Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa and Marina, 1441 Quivira Road, Mission Beach
Red Marlin is the answer. If you can find it.
The questions are: Where do you take visitors for dinner when you want to show off San Diego’s shoreline beauty, while sharing food that everyone will enjoy? And — where do you go when, desperate for a mini-vacation, you want to escape and play tourist yourself with tasty food in a seaside resort setting?
Red Marlin is the latest addition to San Diego’s growing gallery of “view” restaurants that aren’t rip-offs. As I told our waitress halfway through dinner, “If you guys don’t watch out, you’re going to ruin San Diego’s reputation for bad food.”
“I’m taking my mom here next time she comes,” said the Lynnester. Her mom is a gourmet cook/foodie who fits right into the regular eating posse. But if my own mom (a disastrous cook) were still alive, I’d probably take her here too, for a “nice piece of fish.” This is a hotel restaurant with a blissful water view, where the cuisine rides that fine line: plenty good enough for serious eaters without scaring off the regular Yumans, Omahans, et al.
Unlike, say, Jsix, which can push hard on “hotel restaurant” boundaries because it’s located in a hip Kimpton boutique-hotel (with San Francisco foodmania ownership), Red Marlin is in a Hyatt, its rooms and suites occupied by higher-end business travelers and prosperous families. There’s nothing remotely hip about a Hyatt. And as at nearly all major hotel–chain restaurants (as numerous chefs at this and other chains, e.g., W and Hilton, have told me), standard hotel-restaurant procedure is that the menu has to be approved by multiple levels of corporate drones, on up to the suits at headquarters (in this case, in Chicago). Hence, the California modern fusion menu looks conventional; the choice of dishes seems ordinary.
What’s well beyond ordinary here is chef Danny Bannister’s imaginative tweaking of these conventions, his skill in executing the dishes, and the fine, fresh ingredients. The result is pure, easy pleasure. It won’t astonish you — except by tasting so very, very good.
Some corporate stupidities stand between you and your thrills. In the nearly five months since opening, the Hyatt has done nothing to make Red Marlin accessible or even findable. They spent $16 million on renovations but turned chintzy when it came to signage for the restaurant in the hotel lobby, on the grounds, and even at the entrance to the restaurant itself. There is plentiful free parking close to the restaurant’s rear entrance (ask for precise directions when you call for reservations) but no signs to guide you there. Tall Ben-the-Stew parked our chariot in front of the hotel, and then we roamed like Moses’ Israelites toward the unmapped promised land. After asking directions of a robo-receptionist during our tour of the modernist new hotel lobby, we wandered past the fenced-off wonderland of swimming pools and finally reached the farthest pool, still lost. We illicitly crossed the pool area for an impromptu safari alongside the yacht marina. Finally, we reached a hexagonal stand-alone building with a small, red metal sign reading “Red Marlin” on a chest-high portable steel stand set near the base of the staircase to the door. Your visiting Granny or Auntie doesn’t need this preprandial trek — and even if she’s not “mobility challenged” or wearing heels, her aging knees may prefer the ramped entrance (nothing to point you there) at the side of the restaurant. The best parking will land you behind the restaurant, where there’s no indication of any sort to tell you that you’ve found the place. So just look for a stand-alone building with an extinct wheelchair ramp occluded by garbage cans and blue recycling bins. Voila!
Okay, done ranting. The dining room is modern, handsome and airy, with lots of Craftsman-style wood, huge windows (some of which afford views of SeaWorld’s fireworks), and a carpeted floor to keep the noise down to “lively” rather than “din.” From my chair by a window I watched a pair of plump pelicans spooning in a nearby tree at the water’s edge. As we were finishing dinner, around 9:00 p.m., the lighting was dimmed romantically to show off the bay sparkling at night. Lynne, Ben, and I looked around: no potential romantic partners nearby for any of us. Hyatt!
We were debating who makes the best crab cakes in San Diego when our blue crab cakes arrived. (They’re $16 for one cake, $19 for two. Get two.) They’re major contenders, right up there with Oceanside. The crisped flour is on the outside; the inside is all crab, no starch, just a few bits of parsley. They come with aioli and slices of “preserved lemon” — not the stern, salted Moroccan cooking condiment but a sweet-sour lemon pickle, delicious on its own.
We recognized the petite, dark-shelled mussels as local Carlsbad bivalves. They’re served in a hot pot with a light Thai-style yellow curry sauce with hints of coconut, lemon grass, and Kaffir lime. “These are much more interesting than the standard French versions,” said globe-trotting Ben, who hits Bangkok regularly. “Mussels are so rich and sensuous, they’re natural matches for complex seasonings like curry.”
We ordered fried calamari for their alluring “tobiko dynamite” dipping sauce. The sauce (thick, creamy, slightly spicy, dotted with flying-fish roe) was indeed worth the gamble, and the tender squid’s light batter was greaseless and slightly spicy. A Caesar with chopped romaine (including a bit too many of the dark outer greens) flaunted small white Spanish boquerone (pickled anchovies) and generous slivers of fine, fresh Parmesan. Instead of croutons, there’s a single large slab of toasted baguette from Point Loma’s excellent Con Pane bakery (which also makes the chewy, crusty table baguettes, served with good “evoo”). The new thing in Caesars seems to be substituting one big hunk of bread instead of bite-size croutons. It does cut the carbs, since nobody ever seems to eat it.
Although the menu slants toward seafood, we fixated first on the Kurobata pork chop. I ordered it (following the Bruce Aidells meat cookbook) “medium rare — rosy pink — around 130 to 135 degrees.” (At home, I actually pull pork out around 120, 125 degrees, feeling like a sinner, and let it rest a little less than the recommended five minutes.) Waitress Tara returned to our table: “The chef says medium rare is 120°F. At 130 it’s medium, at 140 it’s well done.” “Omigod!” I said. “You’ve got a chef who can actually cook! Usually, I have to talk chefs down from 165! Well, yes, 120, bring it on!” Grinning, Tara said, “I’ll tell him that.” (She did, too.)