Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem,
a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone,
a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”
Cannery Row, 1945
During basic military training in the Air Force, several of us who could speak multiple languages were asked to take the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB), the test the military services use to measure aptitude to learn a foreign language. Fewer than five percent of people who take (or retake) the DLAB pass it. Somehow I managed a high score and was extended an opportunity to attend the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center at the Presidio of Monterey. My response, one borne of ignorance and stupidity, was “I don’t want to go to Mexico.” It had not dawned on me that the Monterey being offered was in California.
Over the years, I’ve revisited my decision frequently. On one hand, the Air Force might have decided to have me learn Arabic or Iranian then stationed me on a remote mountaintop to listen to and decipher chatter. On the other, the year or so spent in Monterey would have been glorious (other than the hours of poring over language tapes and books). Every ten years or so, I manage to visit Monterey where I once again ponder the obtuse decisions of my youth. It usually results in me thinking that the time spent in Monterey would have been worth the hazards and remoteness of an assignment as a cryptology linguist.
Monterey, California in 1977 when I would have attended the Defense Language Institute is not the Monterey of 1945 when Steinbeck wrote his novel and if anything, it’s changed significantly since 1977. The Monterey of Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row was set during the Great Depression when sardine fishing created a boom economy in the village. Cannery Row is the living backdrop for the book, a unique neighborhood of fish packing plants, bordellos, and flophouses. The novel made Cannery Row the most famous street in America.
Today Cannery Row is among the most popular vacation destinations on California’s magnificent central coast with many of the city’s very best attractions, hotels, dining establishments, shopping and nightlife available in the area. Sardine fishing has made a resurgence in recent years, with sardine boats swaying on anchor next to vessels that troll for tuna and whale sighting charter boats. Monterey has become an epicenter of the sustainable fishing movement. Then there’s the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the very best of its kind in the world.
The restaurant landscape in the Cannery Row district is a popular draw, though my friend Sandy is of the opinion that most of its eateries are touristy and commercial. Sure enough, among the several dozen restaurants in the area are such national chains as Johnny Rockets, Dippin’ Dots, Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company (the first one in America, by the way). Sadly, but not surprisingly, those restaurants are packed (sardine tight, you might say). Savvy diners visit the fine dining and seafood establishments on Cannery Row for a more authentic, more delicious dining experience.
One of the best seaside restaurants both for ocean views and the bounty of the sea is Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar, at the only Forbes four-star-awarded Monterrey Plaza Hotel & Spa. Schooners is perched dramatically over the Monterey Bay where diners will enjoy the gentle sounds of the undulating surf; the fresh, salty fragrance of sea air; the playfulness of sea otters drifting in kelp forests and a Mediterranean ambiance accompanied by personalized service. The views and the experience are unparalleled. So, too, is an innovative menu that showcases a variety of seafood–both raw and cooked.
All seafood served at Schooners is compliant with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch Guide” designed to raise consumer awareness about the importance of purchasing sustainable seafood. Not only does the restaurant celebrate conscious dining and high quality, sustainable seafood, it educates the dining public by indicating the origin and catching method on the menu. The menu is divided into such categories as “In the Raw,” “Chowders & Stews,” “Fish Stories,” and “Tails to Share,” when plates are portioned to be shared for two or more.
The pride of restaurants throughout the California coast is the Dungeness crab, which are fresh and abundant thanks to sustainable harvesting practices. Californians are as proud of the Dungeness crab as Baltimore area citizenry are of their fabled Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. One of my dreams is to participate as a judge in a crab cake throw-down between the aforementioned crustaceans. The Pacific Dungeness Crab Cake at Schooners would make a good representative of the left coast’s best. This is an excellent crab cake. It’s thick and large with a preponderance of crab and a bare minimum of binder. Complementing the smooth, delicate flavor of crab is an accompanying corn and avocado salad with a tart-sweet citrus vinaigrette. It’s wholly unnecessary, but quite good.
When it comes to bi-coastal seafood, it’s not only crab cakes which are prepared par excellence. Between the clam chowder at my former home in the Boston area and the clam chowder in the San Francisco area, it’s a virtual toss-up as to which is the very best. Both are outstanding! In the Boston area, the preferred accompaniment are oyster crackers while in the San Francisco area, clam chowder is often served in hollowed-out sourdough bowls. The latter option is irresistible, especially if you learn how to scrape the sides of the sourdough bowl so as to have just a bit of bread with each spoonful of soup. Schooners’ Coastal Clam Chowder showcases baby clams, sherry, potatoes and cream served in freshly baked sourdough. The proportion of sherry to cream is especially delicious, providing interesting flavor notes.
While fish tacos are much more closely associated with San Diego where they’re regarded as perhaps the city’s top delicacy, you can find decent fish tacos throughout the Golden State. Schooners’ rendition starts on a canvas of fresh corn-flour tortillas into which are nestled grilled fish, cabbage and avocados with a salsa on the side. The cabbage is tinged with pleasantly piquant jalapeños. The grilled fish is wonderfully fresh and flavorful, the avocados unctuous and buttery. Squeeze a little bit of lime and spoon in a little salsa and you’ve got an excellent, dare I say, San Diego worthy fish taco. Three per order are served and they’ll go fast.
Land meets sea in a bountiful seafood salad, a delicious melange of complementary and contrasting flavors which meld into a surprisingly fresh and delicious plate. Easily large enough for two, you’ll find a veritable cornucopia of ingredients: endive leaves stuffed with shredded crab, sliced mango, buttery avocado, heirloom cherry tomatoes (yellow and orange), red cherry tomatoes, peeled shrimp and pepper crust rimmed ahi tuna. The salad is served with a mango sauce as thick as mayonnaise and a light citrus vinaigrette. The contrasting flavors played the most delicious notes on our taste buds: tangy-sweet mango with sea salty ahi and especially the astringency of endive with the sweet-brininess of the crab.
Desserts seem to taste just a bit sweeter at seaside, especially if you opt for the Tropical Sabayon ((a cousin of the light, egg-based Italian dessert zabaglione, the very best of which we’ve ever had being at Il Piato in Santa Fe). Though a bit less frothy and lighter than its Italian cousin, this honey-infused custard is quite good. The showcase, however, is the fruits and berries–mango broiled to the point of near caramelization, pineapple and berries (strawberries, blackberries, blueberries). To frosted cookies, much denser than the sugared donuts they resemble, are the proverbial topping you can’t top.
The impeccable service at Schooners also served to remind me of my perhaps ill-fated decision several decades ago when I opted out of spending much more time in one of California’s paradises than a vacation can afford.
Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar
400 Cannery Row
LATEST VISIT: 17 July 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Pacific Dungeness Crab Cake, Schooners’ Coastal Clam Chowder, Seafood Salad, Fish Tacos, Tropical Sabayon