Last June, towards the end of my stay in Carmel, a new and very interesting coffee shop in Monterey found me on Instagram. It looked really good, like it had true potential and, in my constant search for fabulous cappuccinos, I put it on my short list of “must explore before leaving”. Later that day, I happened to see photos of amazing seafood dishes from a new restaurant in Monterey and, after keeping it at bay for several months, my craving for a lobster roll reignited. So I checked the website. As it turned out, both places were located at Fisherman’s Wharf.
I cleared my to-do list for the next morning and inked in: go to Fisherman’s Wharf! And so I did.
Built in 1845 to satisfy the berthing needs of passenger and freight ships, Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf has been part of California’s history. Over the years it has seen changes, expansions and renovations, but it wasn’t until after WWII, after the sardines began to disappear, that the Wharf was converted to a tourist-oriented operation.
Today, Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf is a colorful cornucopia of seafood restaurants, various shops, especially candy shops, and even a theater.
Image below: one of the historical houses of Monterey. This one sits in between the access to the Wharf and the parking lot. There are several others set in various locations around the city. Monterey served as the capital of California from its onset in 1770 until 1822, when the Spanish lost control of California to Mexico.
Once I arrived, I remembered having been there already several years ago, but I must admit that the memories tend to overlap with those of its cousin, the Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Though laid out differently, the two Wharfs are similar in quaintness, colors and affluence of tourists, not to mention the abundance of seafood.
It was just past eleven am, and after taking a few photos, I found the restaurant I had been looking for and walked in, visions of lobster rolls dancing in my head. Scales, a seafood and steak restaurant like it says on the sign, is the most recent development by the family who owns The Fish Hopper, and the classic Old Fisherman’s Grotto.
I am always a little skeptic about large, multi-restaurant situations, because unless the owner is a great chef (like Nobu, just to name one off the top of my head) who has a vested interest in establishing the same degree of quality control in each of his/her restaurants, and who personally hires and works with his/her executive chefs, who themselves have a vested interest and are dedicated to their work, there is no guarantee of quality throughout, nor of the true talent and care that an owning chef would provide. This to give you a glimpse into my restaurant research and selection process.
As you can see, Scales restaurant is set front and center, and is then complemented by its own gift shop, cafe’ & deli, and Scales on the Go.
It was still on the early end of lunch hour when I arrived, so I had the opportunity to take photos before the hustle and bustle. The restaurant is new and spacious, with a lovely view over the Marina, which I thoroughly enjoyed from my table by the window.
I already knew what my selection would be, but I still browsed through the rest of the menu, especially the appetizer section, which is my favorite. Here, the Lobster Mac ‘n’ Cheese ($16) caught my eye. In Italy the combination of seafood/fish and cheese is a big no-no. But I had heard of this way of making the comfort classic and was curious. All the photos I had seen of their dishes were so glorious they had built up my expectations, so I thought I would order a portion, followed by the Lobster Roll ($22) of course. The very kind and friendly server asked me if I wanted my lobster roll with a side of fries or coleslaw. “A little bit of both?” I asked, “If the kitchen does not scream at you.” I hastened to add when I saw his face. I knew he wanted to make me happy, but he was not sure how the kitchen would react.
A sourdough roll with some butter arrived, though I ignored that completely as i was looking forward to my order. Then the Lobster Mac ‘n’ Cheese arrived. Yes, it was as dismal as it looks. The pasta was of no particular quality and undercooked. No, it was not al dente, it was undercooked. There was hardly any lobster (I searched for it), and the whole thing had clearly been heated in the microwave, which does not only result in a scalding hot dish that remains hot till kingdom come, but it is also a different kind of hot, one that I do not care for, as I know the molecules of the food have been altered in a way that is not healthy for the body to absorb. Unfortunately, I encounter this microwave problem regularly, and I can always tell when something was heated with microwaves. I would not have minded the yellow cheese (pleeze! yellow cheese?) and the lack of a crusty top so much if the other elements had been done with care and quality. I nibbled through it, found the couple of lobster bits that were in there, then left the rest.
The Lobster Mac ‘n’ Cheese is no longer on the menu, but the Crab Mac ‘n’ Cheese is. I hope they are doing a better job with it, but I won’t be the one testing it out.
I will, however, go back for more Lobster Roll, which was fresh, delicious, and abundant. So much so that I took one of the two rolls to go. And, as you can see, I even got the perfect combination of half coleslaw and half fries. I may not have gotten that had it been a crowded moment, but I was the first one in, so the kitchen kindly accommodated my request. Lobster roll: definitely recommended. And here is another close up of it for your drooling pleasure.
The other items I had been strongly tempted by, but could not possibly order as my stomach could not have handled it, were the Crab Louie Stack ($23), and the Seafood Paella ($26). I did see the Crab Louie Stack go by and land on another table, and it looked as glorious as I expected. There were many other choices, of course, all the classics of an American seafood & steak restaurant. You can find a full menu on the Scales website.
Before we move on to dessert, I have to acknowledge that, like its companion restaurants, Scales participates in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch Program”, serving only sustainable seafood.
Although for me the meat section of a menu does not exist, I need to be fair to my carnivores friends and let you know that Scales only serves certified Angus Beef. You will find a 14-oz. New York Center Cut ($39), a Surf and Turf with a 5-oz Filet Mignon and a 6-oz. Lobster Tail ($44), and a 12-oz. Maple Soy Skirt Steak ($30) on the lunch menu, with more items featured on the dinner one.
The dessert menu featured all the classics: cheesecakes, chocolate lava cake, creme brûlée et all. All the portions on view were rather abundant, and could be easily shared. I chose the tiramisú, both because it looked like the smallest and also as a test. The flavors were quite good, but the texture of the creamy part was off. It either had whipping cream with a lot of stabilizer in it, or some gelatin to hold it up in shape for the perfect slice. (Real Italian) Tiramisú has no whipping cream: it is made with egg yolks whipped with sugar, to which fresh mascarpone cheese is added, and then the whipped egg whites (original recipe here). I would call this a Tiramisú Cake, and as such it was quite enjoyable.
By then I was stuffed and ready to walk around some more. I collected my precious leftover lobster roll to go and headed out. Thank you Scomas, see you again soon for some more lobster roll!
And here (above) is the famous Old Fisherman’s Grotto. I know I have eaten here at some point in the past, though it was several years ago.
The Wharf is not just a place to shop and eat. You can actually board a boat here and go whale watching, sailing or fishing.
And then, amidst the chowders, seafood pastas, shrimp cocktails, colorful candy and just as colorful tourists, is a little oasis called Water + Leaves that, besides providing some seriously good lattes and teas, is also a moment of rest from the sensory overwhelm happening outside. I had arrived at my second “go-to” spot on my list for that day. It was infatuation at first sight, and love at first sip.
In this spacious, sleek and colorful coffee shop with a view of the water at the other end you will find espressos, lattes and cappuccinos the way Italians intend them, but also glorious teas infused with true artistry through special brewing equipment by Alphadominque (I had to write that name down). Steampunk anyone?
On the cold end of the spectrum, besides iced tea that is, you will also find freshly pressed juices and interesting smoothies. Healthy snacks and lovely pastries supplied by the popular Parker Lusseau bakery in Monterey complement the drinks, and irresistible local honey in varieties like sage, blackberry, raspberry and even poison oak will sweeten them if you like. Who knew about poison oak honey!? I had to buy a jar.
To make all of the above even better, everything at Water + Leaves is organic and local. Except for the espresso machine, of course, which blessedly hails from Italy and costs more than an all inclusive vacation to Hawai’i for five people: a stunning Ferrari-yellow Strada model by La Marzocco. I just knew my latte would be fabulous! And so it was: the best I had since arriving in Carmel three weeks before.
That was all I had room for after my lunch at Scales, but I will soon be going back for a regular breakfast, then another time for some amazing tea, and another time for more honey, maybe sage this time, and again for….
I must admit Fisherman’s Wharf was the last place where I thought I would find a coffee shop like this. You can’t exactly park nearby and hop in for your morning latte, as it is quite a walk from the main road, making this a stop you need to plan for. But I have since found out that the proprietor, such Joe Delecce is also the long-time owner of the jewelry shop next door, and this is the love child of his son’s passion for coffee, aided and abetted by the consulting talents of Denis Boaro, who is also behind other projects in the area, including a favorite of mine: Basil Restaurant in Carmel.
And Fisherman’s Wharf is indeed a popular place. Water + Leaves has only been open a few months, but things are working out well, and I am happy to say that their limited days of operation are now extended to a full week (9a-5p M-W; 9a-8p Th-Sun).
My thoroughly enjoyed visit to Water + Leaves concluded my tour of Fisherman’s Wharf. When I walked out I realized I was truly at the end of the pier, which is where you will find public restrooms (a necessity for all), and Big Fish Grill. I am just now noticing that you can go up the stairs and enjoy a view of the bay from the roof of the building. It is always good to leave something for another time, I suppose. And it is another excuse to go back.
#1 Old Fisherman’s Wharf – Monterey, Ca 93940 | website
SCALES SEAFOOD & STEAK RESTAURANT
30 Fisherman’s Wharf #1 – Monterey, Ca 93940 | website
95 Fisherman’s Wharf #1 – Monterey, Ca 93940 | website
And if you are in the Monterey/Carmel area, you might also enjoy these other chapters in The Carmel Journals: