Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar
Hook, Line, Sinker: Schooners Coastal Kitchen & Bar chefs fun and fresh seafood on par with the scenic setting.
Thursday, July 26, 2012
By the second bite of the soup, everything else disappears: Delectably tender wild shrimp harmonize with a creamy, spicy, coconut-laced ambrosia. The flavors waltz across the palate with lingering, graceful steps. When I pull back from the bowl, the other surrounding elements – sea-scented air above, swaying kelp forests below, a world-class view in front of me – act as a confirmation. This must be a dream.
“Dreams start small,” says James Waller, executive chef at Schooners. “Then they kind of get filled in.” After Waller campaigned for an update of his Duck Club, the new Schooners – a fusion of the Plaza Hotel spaces once housing Schooner’s Bistro by the Bay and the club – boasts a bigger footprint, a sleek new kitchen and a remastered menu that highlights simple treatments of sustainable, aquatic offerings with a signature kick of heat and creativity. (Waller was an early adopter of Seafood Watch.)
“I’ve always wanted to do seafood,” Waller says. “It’s a longtime dream, and it evolved nicely in the end.”
My first visit, after being seated on the lovely outdoor terrace (bustling on a weekday evening), started with an offering from the bar menu.
The chowder flight ($6, or $2/shot) of artichoke, roasted tomato and coastal clam arrived in a row of ceramic shooters. I dipped into the coastal first, a beautifully balanced mix of vegetable and clam so packed with creamy umami that I was tempted to take it down in one slurp. The artichoke was at once chunky but smooth, and layered with savory complexity. The roasted tomato came off a touch too acidic and herbed.
Next up was Go Fish! ($14, $28 for two), a mixed plate featuring clams, oysters, shrimp, crab and grilled scallops (there’s also an option to add lobster, $40 for two). The shrimp, crab, clam and oyster – laying on a bed of ice – proved a reverie of straight-from-the-ocean freshness. The grilled scallops – served in a ceviche that included small shrimp, micro-cilantro, diced tomato, cucumber and avocado – was delicious, but brought down by less-than-ripe avocado chunks. All told it satisfied, and made the hot Tails to Share ($75 for two) – with grilled scallops, angry prawns, grilled swordfish and butter-roasted king crab – a must do on a future visit.
Then a mini-decanter filled with salt-crusted almonds landed on the table, a complimentary touch, and a nice combo with drinks like the award-winning Patio Boss ($14) with Patrón tequila, Citronge, sweet and sour with a float of Grand Marnier; the Four Sheets to the Wind ($12) featuring Aviation gin, ruby red grapefruit juice, Earl Grey simple syrup, sparkling wine and a coarse salt and sugar rimmer; or a glass of Santa Lucia Chard from Paraiso ($12).
The baby beets and little gems salad ($8) with pine nuts, basil oil and goat cheese underachieved. The beets were golden (no problem there), but after a few bites I realized there were also yellow tomatoes in the mix, which created a conflicting flavor profile. The basil oil, while sometimes detectable, was too subtle, perhaps overpowered by the sweetness and acidity of the tomato-beet combo.
With the next round, Waller took me back to dreamland: The pan-seared king salmon with yellow Peruvian mole sauce, flageolet bean and shrimp ($28) was a slice of healthy decadence, with the salmon full of juices and flavor. The unconventional take on mole – banana-based instead of chocolate, and with nuts and raisins blended in – made every bite feel like a discovery.
The best came last with the aforementioned spicy shrimp stew special ($10) featuring clam, celery, potatoes and cream. Though one of the richest soups I’ve ever tasted, it was, like all great soups, the type of richness that speeds your spoon, and possibly induces dreams. A surprising base of mildly sweet coconut with a subtle, spicy kick gave it a depth I barely thought possible for a made-to-order soup (all non-bar menu soups are made-to-order).
My next visit was for breakfast, and when I tried to enter through the terrace, a sign redirected me through the Plaza Hotel. As I dodged tourists and conference goers, I began to feel like a trespasser, and after being seated at a choice window seat overlooking the bay, I took note of my fellow diners – mostly tourists of the older set – and suddenly felt I was on an Alaskan cruise.
The first question my server (who was most attentive in every regard) asked me: Would I like a Bloody Mary? A deliciously tempting idea, but a pipedream for me: It was a Monday before work. I put in my order for a California crab cake benedict ($16) with poached eggs, grilled portobello, Dungeness crab cake, grilled tomato and bernaise sauce. The crab cake, though tasty, was too largely-portioned and dominated the dish, and the flavors of tomato, portobello and egg were lost.
But I can forgive: It’s in the PM hours that the fantasies happens, with a menu and setting that make the new Schooners a staycation dining destination. There’s also a whole sequence of nightly deals designed to bring the destination price tag to more grounded places. Check out the Weekly food blog (www.mcweekly.com/edible) for a video on a few of them (including $1.50 oyster Thursdays and $5 martini Mondays).
Captain Waller’s vision has finally come home, and he has set his anchor. All aboard the dreamboat.
SCHOONERS COASTAL KITCHEN & BAR is open daily 6:30am-11pm; 400 Cannery Row, Monterey. 646-1700, www.schoonersmonterey.com