Thursday, October 7, 2010
You can covet the matchbooks from all the world’s great restaurants that have accepted your card, but I’ll bet there ain’t a tableful of you who has spent four hours in two buildings consuming eight separate courses of culinary delight, some of which could have been satisfying meals on their own. But you can, and for a reasonable rate.
The unforgettable evening was a gift from a friend marking my 60th birthday. Learning that I hadn’t even been on the Fishermen’s Wharf in two years – hey, I lived in Manhattan and never went to the top of the Empire State Building – my friend suggested I sample the work of Dominic Mercurio. He owns Café Fina, and together with his brother Sam has Domenico’s, just across the Old Fisherman’s Wharf.
We started our adventure upstairs at Café Fina at sunset. Looking out over the water, we saw a fellow paddling around on a stand-up board, accompanied by a canine friend. Dinner theater, so to speak, though what happened on the table in front of us more was far more dramatic.
First, something not on the regular menu, tomatoes with mozzarella and fresh anchovy fillets drizzled with vinaigrette over a bed of arugula ($9.95). The vegetables, like all of those served at the two restaurants, come from Dominic’s farm in Los Banos. Their flavor was rich with body and perfectly matched with the right amount of anchovy and cheese.
To cleanse the palate we next had prosciutto and cantaloupe ($9.95). The melon – sweeter than you could imagine but not soft – was also from their Los Banos farm.
Then arrived a large platter of mussels. These are Mediterranean mussels ($11.50), grown in Canada, and cooked to perfection in a sweet white wine tomato broth of nice piquancy with the addition of Thai chili.
A final dish at the Fina… calamari and peas, served in a different tomato sauce with a distinctive character, together with twisted pasta ($18.25). Nice touch. Normally, we were told, they use fusilli. They make all of their own pasta, but Dominic was trying something different.
Though we had eaten enough for at least a normal dinner, we were not through, by a long shot. We descended by the “back” stairs past a gallery of photographs of the famous who have delighted at the Mercurio touch over the past 30 years. We crossed over to the other side of the wharf and were seated at another window table at Dominic’s.
The first – or fifth – course was a most unusual soup: tomato and ginger ($4.95). Different and delicious.
Then we were served a plate with a “tower” of cold crab and shrimp meat ($22.95). Surrounded by slices of mango, tomato and avocado, the crab meat arrived atop cooked red peppers in a small pool of citrus vinaigrette sauce.
And then came another new concept. Served with a plate of steamed fresh vegetables and a sumptuous cauliflower-mashed potatoes with garlic – wonderfully simple and particularly ambrosial – came the piece de resistance: Monterey spot prawns prepared in three different styles ($36.95). One was a mesquite barbecue, a second was traditional scampi, and the third was in a marinara over linguini. All were decorated with roe. A triple treat.
You’d think after all of this food we would have said, “Thank you but no thank you” to even the idea of dessert, and instead asked to be rolled out to our cars, but then, after a few minutes, when the table was cleared, there appeared a selection of sweets that somehow created a renewed interest in consumption.
There were custard puffs ($7), light both inside and out, something you don’t often find. The recipe was passed along to Dominic from Jack Watson, who owned the Scotch Bakery in Pacific Grove. There was also a tasty chocolate espresso cheesecake ($6.95), a crème brulée that was carmelized not with a torch but with a heated propeller shaft ($7.50). (I’m not kidding.) But the best of the lot was a ricotta cheesecake ($7), light but not delicate, made with cheese especially imported from, of all places, Buffalo, New York. I will go back again, more than once, just for coffee and another slice of that impeccable dessert.
The evening ran four hours. Our staying power was aided by our limiting ourselves to a single bottle of Bernardus Chardonnay ($47) at the first table and Napa’s Burgess Cabernet ($65) at the second. At the end of the meal, after the dessert we had an exceptional Averna digestif ($7) from Sicily.
This was, of course, a custom evening. Then the light bulb went on. I told Dominic that he should offer this marvelous culinary trip to other discerning clients, and he has agreed.
For those of you who want to celebrate in a special way – graduation, engagement, the Cubs winning a pennant – the Café Fina-Dominico’s epicurean extravaganza could be just the right ticket. The Special Experience Café Fina/Domenico’s Dinner is available for $75 per person (plus tax and tip), minimum two people. And of course, the specifics change based on the season.
For those with normal appetites, you will find most everything described above on the regular menus, along with myriad other choices including pizzas and salads along with plenty of fresh fish and house-made pasta. Yes.