Craving calamari

In case you missed it, here is my review of Abalonetti Bar and Grill that appeared in last Thursday’s Go! section of the Monterey Herald. I’ll be reposting my reviews and stories from my weekly column for the Herald here on my blog along with extra photos that didn’t appear in print.

Summer is here, and I’m happy to see that we’ve gotten a reprieve from the usual “June Gloom.” The sunny weather is the perfect excuse to play a tourist in my own hometown, braving the crowds to rediscover great eats along the waterfront, from Cannery Row to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Last week, I gave you a peek at delicious crêpes at Crêpes of Brittany on Fisherman’s Wharf. This week, my adventures had me strolling further down the pier to Abalonetti Bar and Grill.

Abalonetti Bar and Grill is famous among locals and tourists alike for their calamari, cleaned and cooked onsite.

Don’t let the name fool you, calamari—not abalone—is the signature dish at Abalonetti. Their calamari is often praised as the best in town and the menu boasts a large number of calamari dishes.

Abalonetti’s calamari comes in four preparations: classic, buffalo-style, garlic-fried and Baja style with pico de gallo.

Despite the big calamari catch right here in the Monterey Bay, few restaurants in town feature fresh-off-the-boat Monterey squid. Most squid gets shipped overseas for processing before it comes to your dinner plate. Not so at Abalonetti—local squid is cleaned and cooked in the restaurant.

(Last summer, The Grub Hunter, Mike Hale, did a great story on his time spent cleaning calamari for Abalonetti for a day—a worthwhile read from the archives.)

Naturally, my first visit started with a plate of calamari ($10.95), which I ordered split between the classic flash-fried preparation and spicy buffalo-style calamari.

The classic calamari was great. The breading was light, not greasy, with perfectly tender, not rubbery, squid. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the accompanying tartar sauce, a condiment I usually skip. Here, it was a nice accent to the light flavors of the squid.

The buffalo-style calamari was perfectly tender, but a little soggy from the buffalo sauce.

The buffalo-style calamari was a little soggy, the spicy sauce drowning the breaded squid. The flavor had a lot of kick, dominating the flavor of the squid itself.

With their calamari a strong contender for the best in town, I was curious whether the clam chowder (cup for $5.95, bowl for $7.95 or sourdough bread bowl for $9.95) was up for the same accolades.

The calamari lived up to the hype, but the clam chowder disappointed.

The calamari definitely outshines Abalonetti’s clam chowder. I found the chowder a little bland, needing a serious shake of pepper to spice it up. And the texture was far too thick for my tastes.

For my entrée, the Marty Special—fried eggplant and flash-fried calamari fillets topped with Sicilian marinara, Parmesan and mozzarella ($18.95)—caught my eye.

The Marty Special combines calamari and eggplant parmesan.

As expected, the calamari on top was great—sizeable chunks of squid lightly breaded and fried. But the eggplant was rather lackluster.

I wish the attention to detail that was paid to the calamari extended to the eggplant too. The eggplant was stringy and the breading greasy, a seemingly haphazard treatment of this finicky vegetable. I did appreciate the tangy tomato sauce, even if it was a little watery.

On my second visit, I ordered another wharf staple—fish and chips ($13.95).

The fish and chips is a wharf staple.

Abalonetti’s fish and chips is made with beer-battered Alaskan cod, three large—but thin—fillets served over a bed of fries.

The breading on the fish and chips was heavier—and greasier—than on the calamari. I found the fish a tad overcooked, an all too common risk with fried dish. While the texture wasn’t as flaky and delicate as I’d hoped, the flavor was nice.

But I was sorely disappointed in the fries. They didn’t have much flavor and were too starchy, needing to cook in the fryer a little bit longer.

Like the food, service had some rough spots. For one, I learned the hard way this isn’t a spot to come in a hurry. Most diners aren’t in any sort of rush—they’re on vacation, after all—and they’re content to sit by the window and watch sea otters frolic in the waters below. My plans for dinner and a movie got cut short here the other night, so best to plan accordingly.

Abalonetti offers a great deal for locals. The locals menu makes for a steal of a meal at $8.95.

But I did appreciate Abalonetti’s efforts to make locals feel welcome. They offer a local’s menu at both lunch and dinner with a diverse assortment of options—like a flavorful “Mile High” meatloaf or grilled calamari steak—for just $8.95. (And for $4 extra, add chowder or salad, and dessert.)

The locals menu includes selections from land and sea, like the Mile High Meatloaf.

Squid was the star of the show at Abalonetti, rightly deserving praise as some of the best around town, certainly enticing enough for any local who wants to be a tourist for a day.

Abalonetti Bar and Grill is located at 57 Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey. 373-1851. www.abalonettimonterey.com.

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