Thursday, July 8, 1999
Conventional wisdom used to maintain that if a restaurant had a view, food came as an afterthought. While this may still be the case in many heavily trafficked tourist domains, the smart money knows that when it comes to feeding people, the way to the heart of customer loyalty is through the stomach. Sitting right on top of the bay with views that stretch all the way to Santa Cruz, Schooners does eats that equal their non-stop view.
Executive chef at the Monterey Plaza Hotel since 1997, James Waller took on the additional role of food and beverage director a year ago. That''s meant more administrative duties, but his main job is still closely defined by overseeing menus at the Duck Club, the soon-to-be-open rooftop Plaza Spa, and Schooners.
"When I think about food as it relates to my career, I think it was about six years ago that I realized the best food is really the most simplistic. I think because food is a competitive business, it frequently becomes way too complicated when chefs get caught up in trying to ''wow'' people with all the complexity," he comments. "The thing that I keep in mind now is not to forget about what it is that you''re eating. If it''s a steak, it should be the best. If it''s swordfish or halibut, worry about how to care for it to make it the best and freshest possible before you worry about how to prepare it. If these things are in place, doing good food will follow. It becomes your ''mise en place''--the credo of a well-trained chef. It actually becomes a life lesson."
Translating that philosophy to the menu at Schooners, Waller feels keeping it simple means giving customers what they want.
"Maybe clam chowder served in a sourdough bread bowl might seem like standard Cannery Row fare," he muses, "but people love it. And I think ours is some of the best you''ll find. The same thing with Caesar salad. Yes, everybody has it on their menu--but does it have just the right amount of garlic and anchovies?" They sell a lot of both at Schooners, offering both New England and Manhattan-style clam chowder and a Caesar with either shrimp or chicken.
Lunch and dinner menus are identical, with daily specials (a fish sandwich and pizza of the day) adding variety. A large selection of appetizers includes the knock-out warm crab-stuffed artichoke, a jumbo ''choke that''s full to overflowing with crab and melty boursin cheese. Crabcakes are also right on the money: mostly crab, moist and tender. Coconut shrimp with chili-lime dipping sauce is another popular item, along with fish and chips, hot wings and crispy calamari.
Pastas include four-cheese and spinach ravioli, done in a light vegetable broth with pesto, and fettuccini with prawns, scallops and crabs in roasted lobster cream sauce. Swordfish comes piccata style, grilled and served over a mound of angel hair pasta in a flavorful, lemony herb sauce. Portions are big, so bring an appetite for the hearty Angus top sirloin served under bubbly white cheddar cheese in mushroom-onion glaze.
Salads (the baby greens with pears, candied walnuts and bleu cheese positively sings) and sandwiches tell the rest of the story. The sauerkraut is made in-house for the Reuben, and the burger is Angus with your choice of cheese. Pepper-crusted rare ahi is served Nicoise style and the no-meat loaf is a unique house-made blend of veggies and grains. Come for the view at Schooners, stay for the food.
Schooners Bistro on the Bay, at the Monterey Plaza Hotel
400 Cannery Row, Monterey, 372-2628
Hours: Lunch 11:30am-4pm, dinner 4-10:30pm, 7 days.
Price range: $4.50-12.50