Driving from San Francisco to Monterey Bay with goals of seeing the aquarium before driving back up to San Jose for the Kings/Sharks game at HP Pavilion, finding a quirky place on in the Fisherman’s Wharf was our meal plan for the afternoon. A little disappointed with the aquarium being partially under renovation and as such smaller than expected, we left a little early to roam the awful Cannery Row before making it over to the Wharf to wander the docks and the beach – oddly less touristy than the Row or the Wharf in San Francisco, I quite liked the Old Wharf in Monterey and its down-to-earth, yet clearly commercialized feel – I liken it to Put n’ Bay in Ohio with better sea life and coast.
Wandering the pier I was amazed by the raw number of free chowder samples being handed out and tasted a few before one truly made me say “WOW!” Having done a little research prior to the trip, I had indeed heard of Old Fisherman’s Grotto and even how long the owner had managed to keep the restaurant in the family. Great chowder, good reviews, a stellar view of the coast, and then they offered a free appetizer – sold. After a short wait we were taken to our seats along the window and presented with the daily menu and a collection of unique specials for the day. Our server, a young lady, wasn’t nearly as professional as those at previous days restaurants – yet vastly more friendly.
After browsing the well priced (downright bargain considering the view and service) menu for a few minutes selections were made and we were brought a basket of warm bread and our drinks. Iced teas, water, and four types of room temperature bread (cinnamon pumpernickel, sourdough, ciabatta, and asiago cheese – reportedly baked at a place down the street whose name I don’t recall) were all served with only the cinnamon pumpernickel truly sticking out as memorable. Butter was the packet variety – something I’d actually not seen at any of the finer dining places we’d been going to.
Some time passed before our free appetizer arrived – a fairly uncomplicated presentation of extremely fresh Monterey Bay calamari that was lightly breaded and served with raw onions and ketchup and mayo. No pretense, just straight up calamari – the dish was nice and fresh but certainly not memorable. It was free, so I guess I can’t complain, but I wouldn’t put it on any must-have list.
Main courses began to arrive after 20-30 minutes and all the dishes bested the calamari significantly. My mother’s dish, the hot crab sandwich was absolutely perfect and immensely better (and more affordable) that the version at Ferry Plaza Seafood – a contender for best crab sandwich ever. Served on toasted Ciabatta with oodles of fresh (at least it didn’t taste frozen) dungeness crab and minimal filler, the sandwich was spot-on and served with decent fries.
The second dish, my aunt’s, was Pan Fried Crabcakes with Tomato Pepper Aoili. While not as good as the sandwich, this respectable crabcake was tasty but had a little too much filler for my liking. Aunt liked it enough, but noted certainly not on par with the artistic versions at Boulevard, One Market, or Arcadia and not as crab-laden as that at Ferry Plaza. The Aoili was mild and mostly undetectable.
For myself, easy choice; clam Chowder in a bread bowl. It got me in the door, it got my $10, and it filled me up as great chowder should. Slight on potatoes, heavy on clams, thick, hearty, and no cheap tricks. Buttery with hints of garlic and the clearly potent flavor of bacon fat – the best chowder I’ve tasted anywhere – with the caveat that I’ve not been to Boston yet. The sourdough bowl was mammoth and went unfinished as I wanted to save room for dessert, but the quality was wonderful and definitely complemented the soup.
Mains cleared, we’d already seen desserts on the daily specials and were unable to resist – my aunts favorite and mine on the same menu – nice. As an added bonus, the waitress informed us that it was indeed “Sweet Thursday” and all desserts were half off – I’m no cheap eater, but I’ll take a deal when it is offered.
Going with the standard, my aunt selected the Chocolate Creme Brule with Caramel Crust, Ladyfinger, and Strawberry and we were impressed by the ornate decoration that reminded me of something in a nice French place (see pictures of The Refectory.) Delicate as a Crème Brule should be and ample in portion, the dish itself was good while the surrounding decoration was an admixture of chocolate, espresso cream, and raspberry that bested the dish – more ladyfingers for soaking would’ve been my preference. The Brule was no Danko or Koi, but it was a bargain and aunt liked it.
While I’d have liked to try the deep fried cheesecake for audacity sake, my choice was made for me when I saw the special of the day – Macadamia-Coconut Bread Pudding with Vanilla Icecream and Caramel Sauce. Served in a large portion and quite well done in firmness and texture, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the dish given the relative absence of Macadamia or Coconut flavor. Certainly not bad, it would have been better titled Vanilla Caramel Bread Pudding and I’ve had still ordered it, but likely enjoyed it more with different expectations.
When it was all said and done I made my way to the restroom and actually bumped into the owner (the jovial fellow in the menu/website pictures) and he chatted about the restaurant’s family history and how much he loves the job – given his attitude it is no wonder that the business continues to do well despite all the competition – including that of his brother down the pier. All told we walked out of the restaurant feeling like we’d just robbed the place and were quite happy with the meal. While this isn’t “fine dining,” it also doesn’t pretend to be and the unstuffy service, good to great food, and atmosphere was wonderful. Watching the otters and sea lions while digging into the chowder – just go and try it, it is worth the trip.