Superb Seafood by the Sea
Perfectly cooked classic dishes make The Albright a pier restaurant without peer
By Richard Foss (email@example.com)
Fish don’t notice water, according to people who have never actually interviewed one. The metaphor is often used to suggest that people who spend their lives in an environment have no capacity to notice it, which isn’t actually true as far as I can tell. I grew up just blocks from the beach but never get tired of walking there to enjoy the hypnotic sound and movement of the waves, the sunset or moonlight on water.
The Santa Monica Pier offers me all that plus the bonus of a delightfully tacky carnival atmosphere when I’m done watching the water, and it’s one of my favorite places for a stroll. Last week my wife and I stopped in at one of the upscale establishments there, a restaurant called The Albright that manages to balance tourist kitsch with solid seafood cooking.
The style of the place is similar to the seafood shacks I’ve experienced on the East Coast — long wooden picnic tables in a row in a semi-industrial site that echoes the look of a fish market. The seafood here has all been cooked, mostly with simple and classic preparations that fit the theme. Your whole crab or lobster is served with potatoes, corn and butter, and almost everything else comes with fries and coleslaw. There is one modern item, the seared market fish with brown rice, plum tomatoes and arugula pesto, and it looks strangely out of place.
I was attracted to that modern dish, and to the seafood paella also offered, but we stuck with the classics and ordered oysters, a lobster roll, fish and chips, and a bowl of spicy seafood soup. We also ordered wine and cider at the counter, then headed for a table. We initially settled near a TV that was showing vintage Popeye the Sailor cartoons, a homage to the longtime Santa Monica resident who drew the strip from 1938 until the close of the century. After a few minutes I noticed that the outdoor tables have a great view of the light display from the Ferris wheel and roller coaster, so we moved there and a server delivered our dinner.
The wine was served in a plastic cup, the cider in the bottle — this isn’t the place for fancy glassware. Likewise for the food, as the oysters arrived on a bed of hot salt inside an enameled steel tray. None of this mattered once I tasted those oysters, which were briefly grilled with garlic herb butter and served in shell. They were as fine as I’ve had anywhere with a fancy tablecloth, and a nice match for the Sauvignon Blanc. And yes, that’s an obvious pairing for oysters, but there’s a reason some things become tradition.
The rest of our meal arrived together, making it clear that we had over-ordered. I had expected the lobster roll to be the usual diminutive thing typically served in California, but the portion of seafood was generous, with only a touch of mayo and celery as flavor rather than filler. I actually prefer just a bit more seasoning on mine, but if you like to taste lots of lobster in your sandwich this is the thing to get. The fries that arrived with it were hot, crisp and dusted with Old Bay seasoning, the distinctive Maryland condiment that is the flavor of the Chesapeake.
The fish in the fish and chips was Atlantic true cod, and the version here touched all the bases. Fish and chips can be horrid when done wrong but heavenly when done right, and this one was exactly right, with a slightly crisp exterior. It tasted perfectly of fish and breading and not at all of oil. It was served with tartar sauce, more of those fries and good coleslaw, the staples of a waterfront meal for at least a century.
The seafood soup was similar to a San Francisco cioppino or Mexican “Caldo 7 Mares,” a tomato-based broth with zucchini and onion plus lots of clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari and fish. A few jalapeno peppers had been tossed in late in the game so that they didn’t take over, and it was finished with chopped scallions and cilantro for a little added zing. There might have been a dash of
citrus down in there too, but it was hard to tell because there were a lot of flavors playing happily here.
It had been quite a full meal, but just for scientific interest we checked to see if any desserts were offered. Only cookies were offered, and we decided not to try any as we were going to need another walk out to the end of the pier just to walk off dinner. Enough good seafood for three people with two glasses of wine and a cider ran slightly more than $100, and the view of the carnival rides and waterfront atmosphere were free.
The Albright, 258 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica (310) 394-9683 thealbright.com