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The kitchen was out of diver scallops for “Peri Peri Spiced Diver Scallops” and substituted more prawns. This peri-peri is probably not the same as the incendiary piri piri of West Africa, but most likely the newly discovered South African breed of semi-hot capsicum. But on these shrimps, you could barely taste chili — mainly salt, salt galore. The sauce was a sweet, charming “Maltese orange saffron emulsion.” The cast of thousands neutralizing some of that sodium explosion included sticky black Asian rice, vanilla-braised leeks, white asparagus, kohlrabi sprouts, undercooked preadolescent carrots, and a spear of lemongrass piercing a pretty circle of lotus root, plus a few thin slices of honeydew so firm and intense they were surely compressed by liquid nitrogen, the “molecular” technique that local top chefs are now embracing.

Black Angus filet mignon, ordered “very rare,” came rare enough, and tender (of course), with a thick, slightly sweet Petite Syrah glaze to add interest to this rather bland cut. The meat was topped with a lacy circle of cooked lotus root, cradling another yin-yang: half guajillo chili butter (delicious, gimme more!) and half huckleberry chutney. I wasn’t sold on the cumin-Gouda mashed potatoes. Mingling cheese with mash made the texture sludgy — this flavor-combination might work better with sautéed sliced fingerlings (like potato nachos) or in a gratin. A small, thick slice of firm-cooked eggplant was purple all through and faintly sugary from drinking up the meat’s sauce.

If you order matched wines, you can get Chablis, Malbec, or one of each. The steely Chablis was a stern, flawless antidote for the sweet flavors in the starters. For entrées, Michelle’s green eyes and soft plea bewitched our waiter into substituting a gentle Cab for the muscular Argentine Malbec.

Both the “Passport” and the lobster dinners end with a sweets array called “Trilogy,” which I’ll describe later. Eat your lobster, then dessert.

With the lobster prix-fixe, you can start with a creamy wild-mushroom soup that includes espelette pepper, truffle oil, and frosted huckleberries, with bacony bits of pancetta for punctuation. It’s odd and amusing, but finally I could do without the fruity undertones, preferring mushroom soup to be really mushroomy. Afloat is a miniature puff-pastry cup (sound familiar?) filled with fromage blanc, classy French cream cheese. The alternative is a charming salad, but — take the soup. The paired wine is a Louis Roederer Estate Brut (champagne) from Mendocino. For my taste, I’d drop this ultra-dry vinous bling and substitute a mellow white more compatible with a fruit-fungus flavor combo — maybe a Condrieu viognier (fat chance, at this price!).

The lobster, an Australian tail, comes in your choice of three preparations. Our tail not taken was “guava Kalbi glazed” in white-port hibiscus sauce, which sounded too sweet and possibly harsh to both Sam and me. I opted for the pistachio-butter-basted tail. Like its fellows, the meat was served out of the shell, set atop its empty crimson carapace. The flesh was intense and buttery, albeit not as tender by nature as its Maine cousins. It was scattered with fine-minced pistachios and accompanied by red quinoa, green and white asparagus spears, and another pair of too-firm preteen carrots. A small shell of compressed melon slices shaped into a flower held unidentifiable microgreens — Sam and I both guessed newborn pea shoots. The sauce was the sweet, fruity “Buddha Hand essence” of the Passport Dinner’s salmon. The pour was the same French Chablis.

Even better was the fennel-pollen-spiced lobster tail. Unless you know it’s fennel pollen, you wouldn’t guess it, because it doesn’t have the same mellow anise flavor of fennel seeds or the sharp licorice kick of fennel root, but a subtle, slightly spicy taste all its own — a shadow of licorice with a whip. This was plated over the dreamy Maltese orange-saffron infusion (another repeat, from the Passport Dinner’s scallop dish) and came with a slice of spicy linguiça sausage and a soi-disant “blue crab risotto.” “Do you taste any crab in that, or is my palate fading on me?” I asked Sam. “I was wondering if it was just me,” he answered. Maybe the cooking liquid includes crab jus. (Ever notice that whenever a menu listing goes on for miles, there’s always some ingredient you can’t ferret out — chefs playing “find the enoki” maybe?) The wine for this tail was a serious Alsatian Pinot Gris — not to be mistaken for Italy’s lighter, chancier Pinot Grigio — called Beblenheim, Domaine Bott-Geyl. (Gotta remember that next time I look at a wine list. Beblenheim Bott-Geyl. Yeah, right.) With plump legs, full body, and fine fruit, it was grand with these sweet-spicy-buttery flavors.

“Trilogy” is three desserts in one, evolving from week to week. Both Sam and I preferred the sweet-sour hibiscus lemon tart, a wedge of sandy pastry (thin underneath, with a bit of a lip at the edges) topped with a rosy glaze spotlighting the idiosyncratic, rhubarb-like flavor of hibiscus flower (aka jamaica in Mexican sauces, “sorrel” as a British Caribbean soft drink, or “screaming red zinger” as tea). It reappeared at the Passport dinner, when Jim and Michelle fell harder for Almond Amarula crème brûlée (Amarula liqueur is made from a recherché African fruit), tasting nutty and butterscotchy. The lobster dinner’s Trilogy included a Valrhona Chocolate Crunch, a round of dark mystery pastry that shatters into fine shards of intense semisweet chocolate, like a sophisticated remake of Nestlé’s Crunch. I found it shatteringly sweet. At the “Senses” dinner, it was replaced by a refreshing Port blackberry sorbet, garnished with a Valhrona chocolate “straw.” (I passed my straw to chocoholic Jim.) The espresso, competent at both meals, was better at the Passport dinner because the Michelle-besotted waiter rushed it posthaste to the table before the crema had time to recede.

These amazing dinners are bargain meals? The cooking at Marine Room will challenge your mind and excite your palate, while that legendary close-up sea view will feel like an instant vacation. Eat! Enjoy!

But now comes the dark matter of the damned star rating (which I always hate, hate, hate having to decide). Chef “Bernie” is so creative, imaginative, and accomplished, I need to explain just what I mean by 4 3/4 stars for food and why he doesn’t get the whole fantastic five. These were my fourth and fifth dinners here; I’ve been chewing this over for nine years.

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Comments

cantab July 19, 2009 @ 4:05 p.m.

"I need to explain just what I mean by 4 3/4 stars for food and why he doesn’t get the whole fantastic five ... It’s not that a line-chef oversalted some prawns"

Naomi, your reviews are wonderful but you need to be tougher when you assign stars. A line cook who messes up a dish is a major fault. A really good restaurant delivers a consistent experience. Michelin stresses consistency in its evaluations, for good reasons.

Line cooks are the Achilles heel of American restaurants. We have many chefs with great talent here. We have fewer restaurants that can deliver what the chefs can when they cook personally.

When a dish in San Diego has an obvious flaw, such as too much salt, I always wonder whether the line cook was a gardener the week before. You mention that Bernard Guillas "learned his craft through the rigorous French apprenticeship system." That's what we are missing in California: line cooks who are part of a system of quality rather than just unskilled help.

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Naomi Wise July 25, 2009 @ 2:16 a.m.

As noted, I HATE having to assign star ratings to food reviews. First, this is a free weekly. Somebody before I got here decided it would make the reviews seem more "professional." Pretentious, far as I'm concerned. Second, this is San Diego.

  1. Reviewers for Michelin (backed by a big tire company) and the NY Times (our national paper) visit destinations at least six times, even more when the highest rating is contemplated. (I don't know how Frank Bruni finds the time!) Now, I probably have the best restaurant budget of any critic in SD but it is still quite modest -- the best that all those "buy your new breasts here" ads can pay for. I can squeak in some high-end destinations but have to make flash judgments based on one meal or at best two. Now, with Marine Room, I've actually managed to eat there five times over nine years (mostly at these econo-prix-fixe specials) so I felt more than usually ready to address the restaurant seriously. There were very few flaws in all these meals -- and I've noticed that Frank Bruni at the NYT (which I read religiously) tends to forgive trivial problems (e.g., a line-chef stubbing his toe on the salt shaker, a dish that doesn't come together) in all but his top ratings. So when a chef in SD dares to SWASHBUCKLE, he's due high praise, ignore the trivia. Only reason Chef Bernie can get away with it is Marine Room's history, reputation and fabled view. I want to encourage culinary swashbuckling as best as I can, because there's damned little of it here. Why? See #2.

  2. San Diego: As soon as I moved here from SF, I realized that this is not SF, NY, Hong Kong, Nawlins, or any other serious food city, but a land of intensely conservative eaters that prefer dimmed down (if not "dumbed down") cooking. (Local/organic OK -- unfamiliar, NAY!) Hence, every star rating I give here is at least a half star higher, and usually a full star higher, than I would have given the same restaurant in San Francisco (if I had to "star" it for the free weeklies there, which I didn't). Thus: My 4 3/4 star would be at best a Frank Bruni 2 1/2 (on his scale of three stars) but more like a Bruni two-star -- and as noted, Frank can be quite forgiving of small flaws with two-stars. Yeah, maybe some line chefs here should really be gardeners. At my favorite SF restaurant, La Folie, the line-chef for a while was a guy named Trey Foshee. You may have heard of him.

Few bold chefs stay here (we've lost Steven Rojas and Wade Hageman of Blanca in the last few weeks; Better Half was the latest to close following Cerise and more recently Crescent). It's San Diego, Jake: Nothing gold can stay. Doing the best I can go keep the gold, encouraging any signs of creativity, imagination, derring-do, trying to rouse some enthusiasm to try it, eat it, maybe people will like it if they dare approach it.

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Josh Board July 26, 2009 @ 4:24 p.m.

You're right about salt. I recently ate at Anthology, which previously had good food. They used so much salt (even on a salad!) that it was gross.

I do disagree with you about the Marine Room. I've noticed the food isn't as good as it used to be (maybe that's just me). You mentioned loving the lobster bisque. I had it a few weeks ago, and it was horrible.

Also...I've never understood why critics never care for the various systems. I find the star system to be perfect. On the times I don't read a review (for a movie that looks like a cheesy romantic comedy), seeing the 1 and a half stars, is really all you need. Nothing in the written review about Sandra Bullocks performance is even necessary at that point.

Siskel & Ebert used to always complain about the thumbs up/thumbs down. And, that makes a bit more sense, as that's just a "good" or "bad"...and many times, you're on the fence about something. Or they may hate to give a "thumbs down" to a film that had many great aspects about it.

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Naomi Wise July 29, 2009 @ 8:18 p.m.

Josh -- As a film critic in the old days (before I became a food critic) I felt okay about giving star ratings to movies, in a way that doesn't feel okay with food. Why? Because a movie is a DONE DEAL! It's out there, finished, what's on the screen is what you get. Two nights or two weeks or two months later, still the same film. Twenty years later -- still the same film, even if your own reactions may have changed.

And even the theatre it's shown in doesn't make much difference, so long as the print isn't fatally scratched and the projectors and sound systems work. I saw most film classics at scrungy cheap "art" theatres, often in 16 mm prints cut down from 35. Or Westerns and horror flicks in Times Square grind-houses, back before urban Disneyfication. Enchantment still happened. (Of course, critics mainly see films among colleagues in nice screening rooms, so no 7-foot tall basketballer or trannie in a tutti-frutti hat is going to plunk down in front of you just after the credits.)

Whereas food is mutable, changing night by night, even with the same chef and kitchen crew and (not always) the same menu. Even your fellow-diners can affect your subjective reaction,e.g., an invasion of stilleto-heeled shrieking banshees or hard-drinking stentorian businessmen can poison your palate. That's why the Michelin guys give it six tries over a year, similar for the NY Times.

I, too, have a faint sense that Marine Room's food isn't quite what it used to be, but I can't check that without time-travel. Chef Bernie is all over the place, now -- today New Zealand, tomorrow Macy's Cooking School, so he surely can't be paying full attention to his kitchen. And his lobster bisque is constantly changing (every single time I've eaten there except these last two, in the space of 10 days, it was different) so I don't know whether you and I sipped the same bisque. But: Sandra Bullock in a romantic comedy I don't even have to see to know it's 1 1/2 stars. That's a given. Marine Room's lobster bisque: What's it today, compared to yesterday and tomorrow?

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Josh Board July 30, 2009 @ 12:59 a.m.

You know what, Naomi. That's a great point regarding a food changing. I hadn't even thought about that. I guess it's just up to the reader to realize that the attached stars are based merely on one meal (unless stated otherwise).

I had eaten at Chili's five times, and hated it all five times. Then I got the Monterrey Chicken once and loved it. I might only eat there once a year, but now, I always love my meal. So, I'm not sure how I would've rated that if the one meal I love, was the first meal I had.

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