The Monterey County Herald
Longtime Wharf favorite mixes traditional favorites with a few twists
When tourism wanes, Fisherman’s Wharf shivers on its timbers, casting its economic nets toward locals with promises of savory seafood at bargain prices, free parking and a harborside, sea lion serenade. It’s been a tough sell for this historic pier, which throughout its history has been the focus of Monterey’s economic structure, whether off-loading bales of Chinese silks, barrels of Spanish wine or tons of wriggling sardines.
Locals, it seems, don’t care much for chowder hawkers, schlock shops and dining alongside Brad from Omaha. But the Wharf is changing, and people like Kevin Phillips, managing partner for Abalonetti, are leading the way. “We love our locals,” said Phillips, a longtime foot soldier for John Pisto, who owned Abalonetti and Domenico’s for decades before unloading them in 2007. Restaurateur Jim Gilbert purchased Abalonetti in 2007 and cut Phillips (general manager for Pisto’s restaurant group) into the deal last year.
Now, all the changes Phillips once imagined for Abalonetti are coming to fruition. The last real menu alteration occurred in 1996, so Phillips started there, keeping the classics, such as Marty’s Special (an eggplant/calamari dish named after original owner Marty Liguori), the namesake abalone and its modern-day calling card, calamari.
Phillips knew he couldn’t mess with the squid; people come from all over the world for Abalonetti preparations — both tubes and cutlets (the restaurant orders 900 pounds a week, cleaned and prepared in house).
But how about adding a few twists? Phillips loves Buffalo wings, that spicy, bar-friendly finger food. So he fashioned a recipe for fried calamari dipped in hot sauce, and his Buffalo calamari is all the rage. The kitchen also fires up a garlic calamari, inspired, Phillips said, by the Gordon Biersch garlic fries served at ballparks. They also serve an abalone sandwich for $16.95, a price unheard of in these parts. “No one knows how I do it,” Phillips said.
As for his neighbors, Phillips points to the free parking for county residents (just show your ID) and his unprecedented locals menu (three courses, $12.95, seven days a week). “No one else does that,” he said. Add a happy hour that never ends (with $2.99 drinks) and a new glass-walled patio with westward views of the water and rec trail, and the changes should entice inquiring minds.
There are times, most notably after a cold Pacifico on a hot day, when I wax poetic about the perfect piece of cooked fish. It’s not adorned with batter or encrusted with nuts or poached for an hour in olive oil or smothered in cream sauce. It’s caught that day, seasoned simply and grilled over an open fire with a splash of citrus for good measure.
We all want to taste the fish, I would hope. Over the years, many local places, Wharf restaurants among them, have spent far too much time trying to dress up their fish.
So, as I sit next to the window here, the idyllic harbor view to my right, I fully expect the kitchen at Abalonetti to ruin the halibut and prawns I had just ordered. I steady myself with a glass of Lockwood sauvignon blanc ($21 bottle) and happily munch on the novel Buffalo calamari, a dish that is sure to have every local Sicilian red-faced and steaming.
It’s tasty, and I give it major points for creativity, yet I had hoped for more of a crispy exterior. They have a deft touch with squid here, though. No matter the preparation, it’s always sweet and tender (the squid salad in the antipasto plate is a revelation, and should be immediately copied by competitors).
You could call the Buffalo calamari a gimmick (albeit a tasty one), but on the whole the new and improved Abalonetti strays from such devices. Witness the fresh grilled vegetables such as fennel bulbs and garlic heads; fresh-caught squid cleaned out back by two employees; nearby farmed abalone, served in financially painless portions; a caring staff, many of whom have spend 15-20 years working here.
My entrée arrives, and I smile at the sear marks on the unadorned halibut fillet in a shallow pool of pinkish tomato coulis, three plump, butterflied prawns nestled next to it. Rounding out the plate is a simple tomato crudo, and a tender-crisp vegetable medley of green beans, peeled squash, carrots and broccoli. Add to this a bottomless bread basket (the bread here is stellar) and my experience makes me want to help coax locals here, confident that it probably isn’t what they imagine.
In all honesty, until last weekend, I’d enjoyed only one memorable meal on the Wharf (Old Fisherman’s Grotto, 2007). Restaurants here don’t have to hold themselves to a standard because their audience is captive — and often, frankly, ignorant. Tourists are absolutely charmed by the idea of these quaint places, where clam chowder samples are offered out front, and the day’s catch is prominently displayed over ice. Locals try to warn them that they will pay dearly for exceedingly mundane food. But ignorance is bliss, and they leave feeling they’ve had the quintessential Monterey experience.
Abalonetti is a pleasant surprise, which makes me feel a little like a tourist. I can’t help liking that rustic seaside crab shack ambience with its open wood-beamed ceilings, hardwood flooring and windows flooding the dining room with natural light. And selections are fairly moderately priced, except for the abalone (the entrée is $49 at market price today).
So, I arrive with a preconceived notion, but I’m quite pleasantly surprised. I’m struck by some original ideas — the antipasto bar, for instance. It’s simple and elegant and representative of the way all good Italian meals begin. The chef makes the selections, which may include grilled fennel bulb, marinated mushrooms and artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, grilled eggplant, roasted garlic, garlic spinach, kalamata olives and feta cheese, all nicely and thoughtfully prepared ($9.95 for a half-order, $13.95 for a full order). Also, that abalone sandwich is unique; I’ve never seen this offered anywhere.
I’m a pushover for crab Louie, and Abalonetti’s version doesn’t disappoint. Of course, the imperative is lots and lots of delicate, sweet Dungeness crabmeat, and this plate is absolutely heaped with it, including big satisfying chunks of leg meat. Somewhere underneath are nice, fresh field greens, and elegant garnishes of slender green beans; red, ripe, Roma tomato wedges; olives; hardboiled eggs and that hallmark dressing, served on the side (a bit pricey at $19.95; also available as a combination with shrimp).
So, my blanket aversion to all-things-Wharf is happily blown with this visit. Well, and people watching is always worth the trip. Also, we sometimes get to go to the gelato place, which I heartily recommend.
Mike Hale and Melissa Snyder approach their reviews from a couple’s perspective. All visits are made anonymously.