Long time readers of the blog know that Friand and I vacation quite a bit in Monterey. So much so, you may be wondering if we ever go anywhere else. I’m proud to say that yes we do… so long as it’s on our way to Cannery Row.
We decided that for our second anniversary celebration we would drive up Hwy 1, better known as “Pacific Coast Highway.” I’ve driven Route-1 up the Maine coast, so it’s only natural that I should experience the mirror image on the west coast. I was not disappointed!
Beginning in SoCal, there isn’t much to see, so we planned our trip to kinda rush through that part. 101 all the way to Cambria, when we would catch PCH and spend the night. We had a wonderful meal at a little bistro called “Black Cat Cafe”. You can read the review here.
After spending the night in Cambria, walking along the boardwalk and snapping some fantastic photos, we did something awesomely touristy and necessary: Hearst Castle. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the bus ride up the hill or the way we were herded into our tour groups and led around the bottom floor of the castle through the Grand Rooms. We took our time after the tour wandering the sprawling grounds, enjoying the views of the coast and imagining ourselves living in such opulence.
Then it was on to Monterey via Pacific Coast Highway. A mere 2 3/4 hours according to the GPS, was really closer to 3 1/2but ask us how much we minded…
The majority of our visits to Monterey mostly involve walking to our favorite wine tasting room Pierce Ranch Vineyards, drinking wine, sitting on our balcony, listening to the ocean, taking pictures of the ocean, and … really that’s about it. It’s all about unplugging, unwinding and going off the grid as much as we can. Of course, I can never stop taking pictures of the food, and I carry “The Valley Vegan” business cards with me everywhere, so I like to think the trail of food destruction continues up the coast.
But this visit to Monterey we decided that at the very least we would go to the aquarium.When I was a child, I had a series of National Geographic books, one of which featured the Monterey Bay Aquarium and showcased the whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling. Each time I’ve been there, I am always touched by seeing this scene from my childhood. Though we’ve been to Monterey several times in the last 3 years, we’ve only been to the aquarium once (in 2010), so it was time. Again, it was another welcome touristy day that we enjoyed literally on a different level. We timed our walkabout to end around the time we’d want to eat, hoping that at the very least, there’d be some sort of french fries at the cafe. Oh boy was I ever surprised when I found out there was going to be more than just side dishes available!
Cindy’s Waterfront & Cafe
There are three dining options at the aquarium, two of which are the brainchild of Chef Cindy Pawlcyn, and under the supervision of Executive Chef Jeff Rogers. Just look for the whale and bones to find “Cindy’s Waterfront” and the adjoining “Cafe” for a more casual, cafeteria style, experience.
We took our chances with the cafe as opposed to the restaurant. I’ve learned in my travels that there are very few restaurants that don’t rise to the vegan challenge. It’s time to take it to the streets and try a cafeteria. With the full expectation that I would have nothing to choose from except a bagel or a soggy cellophane wrappedsalad, we took our place in line and requested a menu. And not just any menu! We asked if there would be “anything vegan” available and the hostess quickly handed me a copy of the veggie/gluten free menu.
It’s unfortunate that the first item on the menu is salad considering what I just said in the above paragraph, but whatever, at least they offer fresh salads made to order. My interest, though, lie in the marquis menus hanging above the prepared foods stations which proclaimed “no dairy, no meat, no gluten” was no problem. There were plenty of choices, and I was headed straight for the burger station to get myself a Veggie Vegan Burger. My only concern was would it be cooked on the same surface. It was a chance I was about to take, and I’d know for sure if it shared a cooking surface in less than an hour depending on my stomach.
Great news: no problem! In fact, I’m not entirely sure where they cooked this burger – possibly in a pan, maybe the microwave, I have no clue because I never saw it touch the flattop. The nice thing about this burger is that “vegan” was in the title. There was no funny business: “mayo” or “cheese” or anything. Just a plain old veggie burger for me to dress any way I please. I don’t know my veggie burger brands very well as I don’t eat them (like ever) so maybe someone recognizes this patty because clearly this was not made on site. My guess is that it’s Morning Star?
I loved it, I have to admit. It was the perfect food to close out the fun day. Comfort food of the grandest sort, eaten at a table overlooking the bay.
There were actually quite a few options for vegetarians, and even vegan you could probably still enjoy a cheese-free panini if you asked for it. I was pleasantly surprised with the menu and the quality of the food. And, of course, even more happy that there was plain old yellow mustard on hand to really trash up my burger!!!
Schooner’s Coastal Kitchen & Bar
Our favorite place to stay on Cannery Row is hands down The Monterey Plaza Hotel. Right on the water, the constant sound ofsurf lapping at the rocks under your window is a visceral experience. No matter the time of year or temperature, we always leave our sliding door open so we can hear the water, the birds and the seals during the night.
And there’s only one place for us to eat while we’re there: Schooner’s Coastal Kitchen & Bar. It used to be two separate restaurants: the more formal Duck Club and the casual Schooner’s until they combined into one in the recent past. It was a good move to allow the chefs to focus on building just one cohesive menu as opposed to trying to juggle two places at once. And really, the diners have benefited from this as well.
Chefs James Waller and Chef Gonzalo Sanchez have evolved the menu over the years to be something truly spectacular now. Through the years we’ve been dining with them, we’ve seen the vegan menu go from experimental to now holding a permanent place on the menu. Just look for the little white diamond next to the vegetarian options to know whether or not you can request the dish to be made vegan.
Our first of three meals at Schooner’s began with the usual bread offering. What can I say? I heart bread with olive oil and balsamic. The real trick for me is to not fill up on bread before the meal even gets started. Self control? I don’t have it, so we went through 3 plates of bread over the course of our meal. Don’t worry, I used it to sop up the wonderful mushroom broth in my pasta.
Our server that first night, Nickolas, took great care of the vegan at the table and explained the menu options carefully. Knowing I was having trouble deciding between the stuffed Poblano chili and a pasta full of mushrooms, he suggested Chef Sanchez might make me the mushroom pasta in an appetizer size so that I could try both. Great idea! Bring on the food!!
Fresh pasta made on sight (sans huevos) sits on top of a mushroom medley that is still making my mouth water. I would have disturbed the beautiful plating had I uncovered the mushrooms for the photo, so I hope you forgive my choice. The beautifully dark and earthy mushroom broth was the result of soaking dried mushrooms and saving the deep brown broth. Perfect for dipping more of my bread!
On to the next course: Stuffed Poblano Chili. I know there are a lot of people out there who labor under the assumption that all peppers are hot and spicy, and the thought of just cutting into a pepper seems unbearable. True, if you were about to order a Stuffed Ghost Chili, you should have your head examined, but a roasted poblano is nothing but sweet and smoky. Trust me. And if you order it, and don’t like it, put it in a box & send it to me. I’ll finish it for you!!
It’s almost pathetic that we didn’t venture out of the hotel for our meals this time around, but after a meal like this one, why would I want to? The first time I was given a Chef Gonzo “stuffed” vegetable (back in 2010) the basic building blocks of his vegan offerings were already in place. I have to say, the “Tomato Jam” that he uses on the poblano is a brilliant original that I haven’t even experienced from the kitchen of a vegan chef. The other thing that Chef does well is that he doesn’t over season his vegan food. I have yet to go to a vegan restaurant and not get a salty meal. Maybe vegan chefs have learned to rely on salt too much, because Chef Gonzalo does not over salt and the balance is about as perfect as one could hope for.
Really, the second and third nights we dined at Schooner’s, I just revisited my favorites – a second version of the pasta was made with “extra” veggies. In fact, the “dinner” size portion of the pasta was so large, I could only eat half of it. Luckily we had a mini-fridge in the room, so we took it back with us to enjoy the next day for lunch. The surprising part was that we were given a set of flatware and linens to use in our room. Although I was told to leave them in the room when we checked out, I just couldn’t bear to not bring them back the next day.
The third and final night of our visit we were too hungry to wait until 6:00, so we wandered into the more casual side of Schooners and ordered mojitos. Turns out, the lunch menu is not as appealing in the late afternoon, so we quickly asked to be moved to the dining room when it opened. That’s where we were greeted by an old friend: Sarda! When you’re looking for a slow, relaxing dining night, there’s nothing like chatting with an familiar face and enjoying the quiet pace of the coastal life. And, might I add, some convincing arguments as to why living in Monterey might be a fantastic option forriffraff like us.
On this night, I couldn’t resist the asparagus stew. In fact, I was reminded by Chef Gonzo himself that he had made this soup for me on a previous visit. Again, the evolution of his food over the years we’ve been patronizing the plaza is obviousand I’m excited that I’ve been able to see the progression first hand! This soup has been thickened with pureed spinach – so no “fake” milk has been added. Ask for the fresh cracked pepper on top because it brings out the natural peppery flavor of the asparagus. Aaaaaaand…. don’t forget to save some bread so you can clean the bowl in the end.
There isn’t much to choose from on the dessert menu, but I’ve found that after these rich and satisfying meals, I’m not in the mood for much more than sorbet and coffee. Which, by the way, was served in a French Press and very reminiscent of the coffee I’d had in Mexico (minus the piloncillo and cinnamon).
Even if you don’t stay at The Monterey Plaza Hotel, you really should wander over for a dinner service and experience vegan food from a non-vegan chef who actually enjoys experimenting with vegetables and their rich palate of flavors. And, like I said, without the salt so many vegan chefs rely on.
Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa
400 Cannery Row
Monterey, CA 93940
Map & Directions, Schooners is located on the lower level of
the Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa.
One of the more fun parts of this visit were the birds that apparently called our balcony trellis home. Not only did they sit under the balcony, they were bold enough to get up under the chairs, and walk right into Schooner’s to check out the action!