Thursday, August 28, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell: Something''s Fishy: The Salinas Fish House has accommodating staff and perfectly seasoned seafood.
I must have passed by the Salinas Valley Fish House hundreds of times. It looked inviting enough, its cozy corner locale near the Steinbeck Center and perfect Old Town setting just begging to be tried. But my old standby favorites in the neighborhood always seemed to prevail.
When we arrived just before our 7pm reservation one recent Saturday, I was taken by how much I felt as if we''d just walked into a dinner party. The grand room, with its colonial feel and sky-high ceilings, housed the whole shebang: host station, dining room, bar. The tables appeared to be pushed together banquet style, but a closer look revealed that there was a small space between them. A few more tables perched on an indoor balcony overlooked the scene, and a game played on a television near the bar.
The room was about half full when we took our window-side table. There was an aisle to one side, and the four of us--including two children--had to scoot into our seats from there since the next table was just inches away.
While we expected a nice array of seafood on the menu, it was even more expansive than we''d imagined. From the appetizer menu to the entree choices, there was a little something for everyone: clam chowder, cioppino, oysters, clams, swordfish, tuna, et cetera. For the rebels, there was chicken, steak, burgers and pasta.
I ordered a cup of clam chowder ($1.95) for starters. My companion, Guy, wanted the Caesar salad but couldn''t decide whether to have it as is ($4.95) or topped with bay shrimp ($8.95). In the end, he opted for the latter.
The chowder was simply divine, not weighted down by cream but instead a perfect precursor to a main course. Guy''s salad was generously proportioned, and lots of firm bay shrimp didn''t just dot the plate but instead were so abundant as to turn the entire salad a lovely bright pink.
Our waiter had tempted my palate with his description of crab-stuffed ravioli in a mild marinara sauce ($15.95), one of the night''s specials. Guy chose the sea bass ($18.95) from the regular menu.
I was a bit surprised there wasn''t a children''s menu, particularly considering the family-friendly atmosphere. I wasn''t necessarily hoping for the stereotypical kid dishes, but I thought perhaps smaller proportions of the regular fare at kid-sized prices might be a welcome sight for parents.
In any event, my older son was just as pleased to order the oak-grilled salmon ($12.95) with an assortment of vegetables. As for the little one, having given up seafood somewhere between the car door and our table, he was undecided. Our waiter, sensing the difficulty and wanting to please, offered to see if the chef would drum up something simple like fish ''n'' chips ($12.95) from the lunch menu, despite the fact it wasn''t offered for dinner. The chef agreed--whew.
It wasn''t long after we ordered that the place seemed to buzz to life. Every seat was filled. The mood among the mostly thirty-and-over crowd was jovial, upbeat, thunderous even.
The dozen or more crab-stuffed raviolis on my plate smelled so good, I couldn''t wait to give them a try. Sure enough, the dish was even better than its aroma suggested. A heavy cream tempered the usually bold-tasting marinara sauce and made it rich but not overly so. I love thyme, and the sauce had plenty of it. The crab was delectable.
Somehow pulling myself out of the me-ness of my dish, I took a look around. Capers dotted Guy''s sea bass, and the lemon emanating from the cream sauce over the fish was dominant--in a good way.
My son was lost in his smoke-flavored salmon, repeatedly declaring that he was full, pushing his plate away, then sneaking one or two more bites. He''s the salmon connoisseur among us, opting for it most everywhere we go, and was more enthusiastic about this dish than any other I''d seen in a while. He never made it to the vegetables.
Sadly, Little One didn''t touch his special-order fish ''n'' chips. He did, however, eat most of my ravioli. But I tried his fish and found it more flavorful than the usual batter-over-white fish-dipped-in-oil platters.
We couldn''t have been more pleased with our meal and service at the Fish House. They exceeded our expectations--and our appetites.
It would be easy to criticize the proximity of the tables, and maybe I still think they should take five or ten tables out, but even that ultimately played into the success of the night. Turns out the adjacent couple, Jim and Sally, were friends of friends from a lifetime ago, people we hadn''t called in ages but always intended to.
God, I love small towns--and cozy restaurants in small towns.