakable in any way other than the huge portion that was more than we could finish.

        Besides the oysters with cucumber relish, the other highlight of our meal was the bottle of 2005 August West "Rosella's" SLH Pinot Noir, only $45 on the list. From my friend's label, this was actually the first time I've tasted his own production, though I've been a fan of his other wines to date. It was so well-balanced, sweet with strawberry and Chambord kissed with French vanilla oak, hard to believe it has 14.7% alcohol. The perfect match for grilled salmon and quite approachable now. I took the remains of the bottle home, and it was still drinking fine the next day after an overnight in the refrigerator. The alcohol showed through more and the nose was more developed, but I think this bodes well for a long future ahead.

        I think we went in with reasonable expectations about what we would find here and were generally pleased. The room was nicer than I thought it would be, and we were lucky to have the far end table in the side room. The food was good for the price and sometimes rose above that. We might have fared better not ordering fusion-y things that were clunky to my palate.

        8 Replies
        1. re: Melanie Wong

          sorry to hear that about the pork belly: the one time I've had it there it was very good, but that was a special appetizer and not in its current incarnation on the small bites menu, it has been a while and I can't remember the details of the preparation....At one time they used to serve it as a main with mac and cheese, which seemed to be a bit of heavy food overkill to me. (the mac and cheese prep there is really penne pasta in a gorgonzola sauce, IIRC. I've never ordered it, but dining companions have).

          It is possible to have a less than great meal at PF, and I know I have ( the duck confit I had on one recent visit was dry and not well executed), but given the depth and pricing of their wine list, their commitment to only serve sustainable seafood (local whenever possible), the quality of ingredients, and the occaisonal (actually more than occaisonal, at least IMO) brilliant dish, it is hard sometimes not to get carried away in my enthusiasm. Glad you were realistic, even if some of us aren't always, glad you got that table (one of the better two tops, again IMO) and I hope you will try it again with your 'no fusion' policy, and report back!

          1. re: susancinsf

            I had a little bit of a wait before Felice arrived, and when the host said that our table was ready if I wished to be seated, I told him that I was enjoying my bench close to the wine bottle display. That may be as close as I get to a bottle of Gaja for some time! It also gave me a chance to study the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation map on the opposite wall. The selection of SLH pinots is fab and the prices even better.

            When I walked past the opening to the kitchen I could hear the staff calling to each other for "mac n cheese", even though it's penne and gorgonzola on the menu!

            Before dinner I had been in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Looking at posted menus for quite ordinary places, the bargain that Passionfish offers was even more greatly appreciated. And, that's just for food cost and not including the wine pricing. Appetizers under $10 are becoming rare birds indeed.

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              The BEST thing about Passionfish is that knowledgeable selection of Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noirs priced at retail. They seem to showcase these wines and are rightfully proud of their outstanding local product, and they go out of their way to help you select one--they know good wine. The owners' daughter, who in the early days of the restaurant worked there as a server, is now, last I heard, sommelier at Pacific's Edge at the Highlands Inn. Mmmm, grilled fresh Monterey Bay salmon and a SLH pinot noir--it doesn't get much better than that!

              1. re: Moka

                I think there were one or two half-bottles of SLH Pinot too. But I really wanted to try something from Rosella's vineyard and I don't think I'll ever find as many on one wine list as here. Also, I've missed every opportunity to try my friend's label and I was thrilled to be able to buy a bottle here.

          2. re: Melanie Wong

            Recently I had a chance to return to Passionfish with a friend who owns a winery in New Zealand. He’d been on a worldwide tour with many high-toned formal dinners and he asked that we do something more casual. Passionfish was the obvious choice to taste him on top notch California wines at an affordable price and I was lucky to score an early reservation. Looking at my last post about Passionfish, my take is much the same, so I’ll slip it into this thread.

            My appetizer was the huge, perfect, sweet, expertly seared scallop on a risotto cake. However, the currants, artichoke and caper studded, soggy risotto cake turned out to be much too sweet, clashing with the sweetness of the scallop. None of those elements except perhaps the capers were at all tasty with the scallop. Less would certainly have been more in this case. We’d split a glass of the excellent 2008 Haley First “Heintz Vineyard” Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, $8 (http://rymecellars.com/) that matched up well, providing the zingy acidity and liveliness that this dish was lacking.
            http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

            For my main, perfectly cooked, grilled halibut. Messy, haphazard presentation with two sauces running all over the plate and tough, unpeeled asparagus stems and uncooked chunks of radishes don’t belong on a plate together, let alone in this overall combination. That said, the centerpiece, the halibut filet was as pristinely fresh and cooked to a tee as any.
            http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

            Kai had Morro Bay oysters on the half-shell with ginger-carrot granita, to compare them to his homegrown New Zealand variety. He pronounced them equally good, sweet and firm-textured, and I liked the one sample I tasted. Then for him, Monterey Bay wild salmon, blackened, and served on a barfy-looking soubise sauce with some favas and sea vegetables. Despite the unappetizing appearance, the fish itself did taste good and was not overcooked like my previous dinner here. The salmon was fabulous paired with a half-bottle of 2009 Roar “SLH” Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands).
            http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

            We went light with dessert, enjoying the local strawberries with red wine syrup. Passionfish is not without flaws, but on this night, the well-priced wine program was just what we needed.

            -----
            Passionfish
            701 Lighthouse Ave, Pacific Grove, CA 93950

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              Shame about the app and your halibut, both quite visually stunning.

              1. re: PolarBear

                Why some restaurants want to "goop" up a lovely piece of fish with over saucing is beyond me. If I don't know the restaurant, I always ask for it on the side.

                1. re: PolarBear

                  I can agree with you on the scallop appetizer, but the halibut dish looks quite unappetizing to me.

                  If you have a chance to try the Haley's First chardonnay, don't miss it. I picked it off the list because I was familiar with the vineyard on the Sonoma Coast . . . other producers would charge much more. Some digging found out that it is the second label for Ryme, a new producer owned by the daughter of Passionfish's owners. She's off to a good start.

                  -----
                  Passionfish
                  701 Lighthouse Ave, Pacific Grove, CA 93950

            2. Just returned from vacation and dined at Passionfish while on holiday and thank you everyone that recommended this incredible spot. My SO had sturgeon and I had the duck. My duck had perfectly crispy skin with a delectable fruit sauce glaze. The broccoli rab was the green side, along with another perfectly crispy potato cake.

              The wine pricing policy is amazingly attractive, and I wish more restaurants would pick up on this trend. My SO scarfed down his sturgeon so quickly I didn't get to try it, but he said it was amazing and it certainly looked that way.

              The server was the nicest young man who was thoroughly knowledgable and, as the OP said, attentive without being overbearing.

              Very, very nice. http://www.passionfish.net/

              1. Thanks to this site and thread, we found and dined at Passionfish on Friday night. The place was very busy (and a bit loud), but our young and sophisticated/wine-savvy waitress (in the front room) easily accommodated our request to create a 5-course tasting menu by splitting the scallop app (with a great accompaniment of diced vegetables, fine texture and flavor); crab/avacodo salad (bright, and with just-enuf spicy ginger); mussels (PEI) in a spicy broth; and perfect Sturgeon -- followed by pear bread pudding. With 4 matching wines, it was all so very nice -- what a fine place. -- Jake