One Market Place at Manchester Grand Hyatt, Downtown San Diego
Sally’s has a long-standing reputation as one of San Diego’s most romantic destinations for lovers. It’s an outbuilding behind the Manchester Grand Hyatt at the edge of Seaport Village (so, fans of antique rock, you’ll be sneaking to Sally’s through the alley). It’s got plenty of warm-weather outdoor seating and views of cityscapes and bayscapes from the picture windows of the interior. Until recently the menu was modern French, through a series of French-born chefs who knew and mentored each other in an unbroken succession and invariably moved on to Bertrand at Mr. A’s in a stately, continuous procession.
Two years ago, the hotel management decided to switch the cooking style to Asian-fusion, with a stronger focus on seafood (always featured, but less intensively than now). With the arrival a few months ago of German-born chef Sarah Linkenheil, the French line is broken. The ambience has subtly changed, too, in an apparent attempt to skew younger. Whatever the canned music was when I ate at Sally’s a few years ago, I didn’t notice it. This time it was edgy modern rock, a more abrasive sound, and played much louder. I went to Sally’s expecting a Valentine’s Day destination for serious couples. I’m sure (at least I hope) they’ll make some adjustments for the occasion with mellower, more sophisticated sounds, but on an ordinary night I’d now see it more as a destination for an impressive first date or a serious third one.
It’s not so easy to change identities, and possibly not even a good idea. If Sally’s is trying to capture the Gaslamp crowd, it doesn’t seem to be working very well. Our fellow diners midweek were scarcely the notorious Japengo Thursday-night set, nor the Stingaree weekend gang — who probably wouldn’t feel quite at home at civilized Sally’s in any case. There were a few tables of thirtysomethings but more silverbacks, who were probably as annoyed with the music as I was. Sally’s was always a relaxing place for conventioneers to avoid the Gaslamp meat-market scene, as well as a place for loving locals to tryst sweetly and discreetly. But the management still has some good instincts: At one point during my dinner, a large party (8? 12? who’s counting?) entered and were carefully seated at a table well away from other diners — a considerate strategy.
Aside from the ice-cold (near-frozen) butter that came with the table bread, our starters were nearly all vibrant and arresting — although I missed the raw oysters and cold seafood platter of the old days. A “Napoleon” of raw ahi, lightly cured salmon (gravlax, not lox), and avocado, layered with a few thin fried wonton crackers, was silky and ultra-fresh. Everything in the combination, down to the soy-oyster sauce and furikake seasoning mixture (sesame, seaweed, dried shrimp), worked in perfect harmony. The portion is generous enough to share with a friend or a sweetie, every bite a blast of maritime freshness.
An Asian lobster salad, on the other hand, is more salad than lobster — a busy plateful of Napa cabbage, red Belgian endive, mandarin orange sections, “lightbulb” tomatoes, sweet onions, and fried wonton-skin croutons in a sweet, fruity papaya vinaigrette. Now and then you can even find a bite of lobster hiding under a cabbage leaf, but doing so is no occasion for rejoicing. The bulk Pacific lobster meat, which arrives frozen, has lost its flavor in the chill and tastes almost neutral. (A week later, I met very similar lobster in a pot pie at Urban Solace in North Park, so it must be going around right now, like a winter cold.) The menu is about to change and incorporate a fresh lobster dish, so this and other preparations involving crustaceans are likely to improve.
An appetizer plate for two includes nearly all the remaining starter choices. Sally’s famous crab cakes (with King and Maryland blue crab) seem unaltered by time and chef changes — still refined and delicate, lightly coated, with almost no filler. They are pretty much the definitive crab cakes of San Diego, even when miniaturized for the sampler platter. Tempura prawns are sweet and tender, robed in a mere whisper of batter.
A Hunan duck quesadilla, a thin flour tortilla rolled around a filling of duck and smoked Gouda, is cut into conical sections like a sushi roll and plated over a daub of wasabi mole, wherein the wasabi is so subtle you can’t really taste it. “This is very delicate,” said one of my tablemates approvingly. Pacific lobster bisque, our least favorite part of the sampler, arrived in two demitasse cups, but without spoons. At the bottom of each cup were small cubes of unidentifiable starchy solids — Kabocha pumpkin, the menu told us. Spoons would really help. (I have visions of desperate Heimlich maneuvers to dislodge slurped-up pumpkin pieces.) The soup itself is rather thin: It could pass for a light Mediterranean tomato-seafood broth, a base for a bouillabaisse rather than a bisque. Apparently, it, too, suffers from bland-lobster-meat issues.
It’s almost a given that restaurants with great starters will slump a bit on the main course. Here, one of our entrées was sublime — the others, not. As I learned from one of Sally’s previous chefs (after he decamped for Mr. A’s), unlike the Marriot chain (with Arterra and Molly’s), the Hyatt group has not yet seen the wisdom of investing in local, seasonal, and organic ingredients — although the current chef is pushing toward use of naturally raised meat and poultry, where the flavor difference is unmistakable. It’s not as bad as Sysco veggie medleys, but in small ways, if you’ve been eating at top local destinations, you’ll probably notice the slight fall-off in flavor from what you’d expect at this price point.
The star entrée was black cod (aka sable), among the finest and fattiest of all fin-fishes. It arrived tenderly poached in a subtle broth of orange, miso, and bonito, a gentle, perfect dish. Accompanied by rice, baby favas, and pea greens, it was deeply sensuous.