“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” So begins Steinbeck’s 1945 novel, set in a time when sardines created a boom economy in this fishing village; though these fish were once thought to be almost wiped out, this vast, silvered biomass has been making a comeback. Sardine fishing boats sway on anchor next to vessels that troll for tuna and hook-and-line for groundfish. This town has become epicenter of the sustainable fishing movement, with the venerable Monterey Bay Aquarium a main attraction, and their Seafood Watch a guide for consumers and chefs alike.
This past January, Schooners Coastal Kitchen and Bar opened to an enthusiastic public. Located in the Monterey Plaza Hotel, once the site of a cannery, the dining room opens to views of the bay where sea otters drift in kelp forests and rafts of sea lions roar at one another. This restaurant used to be the Duck Club Grill, but Chef James Waller overhauled it into a no-fuss seafood restaurant with local, simple ingredients and transparency that includes an open kitchen and the menu lists where and how the seafood entrees were caught.
Chef Waller got his start in seafood at fish houses on the Jersey Coast, where fishermen brought in their hauls of bluefish, clams, and scallops to feed the hungry beach-goers. When he started working in Monterey, he thought customers would insist on salmon year round, which means farmed, or Atlantic swordfish–seafood that’s not sustainable. “But I was wrong,” he explained. “People kept showing up with Seafood Watch cards or referencing their Smartphone apps from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They were totally onboard and appreciated the extra effort that goes into carefully sourcing seafood.”
Their appetizers, like angry prawns and plank-seared scallops, make visiting this beautiful bay that much better; fresh seasonal seafood like peanut crusted mahi-mahi in orange soy butter or California swordfish with beurre rouge, romanesco and grapefruit will win over any meat-and-potato landlubber, but the buzz here is due to their chowders and stews. They have six, including two vegan options—the roasted tomato and mushroom chowders. I tried the clam chowder and it was sublime. Each chowder is made to order, and so the wine, fresh herbs, rich cream and boiled potatoes keep their separate charms; the clams are from Tomales Bay and left their shells. These elements brought together make the chowder complex, comforting and sensual all at once.
Not yet on the menu were sardines. These are slowly coming into vogue with San Francisco Bay area chefs, as eating smaller fish on the food chain helps keep the food chains in the ocean balanced. As well, they have far less mercury and other toxins than large fish and are very high in omega 3’s, and so are a healthy choice. Chef Waller said that he prepared them when he got them in, but admitted that these were a tough sell. “The great thing about sardines and mackerel,” he explained, “Is that they can stand up to spices and acidity. I might use harissa with them, or citrus or roasted tomato. You won’t lose the flavor.” Sardine season, coming up in June, seems like a great reason to return to Schooner’s Coastal Kitchen.
May 18-20, The Monterey Bay Aquarium is having their annual “Cooking for Solutions” with over 70 chefs and 60 wineries. Chef Waller and Schooners Coastal Kitchen will be participating. You’ll find them at the Sustainable Seafood Challenge with Carla Hall and other celebrity chefs. Saturday, May 19, 5-7p.m. at the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa. ($150.00, available to Aquarium members only. Tax-deductible portion: $50.00)
Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa
400 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940
For reservations, call (831) 646-1706
Hours Of Operation
Breakfast: 6:30am-11:00am (12:00 noon weekends)
Dinner: 5:00pm-9:30pm (10:00pm weekends)
Bar service from 11:00am-11:00pm (12:00am weekends)