2000 Spindrift Drive, La Jolla
Marine Room kicks off this summer’s unofficial series on “Rooms with a View — and Bargains, Too.” The small tradeoff that recession brings to visitors and staycationers alike is that some of San Diego’s most fabulous fare is “on sale,” with astonishing prix-fixe dinners that allow you to sample delicacies at luxury restaurants without paying deluxe prices. Instead of “very special occasion” splurges, these micro-splurges cost about a Lincoln more than plebeian dinners at mid-price restaurants. Consider them excuses for celebrating such momentous occasions as “Whew, got through Thursday, I totally need a treat — and I’m not cooking it!” or “I so crave a vacation cruise, let’s eat where we can see the sea.”
In heavily touristed cities, restaurants with water views are often overpriced rip-offs, because they can get away with it. (Prime example: SF’s Fisherman’s Wharf, where no locals but the harbor seals would be caught dead.) San Diego, too, has its share of lackluster pricey coastal-scenery restaurants from Carlsbad to Cardiff past bend of bay to Seaport Village — but some of our most scenic eateries are also top food destinations. Marine Room, with its spectacular cuisine and views, is offering weeknight bargain meals. Sunday–Thursday, you can get three courses for $40, or $55 with paired wines for the first two courses; Mondays, you have the additional option of a three-course lobster dinner at the same price structure.
With its white wood-beam ceiling and endless windows looking out to sand and waves, the unfussy dining room evokes an upscale beach house, designed with the deliberate unpretentiousness of the seriously rich — think Montauk, Gatsby, Kennedys in Hyannis Port. On some high-tide nights, the waves smack the windows at the height of your nose. At a couple of recent weeknight visits, I was glad to see that the management now seats mainly couples at the slightly anorexic booths along the back wall (instead of cramming foursomes into them, the way they did after the room’s renovation a few years ago). Maybe that’s another recession benefit (albeit not to restaurant owners) — less crowding.
The Sunday-to-Thursday–night meal is called “Passport to the Senses,” subtitled “Promoting San Diego Culinary Art as a Global Destination.” Given chef Bernard Guillas’s globetrotting propensities, this isn’t hyperbole. Raised in Brittany, he learned his craft through the rigorous French apprenticeship system — minus the severe miseries that system often affords, since his mentors spotted his talent from the start. But “Bernie” (as local chefs call him) has a wandering eye for interesting foods wherever he finds them, and a passion for travel. (If Antarctica had a cuisine, he’d commute there!) His cooking remains French in technique but has become “adventure food,” reflecting his worldwide peregrinations and displaying the wealth of flavors he’s brought home to play with, in combinations that can be downright swashbuckling for staid San Diego.
On the plates (as well as the detail-rich printed menu), every dish is a tasting dinner in itself. The food isn’t just labor-intensive but flavor-intensive. You don’t want to gobble dishes down; you want to run your fingers through the sauces and lick them, to nibble each garnish separately and then with the main ingredient. At least, I do.
The first of the “Passport” courses is called “Bon Voyage” and offers three starter choices. The simplest is Maine lobster bisque — rich, soothing, creamy, but with surprises. Floating atop is a small flower of puff pastry filled with a tart, thick mixture of cream thickened by yuzu juice. Lurking at the bottom are bits of crisp pancetta (Italian unsmoked bacon), and alongside is a twisted cracker studded with sunflower seeds. The menu lists enoki mushrooms (they should be shredded on the liquid’s surface), but I didn’t see any.
Fiji Macadamia Spiced Wild Prawns has three prawns the size of maritime halfbacks (no shrimps, these) sprinkled with chopped nuts and seasonings, served with a mound of whole-wheat couscous sharpened with a topping of baby mint sprouts. For dipping, there’s a tablespoon-sized mini-pond of lightly glutinous, unidentified sweet sauces split yin-yang between algae-green and coral, surrounded by a salmon-colored rim of aioli flavored with espelette pepper, the Basque version of cayenne. All delicious, all each others’ friends.
We found truffled Sweet Corn Mascarpone Brûlée weird but oddly wonderful — a sort of avant-garde random “happening” on the theme of salad-gone-wild. Local greens are piled atop the crème brûlée, but they’re the Birkie kids shunned by the jocks in the lunchroom. (Jim, receiving the dish first, swiftly pushed the herbiage to the side. Good move.) The superb corn custard is head cheerleader, sweet but imbued with alluring dark, funky notes of black truffle. Outliers include small, soft rounds of “preserved pear” and a crunchy almond tuile tasting more like aged cheese than nuts. (We didn’t love it.) We savored every element thoughtfully, to explore each flavor and try to guess what “Bernie” was thinking with this not-quite-coherent combination. Our waiter (d’un certain age), flagrantly smitten with Michelle’s sea-green eyes and honey hair, bent to her shoulder and told her — not us, just her — “The chef would be so happy to see the way you eat, tasting everything so carefully. It’s people like you he cooks for. Not those people [gesturing to the next table over], who just wolf everything down like they’re starving….”
The main course on “Passport” is called “The Journey” — again, three choices of adventure-travel. Pomegranate Cashew Crunch King Salmon tells its tale in the title. The skin under the salmon is as crispy as the nuts on top, and the tender meat has the muscular power of genuine wild coldwater fish, while the light pom glaze is a genius match. The canny group of garnishes includes red quinoa — darker, tastier, “wheatier” than standard tan quinoa, a high-protein Peruvian grain. The ensemble includes baby bok choy, a couple of golden gooseberries, and “Buddha Hand essence,” a sweet gold-colored reduction from the juices of a weird-shaped Asian citron resembling an arboreal sea anemone. (That’s Alaska, Persia, Peru, England, and China on one plate — talk about “global”!)