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Best local seafood restaurant: Monterey Bay Fish Grotto

It was a wet, black night. The perfect night for ... fish!

Instead of plunging into the inky depths of Neptune, we made an ascent -- to the Monterey Bay Fish Grotto. We traversed that famous portal to the great beyond, open only once every seventh year -- i.e., McArdle Roadway -- to Pittsburgh's perch of luxury on Mount Washington.

Higher still sits the Monterey Bay Fish Grotto, atop a 12-story building with a panoramic view. This airy vista is contrasted with the restaurant's earthy interior, which is literally comprised of coal-covered walls -- hence, "grotto" -- a tribute to Western Pennsylvania's great resource, as well as to Mount Washington (née Coal Hill) itself. Even for a Monday evening, the place was busy with big-spending business parties. One all-male group even included a cadre of Japanese businessmen, who seemed to be discussing, of all things, the SAT.

An upscale seafood restaurant is the most decadent kind of dining imaginable to me -- at least without going so far as to eat the weird little animals the French are always consuming. With seafood, you're mostly eating wild things, a primal experience in itself, compared to boring cow, pig and chicken.

Yet the most remarkable part of a good seafood restaurant is the vast variety of edible creatures available to you, many from exotic parts of the world like Hawaii, Chile and the Florida Keys, with others from homey spots like Baltimore and the Great Lakes. Truly, it's as if you could eat your way through the waters of the world. And, with at least 17 varieties of fish in the daily catch (flown in, to be precise), the Monterey Bay Fish Grotto is ready to assist.

It's not just my craving: Fish has long been one of the most suggestive of foods, evoking the divine, virility, desire, fertility, health and prosperity, according to Ellen and Michael Albertson in Temptations: Igniting the Pleasure and Power of Aphrodisiacs. For instance, Chinese tradition gives a pair of fish to newlyweds, while in ancient Ireland, newlyweds were given salmon and a month's worth of mead (mead, made of honey, led to the term "honeymoon"). Casanova: also a fish-eater.

The most delightfully fishy part of our meal was an off-the-menu appetizer our waiter recommended. First on the platter were several charming shrimp, dusted with Cajun seasoning -- Cajun and Caribbean treatments seem to be as popular as traditional ones at Monterey Bay -- and offered up with a sweet marmalade sauce. Unlike in some international aphrodisiac dishes where they're served live and wriggling, ours were fully cooked but good all the same. Next was a perfect -- soft and meaty -- crabcake, which is Monterey Bay's specialty. The best, though, was a skewer with big chunks of fish -- salmon, tuna and swordfish -- seared just enough to not be sushi.

Another treat was a little dish of chowder, which, to my delight, was spicy and literally swimming with clams, with but a few potato cubes to come between.

Next, I chose the exotic over the erotic, trying something new with the Hawaiian nairagi-striped marlin. The fish turned out to be very lean and firm, which reminded me of the ubiquitous boneless, skinless chicken breast.

My companion was more conservative, having Atlantic salmon in a Champagne-basil sauce. Like butter, he said.

Our record at the end at the night: Not quite seventeen, but eight fish in all, three more than there are oceans in the world.

Kaibur Coffee
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Kaibur Coffee

By Mars Johnson