At John Pisto's Domenico's on the Wharf, traditional Italian seafood dominates the menu.
Thursday, January 31, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell
Photo:The dining at Domenico''s on the Wharf rivals that of any upscale seafood joint on the California coast.
I think it was the "Vacations at Home" cover package in the Weekly a few weeks back that inspired me to head out to the Wharf. The idea was reinforced with all of this week''s stuff about Dungeness crabs. On top of that, my friends Sy and Audrey--real vacationers, a couple of Manhattanites in the middle of a six-week stay at Quail Lodge--told me about a recent celebrity-sighting: They''d seen Sean and Robin Penn in Carmel, and I''d heard all the celebs love Domenico''s. So I decided to take Penelope out for a little midweek vacay last night, eat some fresh crab, and maybe have a brush with greatness.
There was something extraordinary about walking out across the parking lot toward the Wharf on what was clearly a cold winter''s night. My memories of the Wharf go back 30 years, and I go there often--mostly when friends or family are visiting--but I don''t go there much in the winter and almost never at night. When we got there, I was surprised to find a small (smart) crowd enjoying a Tuesday night in January on the water.
Domenico''s is a classic upscale California mostly-seafood establishment; it calls to mind the best oceanside white-tablecloth places in San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Santa Monica--maybe more so. We were greeted by a friendly-yet-formal host who seated us alongside a wall of glass. It is important, I think, that we do not let ourselves become numb to the beauty of boats rocking in a darkened harbor, even if we see them every day. We took in the scenery with a loaf of warm francese, a bowl of green and black olives and glasses of lemony water. We took our time examining the menu.
Owner and chef John Pisto is justly famous for the innovative menus presented at three of his four local restaurants. Domenico''s is the exception. The offerings here reflect the traditions of his Southern Italian heritage more than his experience on California''s culinary cutting edge. Domenico''s is all about Monterey seafood (and veggies), Mediteranean style, with only a slight contemporary twist.
The top of the menu is all fish. There''s Mesquite grilled king salmon or swordfish; there''s Ahi, sea bass or sand dabs--pan seared, roasted or fried; and there''s a stuffed coho filet. Each of these plates comes with a Cali-Mediteranean side: maybe a ragout of green beans, tomatoes and basil; or tomato coulis; or ratatouille with calamata olives. There''s plenty of garlic mashed potatoes, and, of course, local vegetables. Prices are in the $18 to $20 range.
Pisto''s creative genius is probably most clearly evident in his pasta dishes. The smoked salmon ravioli comes with a rose sauce and salmon caviar. The sea scallops and fettuccine comes with wild mushrooms in a nutmeg cream sauce. But even here, the traditional holds sway.
The linguine with mussels or clams (or both) comes in the simplest sauce: garlic, lemon, butter, white wine, black pepper and fresh parsley. Again, any of the above could be had for $18 to $20.
All of this looked really good, and by the time our waiter arrived we had managed to narrow our choices only far enough to order wine. It was much too cold outside to drink a chilled white, so I contemplated sending our guy to the cellar for an unrefrigerated Chardonnay or French white burgundy--Domenico''s wine list offers a bunch of choices of each in a wide price range, as well as lots of other California, French and Italian wines. We decided on a Scheid Monterey Pinot Noir ($38)--light enough to match with crab but able to stand up to a spicy cioppino.
I knew going in I was going for the fresh steamed crab, but allowed myself to explore. There were many crab offerings to choose from: cracked chilled crab with house-made mayonnaise; angelhair pasta and crab with caramelized peppers and onions sauteed in a plum-wine sauce; Domenico''s Cioppino--a signature version of the rich Italian seafood chowder; bouillabaisse (the French version); an all-crab cioppino; a fancy type of crab-and-roasted- corn risotto; and straight-up fresh, local, steamed, cracked crab--each awaiting its fate in the crab tank.
Penelope decided to abandon a plan for the sea scallops in favor of the cioppino ($22.95). I had toyed with the idea of a pasta dish, but, it being a mini-vacation, opted for the opulence of a whole fresh-cooked crab ($29).
Penelope''s cioppino was outstanding. I have a friend who says she eats only cioppino when she goes out and I understand why. There may be no better match for hunks of fresh fish than a rich, spicy Italian tomato gravy.
The plain crab was a perfect delight in itself. There are a few things in life that one never tires of. The pleasure of a good meal is such that it can please two or three times a day, every day. A great restaurant meal--even a plain crab served with perfectly cooked potatoes and vegetables, with a nice wine, eaten by a window on the water where boats rock slowly, with an amiable waiter checking in now and again to ensure your satisfaction--is one of the great simple joys.
Sean and Robin weren''t there. Their loss.