Fish in the Valley
Yet another Fish House opens, and it’s not too many.
Thursday, June 10, 2004
Village Fish House in Carmel Valley Village, boldly goes, well, where they’ve always gone—to a proven territory that encompasses fresh local seafood, basic ingredients, honest preparation, friendly, competent service and real accommodating hospitality.
Like Monterey Fish House has been for years, Village Fish House is in the process of becoming a neighborhood eating house, plain and simple. The formula is easy to explain, not so simple to execute. At Village Fish House, they are well on their way.
Although still fairly new, the Fish House is honing its long-term act—the wholesome, welcoming combination of friendliness combined with a willingness, even a zeal, to give diners whatever they want. From the Gary Coleman of kitchens, this closet-sized peanut taxes the creative limitations of workers packed into it, yet follows a formula I’ve seen be successful—a small kitchen that pumps out food to a larger than proportional dining room.
If the dining room and bar area were all the kitchen had to feed, life would be simple, since the space only holds about a couple of dozen people. It’s the patio that turns Village Fish House into a full-sized restaurant, and the patio that will ensure its economic survival.
The patio has a slate floor that steps up the overall comfort level. Space heaters remove the chill on foggy evenings. If history holds, this place will be regularly turning tables in no time.
For my first visit, the Three Stooges reunited for a one-shot comeback appearance on the patio. Larry had the most Fish House experience, having spent a good many years as a regular at Monterey’s branch. She loves the reliability of its menu and the comfort of its ambiance. She knew what she wanted before even looking at the menu and I knew that was going to be this restaurant’s game—regular folks stopping by to have lunch or dinner, with an already pre-planned idea of what they’d be eating and what it will taste like.
We did apps, trying Oysters done in a Rockefeller style (baked with spinach, bacon, etc., you know the deal). They were the biggest oysters I’ve seen since I did a guest spot on The Lost World a few years ago. I’m not really much of an oyster fan, but these were meaty and tender, with great oyster integrity…oyster lovers would love them.
We also tried the Shrimp Scampi appetizer and it satisfied the requirements for Scampi; good garlic and butter flavor without being cloying, and tasty shrimp. The entrees require you to choose from various varieties of fish and match it to the preparation of your choice. In addition, the servers, who are all exceedingly friendly, energetic and committed, will rattle off a few hundred (or so it seems like) specials that keep you focused and attentive, lest you allow one or two to slip by unnoticed.
For this evening we decided to play a preparation game, with each of us ordering the fresh Monterey Bay Salmon done in a different style. We did oak-grilled, blackened and the Marsala-wine style, which actually ended up being poached in a Marsala-flavored poaching liquid and was quite the tasty treat. Anyway, each of the three styles was properly executed and reflected the magnificent freshness of our bay’s beautiful bounty.
Side dishes of pastas and vegetables were pleasing enough, with a very interesting roasted corn salsa being my personal favorite. Accompanying wines from a wine list being reshaped followed another wonderful Fish House tradition—every wine on the list is available by the glass.
Our desserts were fairly pedestrian; in fact, I didn’t even write down what we had, I think a cheese cake and some sort of Italian ice cream. I’m sure they would satisfy most sweet cravings, but are not enough to write home about. A glass of Caymus Conundrum, that winery’s delicious blend of five different grapes, provided all the dessert I sought.
Sweet Thing and I stopped in for a Friday night twosome a couple of weeks later. The indoor experience offers a different viewpoint. The room is much more open and expansive than in its previous, White Oak Grill incarnation. Apparently, the new owners came in and did a little remodeling, including trying to expand the kitchen, but ran afoul of local historical preservation laws or some such bureaucratic silliness.
Now you’ve got this kind of open, centralized space with nice blond wood leading up to that majestic rich brown wooden square-pyramid type skylight structure (you’ve got to see this thing to realize how difficult it is to explain if you’re not I.M. Pei), plus cool-looking old photographs of local fishing scenes, tasteful wooden chairs, some yellow, some black, with jute woven seats.
Jazzy tunes play at a good volume and relaxed diners interact in a casual, happy way, just the way owners John and David DiGirolamo want it. This is a just-enough frills fish house that also offers meat lovers choices like prime rib, steak and other nightly treats.
This night, Kyle, who reminded me of a Mormon missionary leading the faithful, led us through a list of specials that would have had first-year law students fearful of reciting publicly.
A Lobster Diablo special caught my ear/tastebud/memory radar, while Sweet Thing wavered between a Prawns and a Scallops special. Naturally, as is the entire point of the Fish House’s concept, Kyle and she agreed to combine both. So it was Prawns and Scallops with a white wine, butter sauce (another request). You have to appreciate when a restaurant will go out of its way to accommodate your requests.
My Diablo, not quite as Diablo as I would have liked but understandably understated—next time I’ll just ask to pepper it up a notch—was an amalgam of flavors from the seafaring villages of the southern Mediterranean. Fresh linguini, though a bit starchy—in a kitchen so small, it is virtually impossible to contain vessels large enough to carry the volume of water required to de-starchify pasta—held the dish together, and chunks of tender, tasty lobster flipped the switch on what I must say was quite an enjoyable dish.
Scallops and Prawns (actually shrimp) were just the ticket—you can order any fish here and know it is the freshest possible. These DiGirolamos are so tied into the local fishing scene that they actually have gills growing on them.
Village Fish House is just what you who know the Monterey Fish House expect it to be: Fish House East. Different setting, different village, same feel, same effort, same freshness, same fair prices—nothing to keep you from coming here again and again.
19 E. Carmel Valley Rd., Carmel Valley | 659-4671
Dinner daily 5-9pm | Lunch Wed-Fri 11:30am-2:30pm, Sat-Sun 11:30am-9pm.