A much larger kitchen allows for a more ambitious menu. Many dishes are embellished by classic butter-based French emulsion sauces: beurre blanc, Hollandaise, Béarnaise. In the Eisenhower era, these sauces were icons of upscale cuisine, the province of fancy French restaurants and ambitious Junior League hostesses (or their maids). If you've ever cooked them at home, you know that their textures are as trembly as the arms of the breathless amateur who's just whipped in the butter. Today, restaurant kitchens use foolproof shortcuts and ingredients with neither the flavor nor the mouth-feel of the perilous, precious emulsions of old. The mixtures are thicker, often stabilized (e.g., with cornstarch), and if egg yolk is involved (e.g., in Hollandaise), it's likely to be a grainy, pasteurized commercial product that eliminates the danger of salmonella. You may not be thinking about germs; restaurant owners have to.
Oysters Rockefeller and lobster bisque are drawn from the haute cuisine of the ancien regime. The oysters were nicely done, tender and just warmed through, but they were interred under heaps of mushy Pernod-spiked spinach and (at bottom, jointly occupying shell space with the oyster meats) bacon bits. On top were solidified fluffs of pasteurized-egg Hollandaise, browned on the surface -- more like soft-baked egg than a sauce. The lobster bisque won our attention with tender morsels of lobster afloat in the liquid, but the sheer weight of tomato and reduced cream in the soup finally wore us out.
An interlude of Californian trendiness brought a mixed green salad with candied walnuts, poached pear, and "baked" goat cheese in a balsamic vinaigrette. Hunks of grainy-textured chevre were encased in thick batter, like frozen fish sticks. If you throw the cheese to the pigs, what remains is a charming (if ordinary) combination that's perfect for a summer's day.
Harbor House's Shrimp La Costa is the original of this now-ubiquitous local favorite of stuffed, bacon-wrapped shrimp, a dish invented in the mid-'80s by then-chef John Borg. It's on the downstairs menu only. The crabmeat stuffing, flecked with scalliion and carrot, hinted at Louisiana flavors, and the shrimp was reasonably tender. I liked it very much, but the Béarnaise sauce on top proved so weighty, "yolky," and salty, it nearly spoiled the joy. The accompanying garlic gratin potatoes rode the line between delightful and distasteful -- the spuds are cooked ahead and chilled, imparting a kugel-like flavor of the fridge. The veggie medley had the same contents as in our previous meal; it was better cooked but less herbal than the upstairs rendition.
For our fish du jour, we chose grilled local white sea bass. A giant slab was again cooked dry all the way through, for the tastes of people who live far from the sea and would blanch to find an opalescent blush on the flakes. We liked the accompaniments of moist, fluffy couscous, firm asparagus, and a luscious (if suspiciously thick) ginger beurre blanc.
They say the country has fragmented into "red" and "blue" political states, but there's at least one more line of fragmentation. According to the slick cooking magazines, gourmets in Oxford, Mississippi, and Bozeman, Montana, can now pick up Thai chile sauce or Niçoise olives at their local Piggly Wiggly (I should be so lucky in Golden Hill), but there remains a division between "blue" and "red" states of food preference -- places where, for instance, fish are enjoyed medium-rare, versus those whose motto is "I don't want it wiggling on my plate." San Diego is a mixture of the two. Harbor House mainly feeds visitors from the culinary red zone, although many locals also prefer that style.
"Unfortunately, we're a tourist spot," says chef Cooke, a CIA grad who worked in several fine French restaurants in New York City before deciding to move west with his family. "It's good for our business, because if the hotels are full, we're full. But most of our steak is ordered medium or medium-well. Our fish -- if we undercook it, it gets sent back. When the Holiday Bowl was in town a few years ago and Nebraska was playing, we had a whole dining room full of people wearing red sweatshirts. All of our pasta dishes kept coming back, because they were cooked al dente. People said they're from the Midwest, they need pasta well-done! The fact that we're a tourist spot does affect our cooking methods, our presentation, and our prices, too, since people on vacation are willing to spend more...But if you ask for your fish medium-rare, we can accommodate you. We get a lot of special requests, and we try to accommodate everyone."
I like the upstairs of Harbor House for its view, its architecture, its drinks; I'd come back to chill with a cold seafood platter and an icy margarita. Downstairs, I like the Shrimp La Costa. If Aunt Mabel were coming to town, I might well take her to this restaurant -- but I'm not from a state where girls are named Mabel.