Wednesday, March 11, 2009

San Diego Tastes Good

This post feels a little disappointing to me, in part because I'm putting it up belatedly. Oh well. I get forgetful sometimes. And I haven't had time recently to develop anything new or worth sharing. Hopefully I'll get back to my old ways soon...

San Diego, anyone?


I’m wrapping up nearly a week’s worth of rainy wedding celebrations – for my brother, not me – in San Diego. (Yes, it rained at times like a water main in the sky had been ripped open.) As with any wedding, or any family get-together that spans several days, there was a lot of eating. More eating, I must say, than was necessary. Far more, in fact; the depth of our gluttony was nowhere close to normal eating, and in retrospect it's a little embarrassing. Now I have to use an extra hole on my belt, or maybe two holes, to keep my pants fitting nicely, and a diet to bring in the New Year is definitely worth considering at this point. I feel disgusting, and yet strangely happy at having eaten so well.

We’ve been staying in Coronado, where the two families gathered for the abovementioned wedding. It’s a picturesque area with views of Glorietta Bay, the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge, Cuyamaca Peak, and mountains beyond the water that I was told are in Mexico. Coronado also offers easy access to Central, North, and Silver Strand Beaches, not to mention lots of quaint shops and restaurants along Orange Avenue.

It warrants mentioning that almost everywhere we ate, the service we received was exceptional. Whoever trains wait staff in San Diego’s higher-end restaurants is doing a very fine job and I hope they never leave, unless it’s to come to Honolulu and train the wait staff there.

One of the nicest discoveries, at least for me, was Bino’s Crepes & European Coffee, which was happily only a two-minute walk from our hotel. In my opinion, Bino’s has about the best concept going for a small café that aims to do it all. As the café’s name indicates, their menu is full of crepes, both savory and sweet, and an assortment of coffees. But they don’t limit themselves to these two items. They also serve cheese plates, wine, sandwiches, and gelato, which means that you’ve got every drink, snack, and meal of the day covered here. I came to Bino’s for breakfast (coffee and an omelet with lox and spinach folded into a crepe), lunch (a roast beef sandwich one day, a chicken and spinach and cheese crepe another day), and I regret missing out on their cheese and wine in the evening.

Spinach, chicken, and cheese crepe

Smoked salmon, spinach, and egg crepe

As for gelato…well, it was too cold for that during our visit. (Isn’t San Diego supposed to be warm? And sunny?) Maybe if we come back during the summer I’ll go for gelato. Or rather: I’ll definitely go for gelato if we come back during the summer. Bino’s also has a few tables set up under the tree-shaded sidewalk, making the place all the more charming. It must be said that their effort to replicate a French café is laudable. (It doesn’t work, but thanks for trying.)

We also ate at Primavera Ristorante, which now ranks as one of my favorite Italian restaurants anywhere. The food was pretty good, though a few in our party weren’t all that impressed with their meals, but the service was outstanding and the atmosphere was decidedly Italian. I haven’t watched "The Sopranos," so I don’t know if the place would have suited the likes of a good, solid Italian family, but it felt like being in Italy, where (at least on TV) different generations in a family lovingly pat and cup one another’s cheeks, smack the back of each other’s heads to express affection, and encourage excessive eating by thrusting food in each other’s faces and then lightly browbeating them to try a bite before finding an opening between their lips and cramming it into their mouths.

I ordered the Fettuccini Adriatico, which was fettuccini with scallops and shrimp in a garlic and tomato sauce, and an insalate primavera.

Fettuccini Adriatico at Primavera

I had absolutely no complaints with my meal, though if it were myself in the kitchen I might have dressed it with a bit more herbs and tomato (then again, that might factor out the taste of the pasta). I finished it off with an eye-catching dessert of blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries – without the recommended vanilla bean gelato.

What twisted notion kept me from ordering this with vanilla bean gelato? Was I trying to be healthy? Is better health worth the abnegation? Looking back on it, I think not. I was a fool!

I know, I know…In retrospect I absolutely should have gone with the sweet stuff, but because I had wolfed down something sweet earlier in the day, and was full already thanks to a heavenly bread basket that got refilled at least once, I decided to take the “healthier route.” The berries were good. But the gelato, I’m convinced, would have made it divine.

Another interesting restaurant we went to was Café Sevilla, in downtown San Diego.

Cafe Sevilla

I like the idea of tapas; I just don’t often have a chance to eat Spanish food in Hawaii. So I thought this would be a treat, and I was looking forward to it once I found out we had a reservation there. Traffic was bad getting downtown, and with my brother’s wife being the conscientious person that she is, she called the restaurant to let them know that we’d be a few minutes late. They told us that they reserved the right to give away our table if we showed up 15 minutes late, and when we appeared only five minutes late we discovered we had a 30-minute wait ahead of us. What are you going to do? In a situation like that, they hold all the cards. They can give your reservation away, but while you can take your business elsewhere, they won’t miss it because there’s always someone there to take your place.

Griping aside, I found the interior lovely – a dim reddish tint hung over the dining area, and the place was buzzing with conversation. In addition to the excellent people-watching opportunities at Sevilla, there were even more interesting opportunities to food watch. Some serious tapas eating was going on all around us. Inspired by the sounds of people eating, and the smells of whatever I could espy on their plates, I ordered three “signature” tapas, which was about one tapas too many: steamed black mussels in a saffron-infused broth of lobster and seafood cream; cheese fundido (baked manchego and goat cheese) with buttons of chorizo sausage; and filet mignon chilindron with mushrooms in a hearty paprika sauce that nothing in this world could ever possibly sink in.

Steamed black mussels in a saffron-infused lobster and seafood cream broth

The mussels were by far my favorite, perhaps because they were the lightest of the three tapas I ordered. The cream-based broth was richer, but it was like air compared to the other two tapas. After finishing the mussels, which came first, I faced the Sisyphean task of putting away two incredibly rich dishes.

Filet mignon chilindron with mushrooms in paprika sauce

I gave away a good portion of both the filet mignon chilindron and the cheese fundido, and while I managed to empty the former into my gullet the latter just wouldn't pass. I gave it to my brother, who is a vegetarian, and he ate around the chorizo until he, too, couldn’t do any more damage to it. In the end, there were lumps of cheese half-submerged in red grease that bubbled up from some secret grease trap in the bottom of the pan. It was a humbling, not an ugly sight.

Cheese Fundido (baked manchego & goat cheese with chorizo sausage)

This was one of the heaviest meals of my life, and I felt thoroughly disgusted with myself for having eaten as much as I did. Oh, and I also put away some rather fatty lamb kebab brushed with mint and honey, a spoonful of excellent couscous that looked at a glance like hominy, another spoonful of refreshingly light and tangy ceviche, and something tasty made from potatoes that my brother kept pushing on me. Again, the service was excellent. The biggest problems were twofold: 1) they cranked up Mexican music midway through our meal, pissing off my dad to no end, as he, as well as the rest of us, had been quite happy having no music to interfere with our conversation, and 2) I failed to eat more than the most negligible of vegetables during my meal, which is entirely my own fault. I feel like I’m still paying for it this morning, about twelve hours after we left Café Sevilla.

Another place we went to that’s worth mentioning is 1500 Ocean, a sleek, sparkling restaurant on the ocean-side of the Coronado Hotel that specializes in what it calls “Southland coastal cuisine.”

We ordered off a three-course set menu, and I chose a starter of celery bisque with small cubes of Canadian bacon, a main course of roasted Shelton Farms free-range chicken, and a dessert of crème brulee with fresh berries. (My wife ordered chocolate cake with homemade caramel ice cream on a bed of diced toffee. Since she preferred my crème brulee, we switched desserts after a few nibbles. Neither one of us shed tears over our loss. They were both that good.)

This is a terrible photo of a pretty excellent chicken dish

Creme brulee at Ocean 1500

We were also given a pre-starter “whim of the chef” that consisted of a piece of smoked salmon served on a baked potato chip. Yes, a baked potato chip. It wasn't the kind of thing that augured particularly well, but the courses that followed were quite good. Really, though, the beautiful setting, exceptionally attentive service, and the thoroughly enjoyable company of our thirteen-person party were what made our evening here.

The next time I’m in Coronado, I’ll definitely consider having a drink at their “fireside” Sunset Bar, which looks upon the beach, ocean, and Chocolate Mountains. It’s a beautiful setting for a drink, and the restaurant itself offers a memorable dining experience, too.

Last night marked the final meal of my San Diego sojourn. We headed to Peohe's, a Polynesian-style restaurant that’s part of the Chart House chain, and a reminder of all the fresh seafood that awaits me in Oahu (in addition to an island-wide blackout) when I return home tomorrow morning.

The menu at Peohe's isn’t exactly an exercise in page turning, though they do have a second menu that exclusively offers sushi and sashimi. Wanting something light, I was tempted by that second menu, but then I spotted the “seafood salad” on the main menu. Listening to the wretched cries of my bloated, overfed body, I decided to go the salad route. I also opted for a small bowl of Thai coconut ginger soup with mushrooms, chicken, and cilantro, which was excellent, although my mom complained that it was a little too salty and I thought the coconut milk too rich (a bad omen for what was about to come).

Thai ginger coconut soup

When the seafood salad arrived, I actually felt my stomach recoil. Not because it was in any way unappetizing – in fact, it was one of the most beautiful salads I’ve ever encountered – but because it was so dauntingly huge. Not only was my salad plate, which was big enough for two medium-sized people to sit on, heaped with what looked like someone’s well-tended garden, but a good portion of marine life was stacked there, too: poached scallops, lobster (disappointing), shrimp, crab (more than made up for the lobster), and smoked salmon wrapped around light goat cheese, with cubes of bacon in the middle and thickly constituted Thousand Island dressing on the side. I couldn’t even get halfway through it. For $18, the salad was a great deal.

Peohe's seafood salad was a huge amount of food

And despite protests from three in our party of five, my brother and his wife insisted that we also get Peohe’s signature dessert: chocolate lava cake. After our meal, as we sat silently in our chairs wondering how we could possibly fit more into our disgustingly distended stomachs, the waiter placed the cake upon our table with appropriate gravitas. Looking at it, wanting to love it, it seemed to me like we'd just been brought the final, most prized pilferage from an indefensible village of patissiers.

Gotta order this baby thirty minutes before destroying your month's calorie count

The heated up chocolate center – the lava – was pure warm sweetness, and the chocolate sauce, crushed Heath bar, and melted vanilla ice cream that covered the plate at the end was a kind of sticky sweet soup that we’d have fought each other for the privilege to clean off with our tongues had we been at home rather than in such a nice, respectable restaurant.

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  1. Yummy food! :)

    Café Sevilla looks like a nice place to dine... cozy and warm.

  2. Oh my. This looks good! Worth destroying the calorie count for!

  3. Hmmm...I thought San Diego was supposed to have year-round sunshine, too. I have never been, and now after reading your reviews of all the restaurants, I really want to go!

    I am going to Spain in two weeks so maybe I will have some tapas there!

  4. These are some delicious eats! I used to live in San Diego for a few years in La Jolla actually. They have some nice restaurants there and not there's actually a new mobil 5-star also.

  5. I feel as if I've feasted as well although I got the better end of the bargain - visual enjoyment of the food without the calories! San Diego is a favorite destination so I thank you for sharing your restaurant experiences.

    And I must say that I applaud your approach on not posting until you feel you have something worthwhile. Sometimes, I feel caught up in a whirlpool of needing to post in fear of 'losing' readers to my blog but I owe it to them/you and myself to write what I feel strongly about and offer meaningful posts. Thank you for the reminder!

  6. I'm so digging the smoked salmon, spinach, and egg crepe! They are all very very good eats. The creme brulee looks absolutely scrumptious. I'm envious!!

  7. Sandy Eggo is less than 2 hours from L.A. We'll go back for sure if this is what you ate!

  8. I'm always on the fence as to whether or not I want to have gelato or something like with my berries... I absolutely love them when they are unadorned, though most places serve them straight from the fridge, in which case you might as well add the frozen goodness.

  9. Very well done. I deliberately saved you for my 2 o'clock break. I set aside 2pm every day to spend 15 minutes doing something I really want to do. Sometimes I just put my head down on my desk, sometimes I go outside and take a quick walk in the hills. Today, I thought I'd check you out! Boy was I rewarded. I go to S.D. often as I live in Los Angeles. I have never considered it a dining town. Your post has changed my mind. Unfortunately my 15 minute break turned into a 58 minute lalapalozza! Oh well, I had to take thorough notes. GREG

  10. Selba: Café Sevilla was one of my favorite places…until they cranked up the Mexican music…then turned it off…then turned it on again…repeatedly. But yes, very yummy and very cozy!

    AGHtE: At the time it might not have been worth it, but now, looking at the photos, I’d like to repeat the entire week’s worth of eating.

    Sugarlens: Ah, a trip to Spain sounds nice! Enjoy your trip, and make sure to tell us all about it afterward. Eat lots of tapas!

    5 Star: We didn’t get to La Jolla this time around, though on a previous family vacation we did. Yes, SD definitely has a good number of excellent restaurant options. Thanks for the Mobil 5-star tip!

    Tangled: I hope you can get back to SD soon, though I recommend the spring or summer when you’re guaranteed to have more sunshine. Then again, a rainy winter day in SD may seem like a great escape from snowy Minnesota! And yes, I put pressure on myself to post often, but lately it hasn’t been working out. Which makes me feel guilty. I like writing food essays, but it’s really time-consuming and sometimes the ideas just aren’t there. And I’m such a slob/hack in the kitchen that my cooking isn’t worth sharing. Maybe that should be my website instead: Then I could just post daily photos of the disgusting messes I make. Thanks for commiserating!

    Basgsar-bAbE: Yeah, that crepe was pretty delish. And crème brulee is one of my favorite desserts, and I could have easily had an entire tubful that night…and every night, really.

    Duodishes: Ah, only two hours away from another city with totally different eating options: I’m envious! If I were to drive two hours in any direction from where I live I’d be in the water. I hope you get to Sandy Eggo again soon and eat well!

    Sweet Charity: The only problem with this dessert was that the berries had no juice! Every spoonful was kinda mealy. Maybe they came from a fridge after all…I should have grabbed the waiter after I realized my mistake and shoved him kitchenward to get me the gelato. Ah, well.

    Sippity Sup: I’m flattered that you saved me for your 2 o’clock break! I would have chosen putting my head down on my desk or taking a walk in the hills over checking my blog. I didn’t really have much to say in this post, unfortunately. LA definitely has better eating options than SD, but if you find yourself in SD and you’re getting hungry, there’s definitely no reason to rush back home. Thanks for devoting 58 minutes of your workday to my site!

  11. San Diego DOES taste good :).. that's a lot of food for one person.. hopefully it wasn't all in one sitting lol :)

  12. All this fabulous food made me hungry, I love your blog, and I'm choosing you to pass on a meme. Hope you don't mind.

  13. Trang Le: You live in a great food town! And no, don't worry, I didn't eat all of that in one sitting...But even in six or seven sittings that's still a lot of food!

    Anna Mor: Thanks so much! I have to admit, though, that I don't really know what a meme is! So, I don't mind it at all... :) I really enjoy your blog, too, and hope you're able to devote lots of time to your beautiful paintings!

  14. I have never seen lava cake like this before. My goodness! I have tried making it at home a few different ways but the center is never exactly as I want it so I like to order it out. The one you had looks amazing.

  15. Bread and Jam: I'm impressed that you've made this at home! Even if it didn't turn out as you wanted, I'm sure it still tasted amazing. This is total decadence (and somewhere in the vicinity of 1500 calories, I'm sure). Thanks for your comment, and I hope you post a recipe for this soon!