Dining Review

For too long, Salinas, a hardworking town with a penchant for growing lettuce, has played a supporting role to that glamorous temptress, the Monterey Bay coastline.

Hullabaloo, a bright new light in Salinas'' dining scene, may just generate enough critical mass to ignite a downtown renaissance that will give Salinas her due.

Co-proprietors Bill Cascio and Will Reynolds are both management veterans of Tarpy''s Roadhouse, the thriving Monterey restaurant with a formula that works. One can deduce there was little they didn''t like about that experience. Why mess with success?

Inside the splashy front of Hullabaloo, things hum. The asymmetrical space features six dining areas, some flowing into a central room, others more private. It''s modern and tasteful with lots of cool art. Thrillseekers may drink or dine in the energizing bar where the noise is both cause and effect of the fun happening there.

Chef Todd Fisher, the final ingredient in the threesome of enthusiastic entrepreneurs, was the chef at Pebble Beach''s Stillwater Grill since it opened in 1997. A whiz kid of irrepressible creative energy, he''s found an ideal venue where he can flex his offbeat culinary muscles.

The playful menu tells us not to take life--or dining--too seriously. "Zing-O-Licious" is the description for the Tropical Chipotle Ribs. A Mediterranean "Pizelle" (small pizza) comes with "Pretentious French Feta" letting us know that they too find such fine culinary distinctions at once venerable and amusing, and engage in the new American pastime of mocking rich pomposity while indulging in rich pleasures.

Roberto, my guest, and I fueled up on a sensational and unusually hearty ''97 River Ranch Pinot Noir (Monterey County; half bottle, $22).

Our first course was Tonight''s Risotto, chockfull of butternut squash and asparagus, with Romano cheese ($8.95). It turned out to be the evening''s most understated dish, subtle and delicious.

We were then attracted to Locally Grown Petite Lettuces (aren''t we all?) with fire-roasted tomato vinaigrette, bay shrimp and a long curl of sliced carrot ($5.75). The dressing had a salsa-like zip to it and we enjoyed the surprise of flavors colliding on our palates.

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Again sticking close to home, we tried Salinas Valley Minestrone ($4.95). This version is tangy, with a noticeable dash of balsamic vinegar, plus a dollop of walnut pesto on a slice of crostini. Even with pesto to neutralize the vinegar, it was a bit acidic for my taste.

We wracked our brains over entree choices, finally selecting Backyard Salmon ($16.25) and a 10 oz. Rodeo Steak ($17.95). Roberto was so torn that our gracious waiter allowed him to combine the Rodeo Steak with the rib eye steak accompaniments: tomato, leek and lobster fondue, Gruyere potato gratin, and sauteed spinach.

The Rodeo Steak was, as promised, a gorgeous and juicy slab in excellent company with the aforementioned sides--all exciting and never letting up for a minute.

Also tasty, a tender chunk of salmon arrived atop jasmine rice cakes, finished with a remoulade--a caper and cornichon mayonnaise concoction similar to fresh tartar sauce.

We ordered two desserts, swearing only to taste, but alas, they both disappeared. I adored the Warm Pineapple Upside-Down Cake with vanilla ice cream ($6.25). It was exactly like Mom''s, even sporting a maraschino cherry (that''s going too far--how about a dried cherry soaked in rum?).

"The BOMB!!!" had no description, but we didn''t care, we had to have it. It''s a decadent, four-layer, cake-like ordeal of dark chocolate, peanut butter and white chocolate, with coffee ice cream. A great finish.

I''d never guess Hullabaloo is only three weeks old. The kitchen has already found a groove, the dining room was crowded (a line at lunch, I hear), and all bodes well for the shape of things to come in downtown Salinas.

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