Summer's here and the time is right -- to try to find restaurants with beautiful views that serve equally appealing food. The cliché is as true for San Diego as for other touristed cities: Most restaurants offering ocean scenery will coast on their looks, serving mediocre slop because they can get away with it. That's not the case with Azzura Point, a restaurant that, at its best, is sheer romantic magic, serving the food of love.
Azzura Point is in the midst of remaking itself to emphasize a blithe resort atmosphere, dispensing with the hints of formality in the current decor. Since San Diego is one of the few spots in the world to boast a Mediterranean climate, the restaurant will eventually be renamed Mistral for the southward-blowing trade wind that puffs the sails on that sea. In September, after the summer rush, the comfortable banquettes will be reupholstered in beachy shades of pale azure, cream, and tan (in place of ritzy cream and gold), and the silly, heavy brass fixtures will be righteously removed -- but they'll be keeping the views, the quiet, the space between tables. They promise they'll even keep the oval "lumbar cushions" that you can arrange behind your back at the banquettes. (These give short people a reason to live, allowing us to sit back and relax, without spilling food in our laps while en route to our mouths.)
The room is bordered by a window with a panoramic view of the bay, and all the tables are arranged to eye it head-on or sideways. At my first visit, my table's view was enhanced by a distractingly handsome young waiter, Ian. Not only was his service top-notch (warm, considerate, unintrusive), but I had to remind myself that he was actually human, not Benvenuto Cellini's little golden sculpture of Perseus come to life.
The summer menu suits the restaurant's future name, full of the light and approachable cuisine of southern Europe. The dishes seem simple. They're not, exactly. Hawaiian-born chef Martin Batis approaches the unadorned but full-flavored cuisines of Provence, Liguria, and Tuscany artfully, remaking and improving standard dishes with touches of islander whimsy that intensify the natural flavors. Much of his produce comes from the Coronado Farmers' Market -- fresh and mostly organic, or sustainably raised.
The airy appetizers awaken appetites, not sate them. At that first dinner with my brand-new friend Chaz, we began with a carpaccio of hamachi (yellowtail), a thin-sliced, satiny sashimi of jackfish with slim radish rounds, crispy leek lengths, and young greens in a soy vinaigrette enriched with unseen but flavorful white truffle. It was light, but it was deep.
A stuffed artichoke was a vast improvement over the often-dry Sicilian-American classic, accomplished by dumping the dross and going for the flavor. Instead of pushing a bready stuffing between the leaves, the chef started with a platform of a leafless heart, then topped it with a pouf combining more artichoke heart, cut in fine dice, mixed with San Daniele prosciutto, Parmesan, just enough bread crumbs to bind everything together, and a lively citric gremolata topping. It's all heart. On the side were a few sweet, garlic-seared Hawaiian shrimp -- just for fun.
I returned a week later with posse stalwarts Samurai Jim, the Lynnester, and Michelle to sample more of the menu. This time, the standard prosciutto e melone of every half-serious Italian restaurant was elevated to a cheerful new composition called Prosciutto and Pearls. A mandala of thin-sliced San Daniele prosciutto (the palest and silkiest of its ilk) was strewn with tiny balls of sweet, ripe cantaloupe and honeydew. In the center was a rectangular mandala's "eye" of crème fraîche panna cotta (more substantial than dessert panna cottas) topped with melon "gelée" (house-made cantaloupe gelatin), more multicolor "pearls," and arugula and basil leaves. It looked like a pointillist painting and tasted like a perfect summer afternoon on the island of Grande Jatte. We also loved a salad of blood orange segments and Roquefort cheese with toasted pecans, nestling in leaves of Belgian endive dressed with blood orange gastrique -- a wine-friendly salad if ever there was one, with every flavor a clockwork counterpoint to the others.
A more substantial starter was an authentic, coarse-textured pâté de campagne (pork, veal, and chicken), sprinkled with pistachios and accompanied (correctly) by Dijon and whole-grain mustards, toasted baguette slices, a partly sliced cornichon pickle, and a big, enticing caper berry. When the hotel's food and beverage director, New York-born foodie Ellen Burke Van Slyke, decided that the restaurant should serve pâtés, she brought in Philippe Trosch, a French-born chef from Arizona sister-property Ventana, to give the chef a three-day charcuterie tutorial. ("Your chef Martee, I love heem, he is zee best!" Ellen quotes him.) The study paid off grandly. The pâté took me back to hog heaven -- to picnicking around Beaune, with fearlessly hearty pâtés and baguettes from the local charcuteries to sustain hikes from one vineyard to the next (and serve as sobering ballast for the wine tastings).
That second evening, alas, the service was not half so perfect as the first night. Instead of Golden Boy, we nicknamed that evening's waiter "the Putz." He was older but much less wise to the breezy, festive atmosphere that Azzura Point is cultivating now. He annoyed us with a long, rote recitation of (expensive) dishes that he recommended, as though angling for a bigger tip. (We wanted to say, "Look, we all can read a menu.") He checked back with us when we didn't need him but was late in asking if we wanted a second round of wines (we did). Then he was seriously late in bringing them, in providing glasses, and in opening and pouring the two half-bottles -- a process he ceremonially dragged out until well after our entrées were delivered and starting to cool. If the first evening was a late spring's midsummer night's dream, the second, service-wise, was a comedy of errors.
But all's well that ends well, and the food saved the night, just as it had enhanced the earlier one. The entrée highlight of my meal with Chaz was a dish of Mano de León ("lion's paw") scallops from Baja. They're named that because they're huge -- metaphorically the size of a lion's paw -- about two inches high and wide, and shockingly sweet. (Their proximity is a great advantage. Even the best Atlantic Diver scallops aren't immune to flight delays, which can lead to loss of flavor. These, in contrast, are farm-raised near Ensenada, about 70 road minutes from Coronado.) Cooked gently with full respect, they were served with a "deconstructed" pesto -- instead of the heavy Genovese pesto, chef Batis segregates ingredients onto the edges of the plate -- sautéed basil leaves, a thin slice of frico (Parmesan transformed into a lacy fried cracker-crisp), and sweet roasted garlic cloves. The scallops are plated atop a pair of thin-skinned, juicy agnolotti stuffed with spinach and ricotta, while sautéed greens round out the array.