1 Park Boulevard (at Harbor Drive), Downtown San Diego
“Hotel restaurant” used to be shorthand for “What’s that slop you’re eating?” — back in the era of moldy “colonial” inns and all-one-mold “family” chains (remember Howard Johnson’s Motor Inns?). But not now, and certainly not here, where hotels constitute about half of San Diego’s culinary hot spots (e.g., 1500 Ocean, A.R. Valentien, Arterra, El Bizcocho, Nine Ten, Quarter Kitchen, et al.). While many stand-alones have had to scrimp on ingredient quality and staff to survive the slump, major hotels still partially subsidize fine in-house restaurants, as they do in European and Third World capitals — as both an attraction and a convenience to high-paying room guests.
Say hello to Vela (Latin for “sail”) at the sparkling new Bayfront Hilton. My posse and I found it a kick and a half. We loved the food, ambiance, and service and loved the value — even the à la carte menu is reasonable by current standards, as are the wines. Starters, especially, were so rewarding that, as we left, we were talking about returning for “scenery breaks,” grazing-meal mini-getaways — big pleasures, no pressures. “This would make a great first-date spot,” said Samurai Jim’s horndog evil twin. “Share some appetizers and desserts, bring another bottle out to the patio, watch the moon, get a room…”
The bayview dining room (one floor down from the lobby, by escalator or elevator) is huge, bright, air-conditioned, and thoroughly soundproofed, so even as it filled up with conventioneers, it never got loud. When I stepped out to the patio, I saw (and heard) about 30 little kids in matching blue bathing suits run squealing joyously toward the pool — maybe a day camp? (Certainly not typical resort guests’ blasé offspring, who probably have pools at home.) Above the pool, a huge screen projected videos of undersea life. On this inlet of the bay, speedboats were speeding in from wider waters. From certain angles, you could see Coronado and the bridge. A few people lounged at umbrella tables outside the restaurant windows. It seemed a playground for the blessed.
I was lured by enthusiastic but somewhat overstated emails from the publicist. She promised a great view (totally true) and a monthly changing “exotic” prix fixe (true only the first week of the month). She promised an “early bird” inexpensive prix fixe (not!) and also free valet parking. (True only if you possess the secret Vela decoder ring, which we didn’t. See “Need to Know” for the procedure.) She could win the title of Most Promising PR Pro, but once the dishes started coming, I didn’t care because her most important promise came true: really good food. And something she didn’t even know about: a spirit of kindness and generosity, what New Orleans residents call lagniappe, “a little something extra.” (To be a bit sexist: Restaurants managed by women — in this case Susan Carré — seem to get the lagniappe concept more often than other restaurants. I’m thinking of Lisa Redwine, the sommelier who became manager at dear, departed Molly’s, another place with a sense of generosity; she’s now at the Shores.)
The bargain prix fixe ($36, $50 with wines) is not an “early bird” but an “early in the month” bird. From the first through the seventh, chef de cuisine Adam Bussell prepares a four-course dinner on the theme of “Epicurean Explorations,” featuring a monthly changing national cuisine and its wines. Adam is a local guy, trained at the CCA in San Francisco and subsequently mentored by the great Jimmy Boyce (at the Phoenician in Scottsdale) and by Michael Mina of San Francisco’s Aqua (Adam opened the Laguna Beach location for him). In August, the prix fixe featured Spain; in September, it will be Chile. (I may return on my own dime for this, since the only other Chilean food I can revisit here is at Berta’s in Old Town.) These “explorations” allow Adam to stretch out and show his stuff and for diners to enjoy his creativity. He and German-trained executive chef Patrick Dahms share credit on the regular menu.
The amuse did amuse: A tablespoonful of chopped-fruit salad (apple, peach, cantaloupe, sweet mango) hit the spot on a muggy day. The bread was fresh house-baked sourdough baguette, crusty and yeasty, accompanied by an irresistible blend of softened butter and olive tapenade.
The “Tribute to the Spanish Armada” exploration dinner didn’t go down in flames like its namesake off the English coast (or we’d have to eat bangers and mash). It began with an heirloom tomato gazpacho shooter paired with two rectangles of tortilla española (the Spanish version of frittata), filled with tuna, potato, and olives. Neither Jim nor Dave cottoned to the gazpacho, but Marty and I, who normally aren’t gazpacho fans, enjoyed it: it tasted intensely of puréed summer-ripe tomatoes with hints of other vegetables, with just a waft of sherry vinegar — like the V8 of the gods. I was the only taker for most of the tortilla, which, though bland despite the olives and tuna, tickled me with an interesting, spongy-fluffy texture.
The à la carte starter that made us sit up was a Baja White Prawn Escabèche. “Omigod, I haven’t tasted prawns this sweet in 30 years, since I ate ’em just caught in Guaymas!” I gasped. Prawns once made shrimp cocktail a steakhouse treat, but they’re rarely this thrilling anymore. All those cheap, farmed Asian shrimp are okay, but — wow, what a difference! “These taste almost like lobster,” Marty said. Huge, perfectly cooked, they were plated in three ramekins over a riveting mixture of Haas avocado purée, red chili, preserved lemon, and basil, not even a bit like ordinary guacamole but depth-charged, extra-rich. And here’s where the generosity comes in: three ramekins, four eaters, so the kitchen (or waitress) snuck a fourth prawn into one of the ramekins.
Marty was the first to try the Meyer filet carpaccio, and with each bite she was moaning like Meg Ryan (but quietly). When I tasted what she was having, I moaned the second verse. The beef, ethereally tender, was plated over just-right caper aioli and “micro Dijon” and sprinkled with fetal four-leaf greens (yes, the baby mustard), with intensely sweet, pickled red onion dice on the side. This was not just another carpaccio, it was perfect carpaccio.