Lobster tempura turned out to be hunks of tender but anonymous-tasting seafood dipped and fried in a delicious batter that dominates. It tastes like half of a heavenly fish 'n' chips -- so pair it with one of the great shoestring fried-potato variations (from the "Sides" section of the menu), like the Belgian frites with chipotle remoulade. The fries are crisp and ultra-thin, rich with potato flavor. (These are exactly what I'd hoped for at Confidential.) If you'd prefer a green accompaniment, you can also get a combo of lobster and shrimp tempura on a salad dressed with a passionfruit vinaigrette.
Shrimp and mango rolls come wrapped in chive-flecked crepes (rather than the cabbage still noted on the menu). The filling includes chewy lime-marinated shrimp mingling with mango chunks and touches of Chinese mustard and soy. The crepes were a bit thick and gluey; they needed more crisping. Undercooked, they soaked up too much liquid from the fruit and split at the seams, making it nigh impossible to transfer them from platter to plates.
Coconut shrimp were intensely sweet, nicely cooked, and came with a mango chipotle sauce, but the overall impact was so forgettable that...What was I saying? Crab empanadas had semi-crisp flour tortilla wrappers. "These aren't empanadas, they're chimichangas!" Lynne exclaimed. They're stuffed with that insipid lump crabmeat and are topped with melted Boursin (French garlic cream cheese). The menu says they come with tomatillo salsa verde. This was both missing and sorely missed. Something sparky would have brightened up the bland-on-bland flavor combination.
Faced with a short and uninspiring wine list, and by a weeknight happy hour offering specialty drinks at half price, I started with a Hurricane. Katrina it was not. Made with only one type of dark rum (rather than several, in the classic style) and lots of passionfruit juice, it tasted heavier and sweeter than the authentic N'awlins rendition. I passed on a Blue Hawaii when I saw the ingredient list and discovered that it included coconut and (gaah!) cherry liqueur. (The true Blue Hawaii that grownups drink on the islands consists of pineapple juice, vodka or rum, blue curaçao, and a squeeze of fresh lime -- nothing more, unless you count ice.) Meanwhile, my partner explored the international beer list, featuring brews from nine countries, plus Hawaii. Next round, Lynne and I both switched to pomegranate martinis, which taste something like Kir royale, bright and not too saccharine. If you're still sitting up straight at the end of the meal and you want a dessert other than crème brûlée or "dim sum donuts," the drink list can furnish that course, too. Something called a "frozen coconut" (made with ice cream and coconut-flavored booze and served in a coconut shell) sure looked like dessert as the waiter walked by.
Most of the dishes we tried were fun and tasty but a tad predictable, less cutting-edge than they were at Confidential last week. Even so, as the meal ended, Lynne (who lives nearby) was scribbling a list of things she wanted to try again. "I'd return for those," she said. "It's a great place to hang out." Indeed, it's an absolute hoot. I'd love to come with a gang some warm summer night, snag a cabana, graze and down cheap silly drinks until we're all silly, too. That's what Lei Lounge is there for.
ABOUT LEI LOUNGE
Lei Lounge opened in late April. Its owners are brothers Bill and Michael Weiss, who also own several restaurants and nightclubs in Philadelphia as well as the popular Bourbon Street bar next door. They're partnering at Lei with Mike Mack and Michael Skueish. "San Diego being known for an outdoor climate, me and Michael Skueish had a concept for an outdoor restaurant with cabanas, sort of like a tropical getaway," says Bill Weiss. "We're here from the East Coast. We don't take the climate for granted like everybody else does. We wanted to have a South Pacific sort of feel to it." What, I asked, will they do when it pours in winter? "We'll probably have to close it when it rains. We have a lot of umbrellas over the tables, but if we have a heavy downpour...."
The restaurant's original chef was from Philadelphia and returned there once things were rolling. Now the head chef is Philadelphia-born San Francisco transplant Guy Ferguson, who was hired in January, months before the opening. "I got into the profession because I like to be around food," he says. "I tried other things, but I keep going back to the kitchen. I love cooking for people, I love sending things out for people to enjoy. After kicking around for a number of years after high school, doing all kinds of stuff, I finally found my way into the kitchen around 1994 and decided to make the culinary field my occupation. I went to the CCA [California Culinary Academy] in San Francisco, and for the next ten years I worked at Italian and Greek restaurants there, and then at Aqua, at Huntington Hotel, and at Black Cat, one of Reed Hearon's restaurants." While living in the Bay Area, he explored the many great Asian restaurants, ranging from his favorite, the famed Slanted Door, to the various "great little holes in the wall."
Then he and his wife took off for two years in Paris so that he could attend the world-famous Cordon Bleu cooking school. "I studied pastry there, to round myself off in the field," he says. "When I got back from Paris -- one of the great things about the culinary industry is you can pretty much go wherever you want. After ten years in San Francisco, my wife and I were ready for a change. San Francisco had peaked as a place for food, and we lived right downtown in the city and it was starting to get to us. I've always loved California, and we decided on San Diego. It's just a great spot -- great food, restaurants, amazing weather, just about everything you can ask for over here. You tie all those things together, it was a no-brainer...But Northern and Southern California turn out to be two different animals as far as food goes -- not as many foodies here, not as much experience with eating in restaurants, with trying different ingredients. I'm still getting used to that."