Pacifica Café’s new menu draws flavor from sustainable places.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
When assigned to cover the new sustainable menu at Pacifica Café in Seaside’s Embassy Suites, I wondered what exactly defines sustainable. Organic vegetables? Low food miles? An actual menu printed on compostable hemp paper? I met a friend, Jessica, for an exploratory lunch.
The lobby’s jungle of lush flora, tumbling waterfall, and pools of green-blue water bring on a tranquil mood. I wish it were my office. The Pacifica Café dining room boasts its own delightful eye candy: two 500-gallon aquariums, with Monterey Bay fish in one.
There isn’t much hoopla about the new menu, only a few lines about sustainable seafood at the bottom of a menu where seafood dominates, and beef, poultry, lamb and pork are fairly represented.
Pacifica Café is a partner in Seafood Watch, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sustainable seafood initiative, and in a conversation with the program’s outreach manager Sheila Bowman, she said Pacifica’s food and beverage manager, Udo Starck, worked closely with her to establish the menu.
“Pacifica Café is at the extreme end of the spectrum,” said Bowman. “They built their menu around our program and are really committed.”
For a restaurant in a mainstream hotel chain, the recipes largely presume a sophisticated palate. For starters, a crusty baguette is accompanied by complimentary hummus—an unusual, locally-inspired artichoke rendition.
And while nearly every restaurant in town is doing a pecan and blue cheese salad, the Cypress House Salad was a refreshing twist ($6). Toasted pine nuts, feta, and sun dried tomatoes jazzed up the greens. The dressing, delicately sweet and lightly lemony, was the first indication that Chef Christopher Elser does flavors well. He pushes the envelope just a little. He teases. He implies, suggests, and hints. I like that.
If, like most, you spend more for dinner than lunch, pay attention when ordering from the single menu. Most entrees cost $16 to $28—reasonable, considering it’s like putting some shrimp in the bank for our grandchildren’s dinner. The burger, chicken panini, club sandwich, and pasta cost $9 to $11. Or, mix and match soup, salad ($4 to $11) and starters like crab cakes, chicken or shrimp quesadilla, and ceviche ($8 to $12), but it still adds up. Some lunch specials might attract more locals.
My friend Jessica, a vegetarian, lamented that the only nod to vegetarians on a menu is often pasta. Organic vegetables are übersustainable, so I thought Pacifica might deliver on that, but pasta was the only entrée. Jess proclaimed it superior to most and enjoyed the bold garlicky little number with fresh basil and tomatoes—a sort of deconstructed marinara sauce, rather than a safe purée of indistinct ingredients. I realize the average palate is well beyond safe purées, especially in our cosmopolitan locale, but there has been a tendency to lull diners into thinking they are sophisticated just because there are spicy pecans in their salad or porcini dusted onto their seafood.
Here, the porcini is, in fact, dusted onto the halibut. The nicely seared fish came with sides playing an accent role more than a harmonizing one: caramelized onions (both sweet and sour due to a balsamic vinegar reduction), spinach, and saffron with orzo pasta. I liked the push and pull of diverse flavors, and was both surprised and glad to learn this dish is one of the more popular, along with the sablefish. Maybe the average palate is evolving more quickly than I thought.
Open Face Seafood Ravioli. Now, here is a concept. Squares of pasta, semi-wrapped around halibut, shrimp, sablefish, scallops and crab, allow for an overflow of seafood, rather than the dearth normally trapped in starchy containers. That, and the saffron broth (thicker and more satisfying than “broth” suggests) made this flavorful, high-protein pasta dish a real showpiece ($19).
The wine and beer list is modest, but each is matched with a detailed description and suggested dishes. All wines are available by the glass (many are local), and a full bar can satisfy a desire for spirits.
Elser said 90 percent of the patrons are hotel guests and the kitchen knocks out plenty of room service orders. Wait service was very slow on one occasion, which is troublesome on a workday. In fact, the large, comfortable dining room should attract a robust business clientele because private conversation is possible.
Elser and Starck are doing good work, and I look forward to their branching out to include organic vegetables and meats to bring a broader sustainability to our local dining culture.
Pacifica Café Embassy Suites
1441 Canyon Del Rey, Seaside • 11am-10pm daily • 393-1115.