1201 First Street #115, Coronado
“Sometimes life is so good,” I sighed, sipping my dirt-cheap caipirinha. Sam and I watched the ferry pull into the Coronado pier, disgorging commuters marching landward in their varied gaits and garbs. A white-sailed catamaran swanned out into the bay while the setting sun caught a silver-skinned downtown high-rise and turned the surface into Reynolds Wrap under a broiler. Little kids splashed and giggled at water’s edge as the blushing sun plunged. We were sitting in a cool, woodsy room just off the narrow beach, replete with wonderful food and drink. “Everything half-price,” I said. “I can have whatever I want, like a kid with indulgent grandparents at a holiday fair.”
Thank you, Thomas Jefferson — I’m really enjoying my constitutional right to the pursuit of happy hours. Especially when the quest takes me to the new Coronado branch of Candelas, so far, the best happy hour I’ve tried.
Sam and I are both fans of the mother ship, a stately Gaslamp bastion of Mexican haute cuisine serving chef Eduardo Baeza’s sophisticated French-Mex fusion dishes (of the sort you might find in Mexico City’s posh Polanco district) amid severely handsome Spanish decor: hints of a castle, with an Inquisition torture chamber in the basement. But we’ve liked the food less since the restaurant, in search of economic survival, has turned the space into a nightclub at certain witching hours, making subtle menu compromises to cater to club kids who’d rather down a fish taco than a fresh fish in cuitlacoche cream sauce.
So we both fell in love with the new bayside location, on the site of the old Bay Cafe (which we’ll never miss) — same fine food as Candelas downtown, but what may be more of the original menu available at dinner, and in a blissful atmosphere that validates those dumb new SD tourism board ads touting “happy happens.” If you’re coming for anything but happy hour, you can eat on a dreamy glassed-in raised patio with a close-up water view. Driving time from my digs in Golden Hill was maybe five minutes longer (but with a lot prettier views en route) than to the Gaslamp; parking took easily ten minutes less, and, of course, it was free. Sometimes Coronado seems like Bali Hai, some far-distant “special island,” but it’s actually right at hand.
Happy hour at Candelas takes place in the bar only, but there are plenty of booths and tables if you’re not fond of high barstools and cramped counter-eating. Sam and I chose a table with a clear view of the bay. The happy-hour bar menu consists of all the appetizers, soups, and salads from the dinner menu, plus a couple of standard Mexican lunch dishes, spicy Mayan-style pork pibil tacos, and a botanas sampler plate of varied antojitos (quesadillas, etc.) to share. We were tempted by the pork tacos but stuck to the alta cocina dishes.
Soon after you sit down, a busser offers the restaurant’s unique version of bread and butter. You have three choices of rolls: straight-up, dotted with sesame seeds and filled with soft creamy cheese (tastes more like mascarpone than Philly), or fortified with jalapeño and cumin. The fluffy, tan butter spread includes toasted ground hazelnuts, a hint of garlic, and a touch of anchovy.
Our first graze was an estructura de aguacate, a cone of cooked small shrimp and crab mingled with avocado slices, tossed with parsley, tomato, and onion. The dressing is a basil-mango vinaigrette (tasting of lime juice rather than vinegar). Although it’s by no means a strict Baja ceviche (of cilantro, lime, raw seafood), the citric freshness and clarity of flavor reminded me of the great street-vendor ceviche tostadas I ate in Ensenada a few years ago.
Stuffed calamari is one of my favorites from the Gaslamp location. Most calamari in San Diego is served deep-fried, but the species offers more interesting uses, and stuffing the bodies is one of the best possibilities. The tender-cooked sheaths are filled (almost like Middle Eastern grape leaves) with a loose rice-tomato mixture, swathed in a velvety coral sauce of tomato and blue cheese, with a touch of morita chiles for a hint of spiciness.
Among the many soups, it was hard to choose between four-cheese soup with shrimp or poblano cream with a lobster-tail garnish. I’ve had the four-cheese downtown; it tastes like great mac ’n’ cheese, hold the mac. (I love it, but it fills you up in three spoonfuls.) This time we went for the poblano cream, another winner. It was spicier than I’d anticipated: A lot of locally sold poblanos are actually the hotter pasilla chiles, which look similar but pack more wallop. The dark-jade broth was creamy and nearly soothing but seethed with banked fires. In the center was a very small Pacific lobster tail (slightly overcooked) propped up on a pillow resembling mashed potatoes but…not. The slightly glutinous, rough purée of (I’d guess) Yukon Golds was undercooked, and probably Cuisinarted. For me it vaguely evoked meals in South America; it’s nobody’s grandma’s mash north of Juárez. It starts out as structural support to the lobster, but once you broach the mound, bits break off to enrich the soup with a starchy, near-grainy texture and homey taste, changing the soup even as you eat it. Given the artisanship of chef Baeza, I’m inclined to think it’s a deliberate effect. Sam and I were bewitched by the original soup/mash combo and then by the transformation as they blended.
Alcachofe Mestre, stuffed artichoke, is named for Alberto Mestre, the restaurant’s owner, slyly indicating a signature dish. It’s a de-choked, trimmed steamed thistle served cold with a stuffing of top-quality red ahi tuna and roasted bell peppers, topped with Parmesan and served atop a golden purée that turns out to be a sauce made of zucchini flowers. Very nice. But somehow it used to be better at the Gaslamp — oh, don’t ask why.
Callos Jean features scallops, possibly the smaller of Baja’s two species (the other is the huge, meaty “lion’s paws,” manos de león). Mild and dainty, the midsize scallops are lightly browned and tender, if a bit pallid in flavor. (Could they have been phosphate-packed for shipping?) They mingle with a haystack of sliced portobello mushrooms and onions in a light sauce of jalapeño, lime juice, and white wine. The mixture is good but doesn’t quite relate to the delicate divas of the scallops. I think these bivalves want to strut around with a little bichon frise puppy poking its head out from a Fendi handbag — or a light cloak of beurre blanc, or some sort of Mexican designer-cream sauce wrapped around their shoulders.