The list of side dishes includes many variations on mashed potatoes, plus fried and baked spuds, spinach, mushrooms, and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus. The best, fresh shaved corn with black truffle and herbs, has become the restaurant's signature dish. "Omigod, this is amazing!" said the Lynnester at first bite. Each of us echoed her rhapsodies. The truffle component isn't the usual splash of oil, but crunchy black truffle shavings, lending earthy contrast to the supersweet corn kernels and lush cream sauce. This dish alone is worth the voyage.
"Lightly smoked wild mushrooms with herbs, garlic, shallots, and red wine" (the menu says) spill out of two rectangular packages of puff pastry. Don't hope for morels or chanterelles: The mushrooms are mainly creminis (the brown version of button mushrooms), with a few strips of baby shiitake and rehydrated porcini. The garlic is hard to detect. Instead, you get a lash of black pepper, heavy salting, and a sharp-flavored sauce. Sautéed spinach with cream, pancetta, and roasted garlic had tough leaves, splotches of melted cheddar, and a peppery cream sauce (and again, no perceptible garlic).
At our first meal, our other side was a lobster/aged cheddar twice-baked potato, which is not only enough for two as a side (as recommended) but would make a whole meal for a duo at home. Rising from a decapitated, hollowed-out potato was a giant pouf mingling melted cheese and mashed baked potato flesh, mixed with chunks of bulk lobster knuckle meat. This type of lobster meat has only a hint of seafood flavor, and its texture resembles fork-mashed canned tuna. Arriving in a nearly burnt potato shell, it had grown chewy from the baking, and the flavor combination confused my taste buds. After childhood summers in New England gobbling steamed live lobsters with drawn butter, my palate just can't get around the Californicated combination of lobster and melted cheese. Lynne and Fred didn't say much, and they also didn't eat much.
Real lobster -- in the shell, that is -- appears on an entrée of lobster, rock shrimp, clams, and mussels on black squid-ink linguini with an arugula-Pernod cream sauce. The sauce is very rich, lightly herbal from the licorice-flavored Pernod, and heavily salted -- you don't taste the salt, but it raises an instant thirst. "Love this sauce," said the Lynnester. The Australian lobster tail hulking over the plate proved sweet and reasonably tender. It was surrounded by tiny rock shrimp and sweet little clams, but the mussels were (as at C Level the previous week) a little "off." They weren't as funky as they'd been downstairs, but they still had a whiff of their own exudates. (I spoke with chef Deborah about this the next day, and she promised to delve into the problem and correct it. I believe her, because the restaurant's official mussel-handling practices are correct, and because she's encountered nasty mussels at other people's restaurants and was aghast to hear that some had come out of her kitchen.)
Porcini-dusted rack of Colorado lamb featured ordinary, slightly greasy meat with a delicious smoked tomato glacé. Blobs of spicy Moroccan-style tomato jam decorated a bed of tiny green French lentils, which were cooked a little crunchy. "Shouldn't lentils be softer?" Lynne asked. "Oh, but I love them this way," my partner answered. He was pretty much alone in that preference, sharing it only with the chef -- since our next dish showed that the crunchiness was deliberate.
Great Northern beans of similar texture accompanied an herb-crusted Alaskan halibut fillet with a yuzu beurre blanc, clams, and pancetta. "I could handle the lentils, but these are just too hard for me," said Fred. My partner liked them even better than the lentils, but none of us liked the fish: Once this bland species is cooked a few seconds past translucent, it's scarcely worth eating. Ours was cooked to conventioneer standards -- well done -- and most went into a week of dinner donations to my favorite feral cat. At second visit, we ordered pomegranate-teriyaki mahimahi and asked the server for medium rare. It arrived cooked well-done, too, but this gamier fish withstood it better, and we liked the zingy glaze. The accompanying udon noodles, dressed with sesame and ginger and splotted with bok choy pieces, were delightful, tasting as if they could have come from a serious Hong Kong restaurant.
Desserts are deliberately "retro," says the chef. A pineapple upside-down cake was a giant warm rectangle drenched in caramel. My partner and I liked it but wearied after a couple of bites. "Anybody want to take this home?" we asked. "Me, me!" said Fred. We tried both the "trios" -- three house-made ice creams and sorbets, served in house-made waffle cones. Their flavors change frequently. That night, we liked the pistachio best among the ice creams; the others didn't get much play. The sorbets had an icy texture. "I like the passion fruit," said Lynne. "It's the only one with a really strong flavor."
"You know, the only Cohn restaurant I've really liked before this one was Blue Point," said the Lynnester. "This was a real surprise. The food's much better than I expected, and the view is just great -- I'm even thinking of taking my boyfriend here for a special evening."
Both venues of Island Prime will be serving a buffet for Mother's Day this weekend (10:00 a.m.--2:30 p.m., $50 adults with one glass of champagne, $16 kids 6--12, free for under 6), same dishes upstairs and downstairs. If this sounds like your mom's cuppa tea, best reserve for it right away, because a lot of other moms' husbands and grown children are already on the phone.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Deborah Scott still speaks with a trace of her native Virginia, where her mom cooked Southern food and her dad manned the back-yard grill. "I call them Ward and June Cleaver," she says. "They're both in their eighties now, and I feel fortunate they're still flourishing." The grill awakened her interest in food. "I used to go camping a lot, and what really absorbed me was the meats and the smells of that rustic-type cooking." Once she'd earned a degree in English literature, bartending her way through college, she studied at the Baltimore International Culinary College and then won an advanced degree in the graduate studies program of the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in Hyde Park, New York. After working in several restaurants back East, she moved to California in 1992 and opened Mediterraneo in Alpine. She went on to open the original Indigo Grill in Little Italy (now reopened and flourishing at a better site) and Kemo Sabe, under the aegis of the Cohn Restaurant Group. She still heads those kitchens as well as those of Island Prime and Island Prime C Level.