Grandview Avenue has long been associated with fancy dinners, but what that actually means has changed — for the better. Once, you paid for the view, the service, and for food that, while cooked to an upscale (possibly French) script, was almost beside the point.
Today, the script is different, with the most highly regarded restaurants working some version of the fresh-seasonal-local triad. This is exceedingly hard to do with seafood in Pittsburgh, but Monterey Bay Fish Grotto was the first to trend in that direction. It was a game-changer when it opened, almost 20 years ago, not in a Grandview Avenue storefront, but high atop an apartment tower. The views through the massive windows were stunning, but even more impressive was the food, carefully sourced and impeccably fresh.
Now, after closing for a while to retool, Monterey Bay has reopened. The name — and the view, of course — remain the same, but everything else has changed. A sleek sushi bar, branded Sakari, is the focal point of a separate dining room away from the postcard view, the better to focus on the chefs. In the main dining room, the menu is not seasonal in the sense of “what’s at the farmer’s market today,” but its seamless blend of contemporary and classic feels caught up to our present moment of dining preferences. The dishes on offer demonstrate the kitchen’s familiarity with current tastes and trends without offering anything too unfamiliar or challenging.
Similarly, the interior is as tastefully modern as any in the city, with deep-sea blues and grays, dark-stained wood, moody lighting and terraced levels separated by glass railings, all designed to frame and reveal the panoramic views. Service was formal, but warm and professional.
Sushi aside, we noticed a pervasive Asian influence on the menu. Latin American ceviche was served with pickled Asian vegetables, while a grilled wedge of baby iceberg, updated with smoked blue cheese and pancetta, included sriracha red peppers.
We decided to go for the off-menu appetizer combo our server told us about. It included a single crab cake (touted as a house specialty), two skewers of grilled fish of various varieties and seared jumbo shrimp.
In a city where crab cakes are improbably ubiquitous, Monterey Bay’s stand out for their almost creamy texture and succulent meat folded with a binder that’s moist, almost like bread pudding. A puddle of aioli was rich and mild, with just a touch of piquancy.
The rest of the platter didn’t fare as well. The skewer — called “Ichiban” on the a la carte appetizer list — included five small cubes of tuna, salmon and swordfish. But all except the swordfish, in the center, were overdone and heavily glazed, to the point that it became hard to distinguish between the tuna and salmon. The shrimp were also overdone, more chewy than succulent, and the horseradish-marmalade sauce was mostly sweet, not spicy.
Sakari, the sushi bar, furnished excellent uncooked fish, however. Salmon nigiri were absolutely silken with a richness that wasn’t unctuous, while the Carson Street roll, made with pork and tempura-fried pearl onions as well as cucumber and avocado, was an innovation that worked. The pork’s flavor and slightly chewy texture were distinct from the suppleness of seafood, but compatible with the vinagered rice. The crunchy onions also worked well, and roasted-garlic sauce was pleasingly savory.
Each of the dozen fresh fish on the menu is available in a choice of two preparations, with only a few duplications. The preparations are thoughtfully paired to the fish, such that tuna is available in Asian-inflected styles, while sole sticks to classic French ingredients like butter and lemon. Hearty swordfish spans the Atlantic, with a Parmesan preparation or chimichurri. Chimichurri’s heady mixture of herbs, garlic, olive oil and vinegar was developed in Argentina as a condiment for the red meat farmed there, but it paired beautifully with the steak-like character of swordfish, sautéed to tender, juicy perfection.
Steakhouse-style, Monterey offers a half-dozen “sharable” sides. Simple grilled asparagus was unaccountably tough at the base, but gratin potatoes with smoked blue cheese and truffle was a show-stopper. Countless layers of thin-sliced potatoes were formed into a loaf, a generous slice of which was brought to the table. The sharpness of the cheese was cut by the earthiness of the smoke and truffles, while the potatoes were tender ,yet held together.
Even with our backs to the view, Monterey Bay’s big remodel was a big success in our book. But it was hard not to be disappointed by the inconsistency of the food. At these prices, perfection shouldn’t be too much to ask.