Ernie Almoradie is a bartender and server, although changing his title to raconteur would more closely reflect his role at Bistro Abrego. The way he interacts with hotel guests pausing at the bar – his tales, his font of local knowledge, his laughter – fills an often near-empty dining area with pleasant commotion.
The restaurant, which blends into the Hotel Abrego lobby, can be a bit of a tough sell to locals and visitors. “We know you’re not here to eat at our hotel,” Abrego’s Director of Sales Joshua Eisenberg says, referring to tourists. “So we try to do straightforward things, but put a twist on it – a Monterey experience.”
That experience starts with the seafood entree. On a recent Saturday night it was grilled swordfish – which doesn’t exactly scream Monterey Bay, but the restaurant is a Seafood Watch member and sources according to Monterey Bay Aquarium guidelines, in this case, line-caught. Chef Nancy Puga and her team bring it to that fine point where the fish is firm yet not parched. But a pineapple salsa turns on the fish. Deftly balanced on its own, with a bright acidity and earthy, bittersweet undertone, the salsa pummels the more reserved catch.
New England clam chowder – a dish appropriated by Monterey – may be a better expression of the chef’s touch. Creamy and dense (yet made without cream, though plenty of butter goes in the roux), the soup is studded with al dente potatoes and fat bits of shellfish. A streak of smoke from bacon edges in nicely, lending a rustic warmth.
Almoradie issues a hearty “good choice” when you order the ribs. He goes on about his love for the cherry-chipotle sauce, ruddy and cheerful but with a gruff heat that lingers, although it never rises above a snarl. The sauce plays like a cymbal and drum, opposites that seem to complete each other. Meanwhile the ribs are weighty with slow-cooked meat that eagerly falls from the bone.
It pays to listen to the enthusiastic server. The ribs are right on – rare from a kitchen that doesn’t specialize in barbecue. While the husky savor of pork plays only a supporting bass line to the percussion of that sauce, the meat brings a slightly smoky rhythm that eases in between the bright acidity and earthy chili.
The menu at Bistro Abrego is brief, with a couple of burgers, a couple of pasta dishes, some routine items like chicken Parmesan, crab cakes and shrimp scampi. Yet it also tells of the restaurant’s attention to sourcing. The steak, for instance, is grass-fed beef. The roasted chicken is free-range. Most of the wines come from local vineyards. And diced tomatoes piled on small rounds of bread for their bruschetta presentation pop with freshness – extraordinarily sweet and fruity.
“We are big into sustainability,” Eisenberg says. “We try to use local vendors, a smaller carbon footprint.”
So there are reasons for both visitors and locals to check out Bistro Abrego. Maybe not the fries, which are pale and flat. But the ethics behind the menu, the simplicity and those moments when it all comes together work nicely. And there’s always the vocal antics of Ernie.
BISTRO ABREGO 755 Abrego St. (inside Hotel Abrego), Monterey. Dinner daily, 5-9pm. 372-7551, hotelabrego.com