Seared scallops featured jumbo diver scallops aquacultured in Baja (most likely the chubby mano de león subspecies), served with a few soggy zucchini slices and “smoked” mashed potatoes. We couldn’t taste any smoke, but we appreciated the ample butter in the spuds. The scallops were sweet and fresh, cooked with care to perfect tenderness. To repeat from earlier reviews: Baja scallops may not have the subtle, sexy undertone of Maine scallops, but they’re much more reliable, always sweet, with no danger of jet-lagged flavor loss.
The Lynnester had already scouted Sea Rocket and had sampled a fish du jour with vegetable pistou on her earlier visit with Ariana. The attraction, per the menu, is “a ratatouille-style mixture of seasonal vegetables.” Lynne loved it her first outing but was disappointed this time around with the vegetable mix, which wasn’t as exciting or perhaps not as adeptly cooked. Obviously, Sea Rocket is still having consistency problems. The fish was yellowtail (last time it was halibut). It wasn’t bad but was slightly oversalted and slightly overcooked.
By dessert “our” waiter had grown scarce, so we grabbed whoever was around. All the whoevers were pleasant and accommodating, but we’d long since finished our coffee (very good French press, an Italian dark roast from Caffé Calabria) by the time our ricotta cheesecake with berries showed up. It was marginally okay — lean, dryish, kind of homey and amateurish. Later yet came our empanada stuffed with peaches and rhubarb. “This empanada dough is way too thick and doughy for fruit,” said Lynne, accurately. “It tastes like it’s made for beef and onions,” said Ben. Right again. The dough for Argentine-style empanadas de horno (baked empanadas) is tougher and much less buttery than pie or tart crust, and here it was rolled out too thick. It’d be better, in a dessert, to use the very short and rather difficult dough for Chilean-style empanadas de hoja (fried empanadas, in which the dough separates itself into thin, buttery layers, like strudel or croissants). That could be a knockout, not a knockoff.
Basic question: Will I go back? Of course I will. I envision Sea Rocket as a terrific neighborhood restaurant in the not-too-far future, once the kinks are worked out. It’ll probably always be too noisy for me (unless they spring for some sound-baffles and carpeting — hey, starting today, everybody go to Sea Rocket every week and drench them in money so they can redecorate!), but the food’s already universally interesting, and some dishes (e.g., the sea urchins and those divinely simple grilled sardines) are exceptional. Of course, I don’t mind a bit that the restaurant is openly devoted to the methods and mission of the slow-food movement. At the risk of seeming insufferably earnest: Global warming, soaring oil prices, salmonella from unsourced factory-farmed tomatoes and peppers — these are just a few scary signs of what a pleasureless, fast-profit-centered ethos has brought us to. No accident that slow food and locavore cooking are gaining currency at this moment. They’re good for the planet, good for our bodies — and, wow! They taste great, too.
Rather than include a chef interview this week, let me suggest that you visit the restaurant’s website and click “blogs.” You’ll find videotapes of diving for urchins, fishing for bass, and hunting great white whales, along with vast amounts of owner Dennis’s prose, from which you can learn everything you want to know about Sea Rocket, sustainable seafood, the difficulties of opening a restaurant, and more.
Sea Rocket Bistro
*** (Good to Very Good)
3382 30th Street (Upas Street), North Park, 619-255-7049, searocketbistro.com
HOURS: Open daily from 5:30 p.m. “until everyone’s fed” (about 10:00 p.m. weeknights, 11:00-ish on weekends).
PRICES: Soups and salads, $4–$12; seafood starters, $9–$13; entrées, $14–$22; desserts, $7; locally baked bread, $1.50.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Seafood — local and unendangered — with sustainably raised or organic local produce, cooked with Mediterranean influences. About 18 mainly Southern California wines, all available by glass or bottle; 16 bottled craft beers, plus others on draft. $10 wine-corkage fee.
PICK HITS: Sea urchin in the shell, sea urchin bisque, grilled sardines, fisherman’s stew, seared Baja scallops, any dish with Carlsbad mussels.
NEED TO KNOW: Half-price beers, wines, and grilled sardines at tables as well as bar during happy hour, 5:30–7:00 p.m. daily. Very noisy room. Two lacto-vegetarian entrées; two vegan salads. Many tables and chairs are bar-height, so reserve (and specify) to snag a normal-height table, if that matters. (Also, sea urchins and oysters not always available; call to check.) Small parking lot behind restaurant, access on Upas Street via narrow alley/driveway to the left of the fast-food parking lot.