Six years ago, Monterey Bay Fish Grotto opened amid much buzz on Mount Washington. With impeccably fresh fish grilled or sauteed in a dazzling variety of sauces -- from creamy fennel to orange basil to Vodka Chambord brown sugar -- it was immediately dubbed the best of a crop of new seafood restaurants in Pittsburgh, and Saturday night reservations had to be booked a month in advance.
Today, it's still very successful (although advance bookings are down to about two weeks), but I found myself wondering about its slightly older and less showy sister, Monterey Bay Fish Grotto in Monroeville. Situated atop the Jonnet Building, the suburban Monterey Bay has an identical menu, but with 125 seats, it's half the size of its city sister, and surrounded by strip malls and car dealerships -- which means it doesn't have the million-dollar view of Downtown Pittsburgh. You don't have to wait weeks for a Saturday night seat either.
Still, the original Monroeville Monterey Bay is nonetheless one popular restaurant, and it's a smart idea to call at least a few days in advance for a weekend table. On a recent snowy Saturday evening we set out for a 5 o'clock dinner (which was all we could get, having foolishly waited to make a reservation until two days before), and found the place almost crowded, despite the near white-out conditions and the early hour. With nothing but the snowy void outside the 10th-story window, it felt somehow, appropriately, like being on a ship at sea.
That's one way of looking at it: Others might complain that the Monroeville location is cramped, given that it's shoehorned into space that, I suspect, was never originally designed for a restaurant (although D'Imperio's was there before Monterey Bay). The hallways -- and the oddly narrow door to the ladies' room -- are not for the claustrophobic, and there's a bottleneck right where the bar and the cloak room door meet. You're sure to bump butts with someone, no matter what. And despite the white linen table cloths and cushy carpets, it's noisy.
But all that fades away when Carol, the nicest, most efficient server on the planet, hands you Monterey Bay's famous menu featuring 26 kinds of fish, prepared just about any way you want. Unlike the seafood in smart New York restaurants these days, where minimalism is all the rage -- at Mario Batali's Esca, for example, fresh salmon or striped bass can be ordered served raw, with just a sprinkle of sea salt and olive oil -- this is an unabashedly ornate menu. Chargrilled salmon ($22.95), for example, can be ordered with either basil champagne sauce; teriyaki marinade and honey lime glaze or strawberries in red wine.
While the glitzy entrees will make your head spin, the soup and appetizer selections will bring you down to earth with a bit of a thud. All the old Pittsburgh standbys are there: jumbo shrimp cocktail, calamari, New England clam chowder and French onion soup, and they're a mixed bag. The floury tasting clam chowder is only ordinary, but the mahogany-dark French onion soup is very good, a tangle of caramelized onions in fragrant broth topped with gooey cheese. The house salads (which come with dinner unless you prefer a small cup of chowder) seemed limp and uninspired, but the appetizer sampler ($15.95) is terrific. There's "Ichiban" -- grilled, skewered bites of seafood -- salmon, swordfish and tuna -- in a soy-ginger marinade that's served with a drizzle of chili ancho mayonnaise (you can order it separately for $9.95); two Cajun-hot pieces of shrimp on marmalade (a sweet-bitter taste that works perfectly here) and a generous helping of the restaurant's famous crab cakes.
The crab cakes ($26.95) are, in fact, the restaurant's biggest seller, and for good reason -- the lump crab is fat and sweet -- but we were ready for something different. My husband opted for escolar ($24.95), a mild-fleshed Hawaiian fish which tasted like it had been caught just hours before. One of my dining partners, just back from a sojourn in Sicily, whined about how fish here isn't anywhere near as fresh as it is in Palermo's outdoor markets, but he seemed chastened after tasting his halibut. And for good reason: Monterey Bay's owner, Glenn Hawley, says his Erie-based fish vendor can deliver seafood from anywhere in the world within 48 hours of being hauled in from the ocean.
My husband wasn't enthused about having it made with Caribbean "jerk" spices, though, so Carol, our server, suggested he try a milder version, in the "Parmesan" style -- the fish is coated with that cheese, sauteed and then served in a delicate white wine and lemon juice reduction finished with cream.
Too delicate? For the steak lover who's in the mood for fish with big flavor, there's a large round of yellow fin tuna ($24.95), more robust and tender than the best filet mignon. It's seafood cooked "Pittsburgh Rare," its steak-like crust melting into a satiny raw interior. And if the fish itself wasn't sufficient (it is), it's stuffed with spinach, mushrooms and goat cheese and served in a darkly aromatic Marsala wine sauce.
There's more: pearly white Chilean sea bass ($24.95) encrusted what seemed like a pound of crunchy macadamia nuts; perfectly tender Swordfish a la Lisa ($26.95) in an oyster brandy sauce spiked with herbs and lemon; and, as a special one night, delicately pan-fried sturgeon ($24.95) on a bed of sauteed spinach topped with roasted root vegetables. The mahi-mahi "Cape Cod style" ($22.95) -- in an intriguing Vodka Chambord brown sugar sauce dressed with oranges and cranberries -- was a revelation, one flavor unfolding onto the next, from bitter cranberry to sweet orange to the faintest aftertaste of burnt sugar.
The only disappointment: that aforementioned halibut ($23.95), fresh as it was, came in an orange basil sauce that was too straightforwardly sweet, almost jam-like. Uninspired, too, were the side dishes that came with the meal (rice pilaf, vegetables or four-cheese mashed potatoes -- the latter was the best choice).
But it's hard to complain with a place that not only gives you a vast wine list -- 125 choices in all -- to go with what must be something like 54 entree selections, but also at least a half-dozen desserts, all of them $5.95, concocted on site by a pastry chef. The restaurant's signature white chocolate macadamia nut mousse was surprisingly light, and there were also not one but two different kinds of creme brulee, one spiked with Bailey's Irish Cream and crusted with almonds, the other studded with orange peel.
Despite its location, Monterey Bay Monroeville is no cheaper than its sister on Mount Washington. But if you can ignore the view of the parking lots and the Lone Star Steak House just below and concentrate on the menu, you'll find one of the most rewarding ways to enjoy seafood in landlocked Pittsburgh.
Raw flounder with sea salt? In 10 years, maybe, but not here, not yet.
Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1949.The Monterey Bay Fish Grotto is high atop the Jonnet Building in Monroeville
Monterey Bay Fish Grotto
4099 William Penn Highway, Monroeville
Hours: Lunch, Mondays-Fridays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner, Mondays-Thursdays, 5-10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 5-11 p.m.; Sundays, 5-9 p.m.
Basics: Pricey seafood house with superbly fresh fish prepared a myriad of ways; located at the top of a high-rise building, with a somewhat cramped, noisy atmosphere; wheelchair accessible; smoking in the bar only; all major credit cards available. Reservations suggested.