Monterey Bay Aquarium Restaurant

Just beyond the dining hall at the Monterey Bay Aquarium lies a separate restaurant with a fitting focus on sustainability. There’s even a pocket-size Seafood Watch chart on each table.

Nothing quite beats the views from the Aquarium’s restaurant, especially since you’re tucked away from the crowds. It’s an unusual stop, if only because it’s open until 3pm yet offers a dinner menu – and drink list – at dinner prices.

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Surrounded by fishy friends, it’s no wonder Chef Matthew Beaudin nudges eaters to be more environmentally conscious. The shrimp, tuna, sausage and burger all come in plant-based form, although one can substitute salmon or chicken. And they serve real fish and chips. For those craving meat, the Wagyu burger is your option – and for $30, one hopes it will be the best burger.

Sadly, it is not. Sure, the meatiness comes through, but that’s about the only impression it makes. Were there even seasonings involved? Even the caramelized onion aioli fell flat, though the truffle fries offered some pizzazz.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, those veg-inclined folks hoping to skip the processed plants could opt for something like the vegetable ravioli. The $21 price tag didn’t seem unreasonable – until the dish arrived. It looked interesting. It even looked like it hoped to taste interesting. But the distinctive red bell pepper popped out of the pasta, mixing strangely with bland pumpkin purée and extremely toasted pumpkin seeds. As if it all wasn’t earthy enough, a biting, herbal gremolata topped each forkful. With careful presentation and appropriate textures evident, it seems the flaw wasn’t in the execution but in the recipe itself.

Same goes for the roasted wild mushroom starter. Extravagantly plump mushrooms showed off a thick, tender chewiness. Yet somehow they went missing in the mass of pungent blue cheese and dull butternut squash.

What was going on with all the blandness? As I sat there mentally questioning, our friendly and attentive server dropped by and noticed me shuffling around the ravioli. He instantly offered to take it off the bill if I wanted to try something else.

He recommended the tostada. Mellow black bean paste soon arrived topped with a crunchy tortilla and a small mountain of winter squash, avocado and cilantro coleslaw. The coleslaw was easily the best thing involved, as it showed off crispy freshness with subtle kicks from the cilantro. Then again, what started out promising turned into a question. Where’s the oomph? Where’s the tomato? The squash was just so starchy and lonely on its own, with no acid relief in sight.

The best thing on the table that afternoon was the Bang Bang “shrimp.” Plant-based seafood breaded, lightly spiced and gently fried came plated on a bed of that same coleslaw. It may not duplicate real shrimp, but that’s not the point. If the Aquarium leads the way in ethical sourcing (focusing on plant-based alternatives), I’ll be its number-one supporter. I just wouldn’t go back for much else.