The opening California roll, its center damp with fresh crab, served as a palate cleanser before the principal appetizers: grilled calamari steak and wasabi-seared tenderloin. Both offered heat without becoming intrusive, and both had everyone grinning. The wasabi-marinated tenderloin was a masterpiece of grill-work: the exterior had been caramelized, not charred, and the center of each thin slice glowed red. And in the middle of the fanned-out meat: yams, shredded and deep fried, the rich uncle of crispy onions. The calamari we dubbed "the veal of the sea" for its tenderness and the way it showed off the crushed-crouton Cajun crust. As we ate, Dad found another reason to envy California -- his new favorite cocktail sauce. No ketchup, no paste. Fresh Roma tomatoes, horseradish, pepper, Tabasco, lime juice. Light and kicky, and even better with a little lemon squeeze.
What he didn't find was a reprise of his swordfish epiphany. The fish was cut unevenly, one end thinner than the other, and much more cooked. He admired the accompanying peanut sauce but eventually turned to Mom's drawn butter (she ordered lobster) to perk things up without hiding the fish's flavor. Even then, he found himself looking to my baby-back ribs for consolation and speculating that a smaller, thicker cut of swordfish might have been more successful. To further his frustration, the fish was dwarfed by a pile of roasted potatoes that were lukewarm at best. "It's too much and it's too cold," he concluded.
Grace had similar trouble with her garlic mashed potatoes, which, while dusted with scallion shards, arrived at the cool end of appetizing. The plates -- locally produced discs of brown pottery -- could have stood warming. She was happier with her fish -- Ono, thick and still translucent under the just-browned surface. It helped restore our confidence in Rimel, the celebrated fisherman, as did Mom's lobster, caught that day and served cracked open and grilled. She paired it with spinach -- wokked with garlic, then dabbed with butter and doused with chicken stock.
Still, my ribs carried the day. First dry-rubbed, then cooked in the oven, then smoked on the rotisserie, then slathered with a molasses-thickened sauce and grilled, the meat crumbled off the bone and won universal praise. So did my chipotle black beans. "They're inviting," said Grace as she spooned up another bite.
Fried plantains drizzled with chocolate and joined by coconut gelato made us think of all the best things about Mesquite, while a crumb-topped Julian pie -- itself topped with caramel gelato -- recalled the missteps. Why not serve the gelato on the side and keep the crumb top crumby? Little quibbles -- certainly not enough to tarnish a new star in a formerly dark patch of sky.
ABOUT THE OWNER
Matt Rimel, self-described hunter and fisherman, "grew up commercial fishing. I still do. Touching and seeing fish is my whole life. I do all the fish-, produce-, and meat-buying for all my places -- that's the way I spend my day. My whole theory is, start with the perfect product and cook it the way it's going to best show itself in your mouth. Growing up, we did freediving down in Baja, and we'd cook grouper on a mesquite fire on the beach. We'd eat it with lemon, corn tortillas, and Tecate -- not even salsa -- and it would blow us away."
Over the past two decades, he has cast his nets a little wider. "I've made some incredible connections all over the world. We have a really neat little boutiquey fish market. We have a bunch of fishermen that fish all over Kona, Oahu, and locally." They bring in things like Opakapaka and Onaga (snapper), and to Rimel's delight, he's found that such exotic fare is welcome at Mesquite. "It's a little more pricey, but people are just into good stuff everywhere, I guess. It's really nice to see -- whatever we put out there just goes."
The restaurant's general format is taken from Rimel's Rotisserie and is overseen by Rimel's veteran chef Andrew Abel. (Rimel is careful to give credit where it's due: Tim Johnson, the head sushi chef at Zenbu, is in charge of Mesquite's sushi offerings, and manager Cindy Shaffer and her predecessor assembled the wine list.)
But all this is prologue. The real question for a man who has made it in La Jolla is, "Why open a restaurant behind a Chevron in Scripps Ranch?"
Rimel says: "A friend just dragged me out of La Jolla and opened my eyes up to what's going on out there. As far as the numbers go, it's like a hundred times what the La Jolla neighborhood is. I didn't want to do anything else, but he said, 'Look, there are millions of people out here' " and a decided lack of better restaurants. "We looked at the demographics and took a huge gamble. It's a funky location, but it's centrally located. For anybody within 20 miles, it's 10 minutes. It was pretty sketchy for the first year, but we've survived, and now the place is doing really well. You get quality from word of mouth and people returning. It was the right choice -- definitely."