May 24, 2005
By The Salmon
Call me Ishmael. Or, just call me lazy. I figured there couldn’t be an easier target in the Santa Barbara restaurant scene for an acerbic lunch critic than Moby Dick. On several levels, the name alone can make a third grader snicker and a grad student ashen. It seemed almost too easy.
Al Steinman, owner and operator, greeted me at the front door as if I were his first customer of the day. After parking about 487 planks away from the edge of the pier, er wharf, I was delighted to find the place in full swing with about three-quarters occupancy on a gloomy Tuesday afternoon. My arrival coincided with that of my old lunch accomplice, known locally as the Manta, and we instantly lowered the median age by about thirty points.
The Voice of Francis Albert filled the hall, and we were seated upon three inches of marine varnish on what was advertised as, “the heated outdoor patio.” This consists of a completely enclosed room, or what New Yorkers call a “Florida room”, where the addition of large windows is a fine substitute for the outdoors.
“This is bizarre,” the Manta remarked as the breadbasket was delivered. “It looks like the severed limbs of the pretzel man.” In the woven tub were two miniature, seeded bread loafs with a small cup of strangely oxidized salsa.
The menu is amazing. Not amazing in the way that would earn a three-star Michelin rating, but in its attempt to capture and offer every type of cuisine known to man. Weighing in at just over 16 oz. and seven pages long, we looked as if we were trying to cool ourselves on a hot day with all the page flipping. I tried to simplify things by whacking out entire categories such as: sandwiches, pizzas, pasta dishes, breakfast, specialty cocktails (this takes up 3/4 of a page in itself), and stuffed tomatoes (4 unique entries).
The tourist traffic moved freely along the pier, or wharf, and I decided to take up Al’s chalkboard offer to start the day with a Bloody Mary. The Manta opted for an Irish coffee to ward off the June gloom. Neither cocktail was particularly strong, but each carried a stiff two-dollars-more-than-you-would-ever-pay-in-a-normal-bar-tariff for being able to consume it on the pier.
To say the Manta made a mistake in his entrée choice would be valid. His crab Benedict arrived in a slurry of Hollandaise that was only slightly warmer than my Bloody Mary and full of crab quite possibly snared during the Falklands War. It was, however, accompanied by a bowl of fruit that was masterful, with two exotic species of melon- orange and green.
I marched on the safe side with fish and chips. Two huge Dover sole fillets rimmed the bowl filled with pretty darn good fries. A quick scan around the room indicated the varied menu is an asset to the out-of-towners in their Members Only jackets who inhabit the pier/wharf. No single food type seemed to dominate, as burgers, clams, bacon and soup were scattered about. Manta decided to make the best of his meal by arranging his eggs into artful Stonehenge-like piles. The amphibious Landshark vehicle chugged by and tourists on board waved at tourists in the restaurant. Sinatra slipped into low gear and “Stranger in My Own Hometown” began to croon through the speakers.