Sunday, March 29, 2009

Foodbuzz 24,24,24: Passionfish - Eating Green in Monterey County

Our beautiful planet is groaning under the burden of supporting so many billions of people and our destructive practices. We slash rainforests, poison the oceans, pollute the air, and decimate entire species of animals – for a very long time without nary a thought to the implications those actions may one day have. We are now beginning to feel the effects of our callow disregard. The blinders of ignorance and indifference are slowly being shed, and awareness of the impact our actions have on the environment is growing quickly.

I doubt at this point there is a single soul in the developed world that hasn’t heard of the “green” movement. We’re greening light bulbs, house paint, carpet, and fabrics. We’re searching for alternative fuel sources (ethanol, biodiesel), eco-friendly energy (wind, solar, and hydro), and novel renewable resources (bamboo, corn, hemp). There seems to be nothing bypassed by the crusade of environmentalism, an admirable movement to be sure, and that includes the foods we eat, the wines we drink, and the places we frequent to procure them.

For those of us who dedicate a significant portion of our lives to food – the quest to find new ingredients and methods of preparing them, different breeds or varietals, heirloom this and artisanal that – we are equally dedicated to pursuing our passion in a manner that will not only satisfy our ever-longing palates, but will also sustain the planet for future generations. After all, we that love food often enjoy nothing more than sharing it with someone we care about – if we don’t preserve the planet we have, before long there won’t be anyone to share it with.

The greening of restaurants is just starting to pick up momentum, with little bistros and gastropubs popping up in their chic, planned neighborhoods – touting their eco-consciousness like it’s a banner of coolness. As much as I appreciate the push towards environmentally friendly practices, and no matter the motivation as long as it’s done properly, it seems that the environmental movement has picked up an air of pretentiousness as it’s grown.

Businesses are promoting themselves as eco-friendly to appeal to the consumers that think saving the planet is “the cool thing to do.” And while it most definitely is the cool thing to do, the arrogance of it can sometimes be overwhelming. It seems that the old refrain of reduce, reuse, recycle has turned into a popularity contest. But in the end, I do believe that most often the ends do justify the means. If you’re a business that’s reducing emissions and attempting to utilize more eco-friendly practices just because you think it’s going to increase your bottom-line or make your customers think you’re, “like, way hip, yo” then fine. Good for you. Save the planet because it makes you money or gets people to think you’re awesome. Whatever – just do it.

I do like the virtue behind motivations though. I much prefer to patronize business that don’t tout their sustainability as the hip new trend, but rather truly believe that it is the right thing to do. We live because of this planet, so we must keep constant vigil to ensure that she is healthy. Not because it’s trendy, but because we need her, alive and well, for all the generations that follow us.

Passionfish Restaurant in Pacific Grove, CA is one of these restaurants. Chef Ted Walter and his wife Cindy own and operate Passionfish in sleepy Pacific Grove, a small town on the Monterey Peninsula. Chef Walter is a classically trained French chef who traveled and cooked throughout France before returning to the United States. He has cooked in Lake Tahoe, New York and Carmel, establishing a prestigious reputation along the way. His exquisite cuisine has won the restaurant great attention. Passionfish holds a Zagat rating, has been awarded Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence every year since 1998, and was named to the California Restaurant Association’s Hall of Fame.

Cindy Walter is active in the Monterey Bay community, raising awareness of harmful fishing practices and encouraging education in sustainable seafood. She is Vice President of the Monterey Chapter of the California Restaurant Association, is a member of the Women’s Chefs and Restaurateurs, and the Seafood Choice Alliance.

Although it wasn’t originally something they had planned on doing, Passionfish became Monterey County’s first official green restaurant, and is currently the only certified green restaurant listed on Monterey Bay Area Green Business Program’s web site. The criteria for achieving this title include “reducing water consumption, retrofitting lights and other equipment to conserve energy, reducing solid waste going to landfill by minimizing waste and recycling, and implementing practices that reduce pollution and protect worker safety.”

The requirements for a restaurant to become green are numerous and include the following:

• Reasonable effort must be made to promote the use of local, organic produce.
• Consult with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch advisory to adhere to sustainable seafood sources
• Conscientious maintenance of kitchen equipment to prevent grease from entering the sewers
• Reduce use of water in cleaning, e.g. no hosing down sidewalks, carpets, etc.
• Reduce use of toxic cleaning chemicals
• Encourage employees to carpool or take alternative transportation
• Reduce air pollution in at least two additional ways, e.g. streamlining vendor deliveries, patronizing vendors closest to business, encourage bicycling to work
• If there are more than 5 employees, gas and electricity usage statistics must be posted for employee viewing
• Upgrade at least ten electrical fixtures to reduce energy consumption, e.g. light bulbs, efficient HVAC, water conserving dishwasher, insulate hot water pipes, etc.
• Thermostats must be set at 76 F for cooling and 68 F for heating
• Reduce use of paper in at least 5 different ways, including reducing amount of paper mail that is sent to the restaurant
• Reuse or recycle as many materials as possible
• At least 3 paper products used in the restaurant must be recycled
• All water leaks must be repaired immediately and low-flow aerators must be installed to reduce water use
• Ensure that all landscaping irrigation devices are in working order at all times

This is just a brief overview of the many requirements for achieving green status in Monterey County – a stark contrast to the many restaurants I’ve worked in and patronized over the years. Most of the restaurants I worked in did none of these things to encourage an environmentally friendly and sustainable work atmosphere. Only one took efforts to recycle paper products and compost food waste. It’s actually rather shocking how wasteful most restaurants are.

Thankfully, not so with Passionfish. They’ve made these efforts and more, becoming a beacon of sustainability in the community. They frequently partner with Monterey Bay Aquarium in the annual Cooking for Solutions event. They also encouraged the aquarium’s Seafood Watch program to establish a program for restaurants, to increase awareness of sustainable seafood.

To learn more about the motivation’s behind the Walters’ approach to sustainable seafood, I contacted Cindy Walter with some questions about their inspiration and methodology at Passionfish.

Passionfish was the first "green" restaurant in Monterey County, what motivated you to pioneer such an effort?

"This wasn't something we intended to do. I have severe asthma and food
allergies. I have a really difficult time with heavy perfume, and many
cleaning chemicals. We began using vinegar for cleaning and I was
checking the labels on everything we used. When our hot water heater
quit we switched to an on demand hot water heater, which is much better for the environment and energy consumption. We needed new lights and worked to find lights that consumed the least amount of energy. When we painted, I looked for low VOC paints. And from day one we recycled as much as we could and re-used paper, printing on front and back for internal stuff. The Monterey Health Department created the Green Business Program and I applied. They were helpful by providing some more ideas for recycling and providing containers around the restaurant to help the staff. They have also been a go-between for the Waste company and I. I am also on the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and as I became more aware of the issues of water quality and the effects to our watershed, I became more diligent about the cleaning products we used."

What steps have been taken specifically to ensure that Passionfish is a sustainable, environmentally aware restaurant?

"All of the above, and our fish is purchased mostly from fishermen who are using traps or rod & reels. We do purchase from the Alaskan fisheries quite a bit, which are managed sustainably and we also purchase as much as we can from our local farmers who frequent the farmers markets. Our meats are from 'natural' ranchers, and that has taken a large amount of effort. Probably the hardest thing to do is source sustainable seafood."

Are there any foods or wines that are strictly forbidden at Passionfish and why?

"Seafood that is harvested by pelagic long lines, trawlers or gill nets(Tuna, Swordfish) and finfish farmed in the ocean. White Zinfandel :) The fish is obvious why we forbid it. Our oceans are in deep trouble, and 90% of the pelagic species have been removed. Long lines and gillnets are indiscriminate and trawlers are probably THE most destructive for of fishing created. Not only is it indiscriminate but it devastates the habitat. The wine? Well I guess we are just snobs about that. It’s the only wine I could think of that we would never even bring in or probably choose to taste. The staff loves true Rose but it’s a really tough sell."

(Two cheers for keeping White Zin off the menu!)

Are there any foods or wines that should be prominently featured in this article to promote awareness of sustainable seafood?

"Our local spot prawns are harvested by a fisherman in his 80's. He weaves the traps out of bamboo, and creates them so that the smaller, younger prawns can crawl out, therefore protecting the nursery. We love this little creature, and we are so thankful for a fisherman who has worked to sustain his harvest all these years. We also have sustainably farmed fish, such as Tilapia and Sturgeon. Many guests have never tasted Sturgeon and they are thrilled when they do. When you read our wine list you will notice some have this funny little emblem by them. We try hard to recognize wineries that are working to be sustainable. Perhaps they are using integrated pest management in the vineyard, or biofuels in their vehicles. Some are working hard to repair creeks that flow through their property, attracting trout, and steelheads back to the natural habitat. They are using natural fertilizers instead of nitrogen based ones. Those are the wineries that we want to bring attention to."

The Menu for the Evening

We enjoyed a wide variety of dishes at Passionfish, each unique and meticulously prepared.

To start off I ordered a half bottle of the 2006 Tablas Creek Vineyard Esprit de Beaucastel.

It was perfectly dry with hints of cherry and nutmeg - it paired superbly with the meal. It scored a 93 in Wine Spectator and I wholeheartedly agree with their decision. Tablas Creek Vineyard is entirely organic and received their certification in 2003. If they keep producing wine such as this, they'll have few problems getting more vineyards to jump on the organic bandwagon.

Our first course started with a Braised Kurobuta Pork Belly with Moroccan Carrots and Charmoula

Kurobuta is essentially Japanese raised Berkshire hogs - exquisitely tasty Japanese raised Berkshire hogs. The marbling is delicate and the short muscle fibers translate into an extraordinarily tender piece of meat. This pork belly was sourced from Snake River Farm in Idaho and was cooked to perfection. The fat was silky smooth, just melting on the tongue. Although I wasn't initially impressed with the Moroccan carrots, by the end of the dish I realized that it just wouldn't be complete without their tangy zing to add another layer of flavor.

Mussels steamed in a Spicy Tomato-Cilantro Broth

Prince Edward Island mussels in a perfectly seasoned broth of tomatoes and cilantro, with just the right amount of spicy kick to grab your attention. I think it would truly be a crime against all things good and holy to not sop up that broth with the amazing crusty bread they serve.

I had to have them taken away so I wouldn't dip the entire loaf of bread in the broth and ruin my appetite.

Grilled Shrimp in a Spicy Vietnamese Sauce with Lemongrass Slaw

These shrimp were grilled perfectly to retain the texture of the shrimp. Too often shrimp are cooked until they're rubber, but these were just barely opaque. The sauce was a little too spicy for my tastes, but the lemongrass slaw cooled it down perfectly. The shoots added an earthy coolness to help quench the heat, pairing perfectly with the daikon and red cabbage.

We then moved on to a meat course, of Kurobuta Pork Shank braised in Dark Beer with Apple Mustard and Baked Penne Pasta

The shank was braised to perfection and the greens that accompanied it made an ideal combination of flavors. I wasn't very impressed with the apple mustard, I thought it was much too sweet. The baked penne pasta was skillfully cooked, but disappointingly bland. Even with those minor detractions the shank was superb, and I'd definitely order it again. Perhaps without the apple mustard...

For a poultry course we enjoyed the Duck Confit with a Honey Reduction, Chipotle Potato Cake and Braised Fennel

I think this was one of my husband's favorite dishes - we're both huge fans of duck. The flavor was unparalleled, they really know what they're doing when it comes to French technique. The chipotle potato cake was delicious, just a hint of spice and perfectly creamy. My husband enjoyed the braised fennel and honey reduction with the legs, but they were a little too sweet for my tastes - though that's a matter of personal preference, they were immaculately prepared.

Before stating on the seafood I ordered a white wine to accompany it. Our server, Sara, recommended a 2007 Fumé Blanc from Grgich Hills Estate in Napa.

She was spot on (as she was about everything) - this wine went beautifully with everything. It was fruity with tropical notes, but still pleasingly dry - it was a little minerally too, but not overpoweringly so.

Grgich Hills Estate is certified organic and Biodynamic and the winery is solar powered.

For fish we decided to go with the Sturgeon with Coconut Rice, Sweet Potato Fritter, and Red Curry Vinaigrette

I have to say, very unfortunately, that this was the only thing we tried at Passionfish that I didn't like. The sturgeon was splendidly cooked and the sweet potato fritter was to die for, but the coconut rice was a little gummy (even for sticky rice) and the red curry vinaigrette was not very pleasant. I hate giving the thumbs down to any dish, especially at a place like Passionfish, but had I been dining here and this was the only thing I ordered I would be disappointed. The red curry vinaigrette was so overpowering, spicy, and tangy that it masked the flavors of everything it touched. The sturgeon, while a firm fish, is delicately flavored, so too was the coconut rice. The red curry vinaigrette just didn't suit, in my opinion.

My husband enjoyed it, after his tongue accustomed to the strong flavors. After a few bites to try everything I couldn't try it again - though I might give a limb to get the secret of that fritter.

Grilled Monterey Bay Spot Prawns with a Linguine-Cauliflower-Bacon Custard and Lemon Brown Butter

These were some of the most amazing things I've seen. They're enormous - practically the size of a small lobster without the claws. I had no idea we had anything so beautiful and tasty right in our bay - almost makes me want to go for a swim.

The spot prawns have the most exquisite flavor - like a cross between lobster and prawn. They were sweet and tender, perfectly cooked and absolutely the highlight of the meal. They were a bit messy, I had to break them down myself to get at the delicious flesh, but it was oh so very worth it.

When I picked one up I discovered a lovely surprise, the chef had packed the cavity with the roe.

The roe was delicious, tiny and tender - with a delightful little pop as they crushed between the teeth. They had the most splendid flavor of the sea, with just a little bit of saltiness. I'd take these over salmon roe any day of the week!

I was very glad that I saved these for last. Unfortunately our server told us the season is coming to a close for spot prawns so I probably won't get to order them again (we're leaving Monterey this summer), but I am so happy I was able to try this regional treat at least once. I refrained from sucking the heads, though - that's one thing I cannot stomach.

I have to admit the lemon browned butter is a tad superfluous. It covers up the flavor of the prawn a little too much.

To finish we moved onto dessert. My husband had the Mint and Espresso Mud Pie with Chocolate Sauce and Walnuts

He enjoyed it quite thoroughly, devouring the whole thing in a surprisingly short time. I tried it, but I'm not a huge chocolate fan so it didn't exactly ring my trolley.

I had the Grapefruit Panna Cotta with Grapefruit and Vanilla Citrus Sauce

It was exquisite. Light, refreshing, perfectly creamy. It was set just right and topped with a candied kumquat peel. It was silky smooth with just the right amount of tang to it. The only improvement may have been taking the grapefruit juice through a chinoise before setting the panna cotta to improve the texture, but even so I'd order a dozen of these and stuff myself silly.

All in all Passionfish is a gem - I wish that I had discovered it much sooner. They have taken great pains to not only explore the bounty of the earth with their outstanding menu, but also to preserve that bounty, so that others may benefit from it as well. It is a high standard for other restaurants who wish to emulate them, not only in their environmental practices, but also in their quality as a restaurant. The food is amazing, the service impeccable. I cannot wait to visit again soon.

Thank you to Foodbuzz, for giving me the opportunity to do this. Thank you to Cindy Walter, for letting me pick your brain over Passionfish's origins and intentions.


katie said...

Wow look at you! What a feast-I am absolutely green with envy. Beautiful description and photos, now I only wish I didn't live so far away.

A Feast for the Eyes said...

I work about 2 minute's drive from this restaurant. I love that place! It's a high priced ticket for me to eat there, but I've always had a wonderful experience. I cannot resist their sweet potato fries...crunch, oh so good.

It's embarrassing, but I enjoy wine but I'm not that wine savvy. I guess I'm a beer kinda gal-- Pilsner, important...never out of a bottle or can. The last time we ate at Passion Fish, we felt so intimidated by all the wine lovers. I whispered to the server if I could have a beer. I swear, I felt like all the foodie were staring at me like I was... well, out of place! When I dine with my friend, who is a distinguished Somelier, she leads the way. She loves their wine menu.

Thanks for such great pictures.

Your Neighbor on the Monterey Peninsula

Sweet Bird said...

Katie, you would've love it!

Debby, don't feel alone - I'm often adrift in the sea of wine options too. I've really only been in to wine for about the last 4 years (that whole legal drinking age thing), but I've been very blessed to have people close to me that are very knowledgeable about wine. I think beer is often under appreciated - I'm quite enjoying the growing movement of pairing beer with foods.

I have to admit I'd probably opt for a cold Newcastle on a hot day over wine...

[eatingclub] vancouver || js said...

Oh my, the food looks delicious! I love how gorgeous those spot prawns are!

Sweet Bird's MiL said...

Wow. I should be working this morning, but I had to sign on to your blog to read about the Passionfish experience. Your writing and photos make me feel like I was there enjoying it with you. YUM. Maybe a repeat performance for us all in July?

Kristin @ Going Country said...

HA! Pork belly! Looks like they removed the thickest layer of fat on the top, though . . .

Nate-n-Annie said...

Hello, fellow "24'er".

Congratulations on being selected to do a 24, 24, 24 event. What an awe inspiring dinner! You sure went all out.

Those spot prawns are beautiful! The Grapefruit Panna Cotta has me drooling. And the Fume Blanc - top notch!

Sweet Bird said...

js - You'd love those prawns if I've gathered anything from your tastes from your blog. They were absolutely divine.

MiL - I think I can handle a repeat visit - dining with you two is always a blast!

Kristin - It's actually been flipped over so the meat is on top and the fat is on the bottom on the top portion there. I have an unhealthy obsession with pork belly - I can't resist getting it when I see it. The way some women are with chocolate, I am with smoked pork.

Nate and Annie - I'll have to check yours out too! That grapefruit panna cotta was the stuff dreams are made of. I'm going to have to order some gelatin sheets soon so I can recreate it!

The Duo Dishes said...

Your photos are amazing. The prawn heads are frightening! Nice 24 post. :)

Cakebrain said...

All the food looks positively amazing!

Whitney said...

Hey Robin! Wow what a detailed review! It was so fun to read though, you have a real talented for writing! Your so funny! Genn told me to go on and read this I am glad I did...too bad I live a little far to go to this restaurant, it looks so good!

Selba said...

The presentation of the food looks so wonderful.

Guenevere said...

Awesome post, Great review, Enjoyed reading your words. Next time I go home to Monterey I will certainly try this place.


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