Friday, September 16, 2005 | Let’s be clear: I love good food – anywhere at any price – and I want to love the food in San Diego. Travel to Los Angeles, San Francisco or other food savvy cities and you can find excellent food and service to match it – in all price ranges. This week, after two of us spent more than $100 at two restaurants (and it is the norm at most others) for hit and miss food, I wondered about the choices San Diegans have for excellent and innovative food with unobtrusive good service. It took a visitor (in the wine business) from Northern California to bring this issue to the top of my pet peeve list.
San Diego is a convention and tourist magnet and with that comes a perception (and reality) that its restaurants have a mostly lackadaisical attitude about food and service. Many cater to the tourist trade and somehow believe that they don’t have to try very hard because for the most part they’ll never see the customer again. Locals support the restaurants when the tourists have gone and they have come to believe that mediocre is considered acceptable … until they travel to other more food friendly places.
The prevailing thought from people I know – servers, owners, chefs, wine purveyors and customers – is that many of our restaurants with prices from $10 to $30 or more are unaware and uninterested in doing more than so-so food and take little pride in their product. For the most part, such places as ethnic, neighborhood family-run and national chain steakhouse restaurants deliver consistent meals; it’s the chefs in stand-alone, unique places that are slacking.
The Cohn restaurant group, long known for restaurants that attract the tourist trade, now has Island Prime and C-Level Lounge on Harbor Island. The place hits a home run with its prime location at the bay’s edge and a drop-dead view of the city and Point Loma. Unfortunately, the view doesn’t help the sorry service and less than stellar food.
One busy Sunday night my wine friend and I went to C-Level Lounge. Our server announced her name (a silly custom that does not equal good service). The wine list offers many choices and is fairly priced with by-the-glass wine prices at a quarter of the bottle price. Truffle-parmesan potato chips are crisp, not greasy and very light on Parmesan and truffle flavor. Chopped salad with peas, apple wood bacon and Maytag blue cheese is satisfying as is the C-Level Caesar with whole romaine leaves, a rich well-flavored dressing, tapenade toast and four really terrific deep-fried anchovies. These three dishes range from $4.95 to $7.95 and are the least expensive ones on the menu.
A $12.95 Ahi poke lacks a clear fresh fish flavor. Two Chesapeake Bay crab cakes for $13.95 have a spicy light crust but lack noticeable crab and taste more like finely ground tuna with filler and are not helped by the savory pineapple-onion remoulade or sliced fennel salad. Pan-seared chicken pot stickers are glazed with a Vietnamese spicy dipping sauce though the menu doesn’t mention the heat, and our server said she should have told us. The $12 pint of clam chowder we ordered to go took more than 10 minutes to get even though the restaurant was nearly empty and the kitchen almost closed at 9:30 p.m. No bread with the soup though a server finally found some in the pantry. If you want soup it’s on the menu as “Island Prime’s oyster, lobster or crab kettle pan roast” for $11.95 – that night it was clam. Pretty confusing as a very helpful Kylie said when I called the restaurant to check. Island Prime Metro Steaks and Seafood and C-Level Lounge, 880 Harbor Island Drive, Harbor Island, (619) 298-6802,
Devotees of Rancho Santa Fe’s Delicias could find their favorite haunt changing. The restaurant has new owners – one owns restaurants in Cabo San Lucas. Word is there will be some kitchen expansion and the front of the house management will stay intact.
We sat at the bar and with our drinks and nibbled the perfect homemade potato chips with blue cheese and truffle oil dip served in a martini glass. Four panko-crusted shrimp are crunchy and cooked to perfection. On the other hand, four sea scallops (cooked nearly well-done) arrive buried under a wad of slivered room temperature string beans and once found are sitting on a tasteless pancake with a layer of apricot glaze and a spicy Asian-style sauce with peanuts scattered about it. (My friend murmured to beware of covered main ingredients – what is the chef hiding?) Too many flavors and a muddled plate make this $32 entrée a mess. A $20 foie gras appetizer is plated with a dizzying array of ingredients that include a big puddle of too-sweet citrus sauce where a piece of waffle sits as a base for the liver, thinly sliced pears and a scoop of sorbet topped with a rosemary sprig. Truffle oil is mentioned in at least four menu items. Though this was our first visit and we were unknown to the manager, he comped us a simple and good berry crisp. With two glasses of wine, our bill was $94. Delicias, 6106 Paseo Delicias, Rancho Santa Fe, (858) 756-8000.
Marcie Rothman loves good food – no matter where it’s cooked – at home, a hole in the wall or a white tablecloth restaurant. Known as The $5 Chef on radio, television and in her two cookbooks, Marcie travels far and near with an eye on what’s current in food. You can find her at