Thursday, November 15, 2001
Just sitting in The Whaling Station, scotch in hand, menu spread out on the table, feels special. Our window seat looked down over Cannery Row and the black water beyond. The dining room isn''t too big, but felt expansive. A long, gently sloping stone arch on the northeast wall, a bunch of big, old European food posters, and the spacious layout of the tables all added up to an atmosphere of profound, casual California elegance--with the emphasis on casual, even though the place is perfectly elegant.
The knowledge that the room is a genuine institution, John Pisto''s first gift to the Monterey fine-dining scene, and one of the best restaurants in California, adds to the big-night feeling.
The ambiance is reinforced by the crowd. If there are people at the Whaling Station having business dinners, they have probably been golfing all day, or conventioneering. People go to the Whaling Station to celebrate, to really enjoy themselves.
When Penelope and I went, last Tuesday evening, we were practically still at work. My deadline demanded that I eat at the Whaling Station that night and none other (on this newspaper''s dime--I don''t blame you if you don''t feel sorry for me).
It almost seemed like a shame to waste it on a Tuesday. But things turned out fine. A night at the Whaling Station is enough of an event in itself. It''s its own special occasion.
I felt that I would be doing a disservice to the readers of the Weekly if I did not try and get into a celebratory mood, so I ordered a Glenmorangie. I do not know who decreed that we drink scotch before eating steak, but it is a rule I obey. One sip, and I was glad I did.
The menu at the Whaling Station is an extensive tale of bold imagination and rigorous exploration--from soups and apps to pasta and seafood. For 30 years, Pisto has been helping to define America''s new cuisine, and his menu reads as though it were inspired by the whole history of world cuisine.
But the star of the book is the steak: genuine USDA Prime, flown in from a secret supplier in the Midwest, aged 28 days for flavor, seasoned with Pisto''s own secret spices, and cooked over a wood-burning grill.
As we considered the possibilities, Jum, our waiter, brought over a tray of raw steaks for us to examine: the Filet Mignon, the Sirloin Chateau, the New York, the Kansas City and the massive Porterhouse, all enticingly pink and jiggly under their Saran Wrap. Jum retreated to allow us to decide.
Penelope shocked me by announcing that she would not be getting a steak--she is one steak-eating girl. But she was intrigued by a pasta dish: the Wood-Fired Scallops and Wild Maplecap Mushrooms over penne ($21.95). I ordered a steak.
It being a work-day, we decided to skip the tantalizing appetizers and go straight for the soup and salad. Penelope ordered the Wild Mushroon Soup ($6.95), made from chanterelles, porcini and morels. I ordered the "Pride of Monterey County" iceberg lettuce salad ($7.95).
The salad was unique and delightful: a big wedge of iceberg, drizzled with plenty of real Roquefort dressing, with tiny red-and-yellow pear-shaped tomatoes. It was a little bit like the stuff I ate when I was a kid--often when mom served steak for supper--but it tasted like a culinary breakthrough. (Iceberg lettuce and blue cheese--who knew?!)
The soup was something else entirely. "I can''t believe I ordered mushroom soup," Penelope said when the biggish, shallow bowl of creamy grey-brown liquid arrived. Then she took a spoonful, and her eyes got big. When she offered me a taste, I took another, and then another. It tasted as fresh and earthy as the smell of leaves in autumn.
I was already in a good mood when Jum brought us our main courses. I had ordered a Kansas City ($29.95)--a New York steak with the bone-in. Jum had informed me that the K.C. is always more densely marbled and therefore more flavorful than the New York. I had ordered it on the medium side of medium rare--I am a junkie for flavor, and I don''t mind if a steak is a little chewy.
This was the most flavorful piece of beef I''d ever eaten, and it wasn''t too chewy at all--only one-percent of all the beef produced in the country gets the USDA Prime rating, and this is it. I had gone to the Whaling Station expecting a perfect steak and that''s what I got. To wash it down, I had a glass of Cabernet Etrusco ($9.50), an intense blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc grapes from the smallish Paso Robles winery Martin & Weyrich.
Penelope''s meal, as it turned out, was the nicest surprise of the evening. Five or six fat scallops came wrapped in smoked bacon, piled on a mound of penne swimming in a sweet, mushroomy veal stock. The penne and sauce and mushrooms might have been enough to satisfy alone. The scallops, I can attest, were spectacular. I can make some pretty mean scallops myself, but I don''t believe I ever even see scallops like these. John Pisto''s got his secrets, and one of them, apparently, is the source of the best sea scallops on earth.
Halfway through the meal, Penelope sat back from the table and sipped her Pinot Grigio (also a Martin & Weyrich), and I forced myself to sit back from my steak and sip my cab. A bunch of guys in golf shirts at a nearby table laughed softly over their deserts. Outside the window, Cannery Row bustled and the black bay stretched out. It felt like a special moment--for a mere Tuesday.