The showpiece entrée is a whole striped bass. "You understand it's a whole fish? With the head on?" asked the waitress. We nodded. "We get a lot of people here who freak out seeing the eyes," she said. "The native cuisine of my race is Chinese restaurant food," I reassured her, accidentally breaking into rhyme: "Since the age of three, I've looked at dead fish eyes, and they've looked at me." Then we gave her a chorus of the San Diego seafood-eaters' summertime mantra: "We're not Yuman! Don't overcook it." "We never do," she said, and proved truthful.
The tender bass swam in a thin, tasty tomato-garlic sauce, wearing crisp slices of fried fennel, which we gobbled down at a speed approaching that of the Lynnester's Boxster. Sheila cautiously took a bite of fish, assessing the exotic American species. "It tastes like -- dirt," she mused. I had to admit that it did have a faintly muddy undertone, like catfish. Subsequent research solved the riddle: Wild striped bass live in freshwater lakes, enjoying a diet of mosquitoes, dragonflies, waterbugs, et al. But this was farmed, pond-raised bass (hence that "dirt" taste), fattened up on Purina Game Fish Chow. It takes five pounds of fish food for each pound of weight gain, so what we had on the platter was about 12 pounds of chow transmogrified to fish-flesh, looking pretty but tasting funny.
A pair of thick Colorado lamb loin chops were grilled to medium (versus our "medium rare" order), sprinkled with herbage and set atop "five onion risotto" and something called "mint gastrique" -- vinegar and sugar cooked down to a syrup and flavored with fresh mint and shallots. "Too bad they're using American lamb," said Sheila. "It's fatty, compared to our Australian and New Zealand lamb." She was right, mucho fat was on and all through the chops. Lynn nibbled a little rice. "The best risottos -- I can't stop myself, I eat them till they're gone. This, I can take or leave." It was thick and glutinous, sweet from the mint syrup. We ordered a side dish of wild mushrooms as accompaniment. They were nice and wild, a mixture of small chanterelles and baby shiitakes sautéed in butter.
I'd turned the wine list over to the expert Sheila to choose a bottle that would go with our entrées. (With fish, pasta, and lamb arriving, it would be a challenge.) When her first choice turned out to be unavailable, the sommelier -- a nice young man from St. Louis -- came to our table to discuss a substitute. "I'm studying for my sommelier exam next week," he confided. "I can't just enjoy drinking wine now, I have to memorize. It's torture." Sheila tortured him some more, the two going round and round before agreeing on a Beckman California Grenache (about $10 higher than the original choice). It proved lively, jammy, not so much a match to the diverse entrées as an harmonious additional flavor.
The dessert course is where Soleil's chef shows his wit. Lavender-blueberry ice cream vanished fast, the perfumey sophistication of the herb twining around the Down East tart-sweetness of the berries, fascinating us into something like greed. A "mile-high lemon meringue cake" offered six inches of airy layer cake, surrounded by coconut syrup and topped with the sorbet du jour, an exotic strawberry-fig mixture. "Coffee and Do-Nuts" proved to be a Krispy Kreme bread pudding served in a coffee mug, topped with espresso gelato. The pudding tasted exactly like a melt-down of Krispy Kreme donuts. "Why do Americans like those things so much?" asked slender Sheila, who's an ER nurse by trade and appalled by the threat to our general health. "They're just terrific when they're hot off the line at the bakery," said slim Lynne. "Irresistible! But if you buy them at the grocery, they're disgusting -- when they're cold you taste all the sugar and trans-fats." Lynne and I (with Sheila abstaining) ravished the pudding for three or four spoonfuls, stopping when it cooled enough to lose the krispy-kremy magic.
We started post mortems at the table. "The entrées were kind of boring, but I'd probably come back for appetizers and desserts," said the Lynnester, to general agreement. Just then, the waitress returned, cutting short the discussion. Slapping the bill on the table, she didn't even ask if we wanted to box up the leftover lemon cake. I managed to take it home anyway, but if I told you how, I'd have to kill you.
ABOUT THE CHEF
"I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania," says Executive Chef Stephen Clickner. "In high school, starting at age 14, I got summer jobs in restaurants. I worked my way up from washing dishes to prep to finally working on the [cooking] line...I wanted to learn more, so it was either go to school or become an apprentice. I was accepted to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America], but I chose instead to become an apprentice under Chef Sigler at Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, at the Westin, which was a five-diamond resort. It's the same program as at cooking schools -- a three-year program with the same curriculum -- but I had the benefit of being one of eight chefs instead of one of 20 students to a class. I stayed on Hilton Head cooking in fine-dining restaurants there. Then I transferred to the Westin in New Orleans and stayed there for about a year. Ended up moving to San Francisco and working at Postrio for a little bit.
"Then I worked for a company called cb5 for five years." [The cb5 group is a corporate food-consultant which hires itself out to hotel chains and similar businesses to develop menus and recipes, and in some cases to run the restaurant after opening. For instance, they were in charge of Rice at the Hotel W for over a year, but sold it back to the hotel chain last fall.] "I opened up a bunch of restaurants for them, and I worked at the W here for a while. When they sold Rice back to the hotel, I left and took a year off to relax and regroup. I was tired of moving. I wanted to grow up, find a home, be more stable. Then cb5 called and told me about the opening at this hotel. At the beginning, cb5 designed and developed the Food and Beverage Department here, but they have nothing to do with the operation. One of the draws for me was that they wanted an independent restaurant at the hotel. I wanted the benefits of working for a large company, while still having the independence to do what a restaurant needs to do -- change quickly and evolve -- as well as running the day to day operations."