seafood, eat food

IMG_1971It’s a curious sensation sitting down to eat seafood at an aquarium. Yet when the setting is Monterey Bay Aquarium, the research center behind Seafood Watch, a consumer’s guide to responsible eating, and the chef is Cindy Pawlcyn, creative force behind Napa Valley institution Mustard’s Grill, you breathe a bit easier, knowing that everything on the menu will not only be locally sourced, but also sustainable. And delicious I might add. From house-cured olives, which arrive as a gift from the kitchen, to grilled artichoke grown in neighboring Castroville – artichoke capital of the world – the fresh flavor of the produce coming out of the Salinas Valley really shines through. Bodega Bay coon shrimp are a rare and tasty treat, perfectly suited to an old-fashioned get-your-hands-dirty shrimp boil. So, too, is wild-caught King Salmon, simply grilled and tasting like the sea. Dessert is an equal opportunity offender: olallieberries are a California curiosity; a hybrid, they taste like the liaison between a blackberry and a raspberry – and make for a delicious, warm tart. The tables at Cindy’s Waterfront each come with a pair of binoculars for the curious, as well as a guide to the wildlife on ample display in the bay. But don’t be fooled by the distraction, sea otters and cormorants are no match for what’s sitting on the plate in front of you.

castroville artichoke
coon shrimpwild king salmon
olallisberry tart

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tidy tidal pools

Playa del Carmen and the oceanfront that stretches up to the Riviera Maya are rightly famous for clear Caribbean water and fine, white, sandy beaches. Yet something I’d never noticed until today are the shallow tidal pools that dot the craggy bits of coastline between beaches. Aquariums in miniature, each is rich in life:  seaweed, coral, tropical fish, and colonies of spiny sea urchin.

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swimming with the fishes

Maybe it’s because I grew up with a big saltwater tank full of colorful sea creatures, but there is something about an aquarium that brings out the 8-year old in me.  I liken it to an underwater safari, full of oohs and ahhs and close-up views of so many animals you’d ordinarily never see in their native environments.  And while even an exhibit as small as the handful of penguins in New York’s Central Park Zoo gets me excited, I was down right pie-eyed during a visit to Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium.

A $250+ million gift to the city from the founders of Home Depot, the aquarium is not only the world’s biggest, it also houses the largest collection of aquatic animals. The specially designed whale shark habitat is as big as a football field; holding 6.3 million gallons of water, it’s full of giant grouper, tarpon, sawfish, blacktip reef sharks, hammerhead sharks, manta rays, and four of the world’s largest fish – the whale shark.  The scale of it is almost overwhelming. In front of one of the giant glass windows it’s also just a little bit unnerving – especially if you’ve seen Jaws 3-D.

For all the emphasis on scale, however, perhaps the most interesting creature I witnessed was this grumpy little guy in a small observation tank all by himself. (Click the image for better detail)  He used his fins like hands and had a second pair underneath which mimicked legs. In profile he looked like a fish.  Yet face front with that unicorn horn and beard of stalactites he had the appearance of an old lichen-covered rock.  It makes you wonder what kind of environment causes a creature to adapt with such specific camouflage.  More interesting still – as if to underscore how little we still know about what lurks beneath the surface – nobody could tell me what he was called.

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