880 Harbor Island Drive, Harbor Island
The first warm day of spring, I headed for Harbor Island to catch some rays at lunch. A few minutes later, I was sitting on the lanai at the water's edge at Island Prime C Level, the Cohn Restaurant Group's newest local restaurant, with chef Deborah (Kemo Sabe, Indigo Grill) Scott at the helm. It's on the site of the old Ruben's, stylishly remade with plenty of space to eat al fresco. Two restaurants share the same building and kitchen -- the higher-end Island Prime to the right of the front door and the more casual C Level to the left.
C Level itself provides a choice of venues -- a wood-paneled indoor dining room (which I ignored), a roofed and shaded patio, or the umbrella-shaded sunshine of the lanai. Outdoors, you can watch boats sail by in close-up, with the downtown skyline and the Coronado Bay Bridge in long-shot view. Just down the block is the Reuben E. Lee, looking mighty yare for a non-floating wreck; the Cohns currently lease it as a storage area for Island Prime, but another company hopes to turn it into a hotel.
The weekday lunch crowd here is dressier than the usual San Diego dinner crowd. Most wear serious corporate business drag (suits, dresses, heels); some larger groups wear name-tags, too. Many are hearty eaters: We saw several lunch orders of brick-cooked chicken, huge Kobe beef burgers, and (for a more dietetic choice) the BLT Wedge, an entire, trisected head of iceberg lettuce with bacon, baguette slices, and blue cheese dressing on the side -- owner David Cohn's pet dish.
The menu headings are C-going cute: Appetizers are called "Under Way," salads are "Kelp Beds," and entrées are "High Tide."
That day for lunch, my partner chose the "High Tide" Lobster and Jalapeño Cheddar BLT, which comes with a bowl of sherried lobster bisque. The first thing you need to know about the C-level lobster (which appears on the menu in several guises) is that it's inexpensive bulk lobster meat (like lump crab, but with smaller lumps) extracted from the critters' knuckles. Hence, the lobster BLT is literally your proverbial "knuckle sandwich." The stuff tastes bland, barely like seafood at all, and on that day the melted cheese was gentle, too. It's supposed to be jalapeño cheese, but the menu was recently changed from plain Cheddar -- the earlier version is what we got: The ooze on our sandwich resembled Velveeta. Tomato and mellow applewood-smoked bacon completed the array of mild, soft ingredients served on white-bread toast. As we were about to discover, seafood that doesn't taste like seafood is what many of C Level's patrons prefer.
For example, the accompanying sherried bisque, made from the same bulk lobster (rather than shells and spare parts, as French chefs do it) is sweet and creamy but carries only a whisper of lobster flavor. This, it turns out, is a response to customer demand, says chef de cuisine Mike Suttles. "Josh -- Joshua McGinnis, the original chef de cuisine -- who's a great chef, worked on the lobster bisque for three months to come up with a perfect one. But when we served it, we were getting constant complaints about the strong flavor. They said it tasted too much like seafood," sighs Suttles, who came over from Blue Point when McGinnis moved to a gig in L.A. "So Deborah came up with this one on the fly one day. It seems to be the answer to the problem. Once we stopped using lobster bodies and roasting them off traditionally, that ended the complaints." If you do want a heartier bisque-style soup with more lobster flavor, there's a Sherried Lobster Kettle Pan Roast ($12), which includes lobster claw meat. Incidentally, the soup-and-sammie combo sells for $17, while for just $12 at several nearby restaurants (including the Boathouse, C Level's neighbor on Harbor Island), you can get a whole Maine lobster with melted butter. Your call.
My lunch, plucked from the "Kelp Bed," was the C-Level Louie, a San Francisco treat that I direly miss down here. At S.F.'s Cliff House (another "view" restaurant, overlooking the Pacific) and at any number of good dives, they make it with briny little "cocktail shrimp" and satiny-sweet Dungeness crab meat. At C Level, they make it with precisely four medium shrimp that have been boiled in plain water for a couple of minutes too long. The flavor had a muddy undertone. For $4 more (bringing the salad to $19), I went for the option of adding a handful of Alaska King crab meat. All of this species is frozen when caught, and it ran true to form -- low in gusto, with a rough, raggy mouth-feel. The rest of the salad is excellent -- good Russian-style Louie dressing on the side, fresh lettuce, the requisite slices of avocado, hard-cooked egg, red onion, and tomato -- plus additional fillips of golden pepper cubes, capers, and edamame. If you can overlook second-rate seafood, it's a first-rate Louie.
We returned the next night for dinner with our friend Provvi. All around the Bay, lights were twinkling on boats, bridges, and buildings. A fire was roaring in the hearth of the roofed patio, and on the lanai, the long stone "planter" that bisects the space is lined with lava stones, heated by hidden gas plumbing. Heat-stanchions added more warmth. The night was chilly but we felt toasty. The business-lunch crowd was gone, and the evening diners had changed into their casual civvies.
Potentially the best of our starters was a bowlful of littleneck clams and Fox River mussels in a pinot grigio broth with pancetta and rapini (strong Italian wild broccoli), with crostini toasts alongside for dipping. The clams were sweet and tender, and the sauce was initially delicious -- until the mussels kicked in and peed in the pool. "These have an odd smell," said Provvi. "I don't like it." Indeed, these were the mussels that Anthony Bourdain warned us about in his Kitchen Confidential. They'd obviously been sitting in the walk-in for a few days, befouling themselves until their shells and meats had developed a faint stink. I spoke with Mike Suttles about this the next day. He'd been off the previous evening, "or else I'd blame myself," he said. He disclosed that the restaurant's fishmonger is Fish Warehouse, the same source that Oceanaire and Blue Point use. "It's one of the most professional seafood companies that I've seen in San Diego. We get deliveries six days a week. We go through so much product, we pretty much turn everything over every day. But I've had to constantly retrain my guys on changing out the pans for the mussels, to put 'em in perforated drip pans with ice on top and not just throw 'em in a hotel pan and stick 'em in the walk-in when we're busy. It's a constant work in progress."