Portola Restaurant, inside the Monterey Bay Aquarium
Mr. Munchy, the Munchkin, and I recently vacationed in the Monterey Bay area and made the obligatory visit to the justifiably famous Monterey Bay Aquarium there. Most Bay Areans and diners with an environmentally-friendly bent are aware of the MBA's guide to eating sustainably farmed or caught fish. But I'll bet far fewer know that there's actually a decent--no, somewhat ambitious--place to have lunch *inside* the aquarium.
Having tired of the sorta healthy/sorta burgery offerings at the Portola Cafe, we decided to try for a seating at the Portola Restaurant, located on the same level (main floor) as the cafe. In fact, to get to the restaurant you walk through the cafe and around the back, to where maybe a dozen neat tables are set with fresh orchids and white linen tablecloths. You put in your request for a seating at the entrance to the cafe (often a 60-90 minute wait), amble away to touch some sea urchin in the touch pool (stifling politically incorrect thoughts of "ummmm, a little oyster sauce..." or "uni? anyone up for sushi later?") or whatever, then return for a guilt-free selection of seafood offerings.
We ordered the fried abalone in fresh corn and various aolis plus seasoned dill/parsley in a little abalone shell, the fried squash blossoms stuffed with fava bean mash, and a ham & asparagus terrine with a dollop of sour cream on the side. As a main, we ordered the halibut atop spinach and barley and a child's macaroni and cheese with a side of fruit in case the Munchkin couldn't bear to eat what we were eating. (Happy to say we need not have ordered the mac & cheese backup.)
All told, it set us back $61 not including tip. The Munchkin devoured the ham & asparagus terrine (but rejected the terrine jelly itself, which we slurped up). He had odd bites here and there of things on other plates. The halibut was tender and perfectly cooked, if a little bland. (I was grateful it wasn't oversalted, as much restaurant food is.) The squash blossoms stuffed with fava mash were *wonderful,* and the fried abalone (about palm-sized if you have small hands, $13) was delicious, though the aolis were a little too sweet for my taste.
I'd highly recommend if 1) you'd like a serene lunch with beautiful views of the bay *where you can take your child and not have people shoot you the evil eye*, 2) you can spare the expense, 3) you want to consume guilt-free/ecologically-correct seafood, 4) you want a meal that's more carefully prepared than the usual haphazard on-the-fly fare, and 5) you want to expose your child to more than "kid's food." A plus is not having to leave the building--another plus: you don't have to leave your hard-won parking space.
I wouldn't say it's a five star experience, but it is a pleasant surprise in the midst of some much more dubious restaurant choices in the neighborhood (gummy clam chowder, anyone?). And I'm glad the Munchkin had the opportunity to eat fresh, well-prepared seafood.
Our experience with Portola's was similar, except that our kids are older, and we booked in advance, as we knew we weren't going to be done with the aquarium by lunch time. The setting is quite spectacular and the food is better than most institutional offerings, though it doesn't measure up to what is available in restaurants elsewhere in the area. Our fish was well-cooked -- I wouldn't say overcooked, but cooked more than I would have wished, and the accompaniments didn't quite gel. Service was somewhat perfunctory, and many of the other patrons appeared to be ordering the fish and chips; I got the impression that some of them just opted for the restaurant to avoid the cafe lineups, and were looking to get out as inexpensively as possible. I don't regret going; it was a nice break from the sometimes overwhelming human crush in the aquarium, and I appreciated the opportunity to have abalone, which for me comes about once a decade. But I think that next time I will get my hand stamped and dare to try to get out of the immediate area for lunch. --PR
re: Prabhakar Ragde
Indeed, I can't remember the last time before this that I had abalone. To chow down on sustainably-sourced abalone felt like even more of a rarity.
Sounds like we agree--not destination dining, but a pleasant enough place if the usual cafeteria/salads/grilled foods at the Cafe aren't what you feel like having.
Next time I'll come armed with Chowhound recommendations of places to eat within walking distance of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but we counted ourselves lucky that we went into the Portola Restaurant on the spur of the moment with no expectations and were pleasantly surprised.
Munchy, I would like to thank you for your post. Portola was a highlight of my family vacation to the West Coast. We would never have found Portola, as it is not at all obvious from the rest of the Aquarium, that such a nice restaurant would be tucked behind the self serve cafeteria. My wife and I had lovely entrees, and the wait staff was very friendly to our kids, and there was an adequate kid menu of the usual chicken tenders, pasta with butter, etc. . The view, the service, the wine list, and the entrees were superb. I had the halibut, which I thought was great, until I tried my wife's pan roasted scallops which were awesome. We sipped our drinks while watching the sea lions frolic a few feet below us through the plate glass. Definitely a great find, and one which makes reading Chowhound worthwhile. Thank you.