The elevator to Bay of Pines Organic Restaurant is a portal to a children’s pop-up book. At the top, a bronze mermaid arcs at the entrance, a crystal chandelier throws blue light from the fish tank, and every square inch from floor to ceiling is covered with murals.
The restaurant walls depict six Monterey Bay ecosystems in three dimensions. Duck figurines float on the Carmel River; model ships bob on the surface of orca-inhabited waters. The bar forms the bow of a 16th-century boat. Layered on top: sculptures, a full-on gallery art show, paper lanterns and Christmas lights.
The words “delightful” and “gaudy” are both fair descriptors.
Owner Dana Mills Helman says she wants the space to transport patrons back to 1542, when Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez sailed to Monterey Bay and called it “baía de los pinos” – bay of pines.
“I created this fantasy,” she says. “I didn’t know how adults would react to it, if they would think it was childish.”
The eye-popping decor is hard to get past, but Bay of Pines is equally defined by its local organics. Helman says at least 90 percent of the menu’s ingredients, from produce to liquor to vinegar, are certified. That’s in keeping with her ethics: As a teacher, she had her students plant organic gardens and restore native habitats. As a breast cancer survivor, she knows the toxins in food reach bodies.
Helman’s daughter Rachel Sampson seats my husband and me on a slow Saturday night. The restaurant is oiled in the smooth jazz of Roger Eddy’s live saxophone as Helman glides from table to table in a head-to-toe ruby-red ensemble.
We’re promptly given country-style white bread with coarse salted butter and offered cocktails. My Cleopatra martini ($10) looks like an inverted Christmas tree. I’d been hooked by the menu description of organic cucumber vodka, lime, “green liqueur” and fresh mint, but it tastes like a melted alcoholic popsicle and I can’t discern mint. I’m more into my husband’s Smoking Hot ($9): The Grey Goose vodka, lemon and soda create a slightly sweet base for muddled serranos that leave a zing in the throat.
Our awkwardly named appetizer, Ocean Fishnet Fruits of the Sea ($12), is drizzled in a garlic-sherry cream subtle enough to bring out the freshness of the shrimp and house-smoked salmon over puff pastry. I order from the locals’ menu, three courses for $20. The chive-Champagne vinaigrette adds a pleasant lift to the Salinas Valley salad. The free-range Mediterranean chicken breast is moist and tender over a fluffy potato puree. But the chocolate-chip bread pudding, the only dessert offered, is too heavy for us.
My husband orders the pistachio-crusted salmon ($31) and enjoys every bite. But he feels a little let down by the menu descriptions – the fish’s pistachio crust and the risotto’s orange infusion are absent or barely detectable. When we ask about the origins of the “apple-smoked West Coast salmon,” a kitchen staffer says it’s actually Chilean steelhead. Whoops.
We return a few weeks later with our newborn and preschooler. We miss the 2pm lunch cutoff, but the voicemail greeting offers 20 percent off food and drinks from 4-7pm, so we aim for happy hour.
We’re the only diners. The bartender seats and serves us. This time, the bread butter is whipped and unsalted. My Mermaid’s Dream ($12) – cucumber vodka, sage liqueur, pineapple juice, soda and Hum spirits – arrives in a pint mug with raspberries. The Hum lends a botanical complexity, but I envy my husband’s Sunken Ship Margarita ($10), which adds amaretto to the classic recipe.
The Caesar salad ($8) is true to formula, with fresh romaine, shaved parm, butter croutons and a canned anchovy. The calamari ($9) comes lukewarm and tough: Our son chews, chews, then spits it out.
The Castroville artichoke ($10) is expertly braised, served warm over a buttery plop of sun-dried-tomato polenta. But the creamy center of each artichoke half, described on the menu as chive-garlic aioli, packs a sudden heat. The server says it’s serrano. Luckily we’re spice fans.
The polite and attentive bartender tells us happy hour is $1.50 off everything, not 20 percent. He adjusts the total for our drinks, but not our food.
With a good dose of consistency and confidence, Bay of Pines can fill a glaring vacancy in Peninsula dining. It serves local and organic in a region with hundreds of sustainable producers but mostly conventional restaurants. The decor is original if baroque, giving the space potential for memorable private events. And the weekend entertainment should perk up Monterey’s saggy nightlife.
But the whole package would benefit from more coherence. Helman says the intended ambience is between casual and formal, and the ambiguity shows. She describes the cuisine as Californian with international flavors, but the menu should better match the delivered food. The murals, crayons and paper-lined tabletops say family-friendly, but the kids’ menu is steep at $9 an entree. Better happy-hour deals, broader vegetarian options and lower prices across the board could help cultivate a more loyal crowd.
A restaurant supporting so much good in this community – artists, musicians, sustainable farms, healthy habitats and history, all under one cloud-painted ceiling – deserves it.