The claws came with a little thin pink-mayo dip and a separate plate of thick grilled asparagus, topping mucky Parmesan mashed potatoes, which, as far as I could tell, had no dairy aside from the cheese, probably using potato-water for thinner. None of us detected Parmesan as a specific flavor, just the cheesy weight of it. And these were the standard starch with almost everything, in almost Claim Jumper quantities.
The menu also offered a choice of grilled Icelandic char, one of my favorite fin-fishes. It’s a pink-fleshed cold-water sea trout from the Bering Sea, with the richness of salmon but the subtlety of trout. But even so fatty a fish dries out when overcooked, as these thin fillets were, to the max. The menu said they came with black beans and rice (the beans AWOL) and with fried bananas, which were delicious. Smoked scotch-bonnet aioli was also MIA, leaving only a pleasant slick of cilantro oil for flavoring the fish-leather.
My chaperonal à la carte entrée was Beef Oscar (a variant on old-timey Veal Oscar), with Niman Ranch sirloin “topped with fresh Maine Peekytoe crab, shaved asparagus, and jalapeño Béarnaise,” served with more Parmesan mash. I ordered the beef “very rare.” It came rare. Okay. But the crabmeat and sauce weren’t elegantly piled atop the beef in traditional style, to savor their flavors, but mingled with the asparagus shavings in that staggering sludge of potato-cheese mush — a mess of starchy porridge.
This was the point where, like Dante at the Gate of Hell, I lost all hope, forced to recognize that the problem at Truluck’s was endemic sloppy cooking and plating, a seeming indifference to craftsmanship. The chain seems to have ambitions and offers fine ingredients but can’t do them justice because it evidently doesn’t teach the kitchen to treat those ingredients with respect. As a reader wrote in to the website a few weeks ago (complaining about San Diego eateries in general), it was as if the cooks were all gardeners a few days before they were hired and received insufficient training on the job.
So, this is not a “fine-food dining” seafood chain after all, but a “lotsa food slopped on your plate” chain. It’s misplaced, a poor fit for the chic Aventine ambiance anchored by Japengo and its professionally slim, stiletto-heeled-women, flirting with well-dressed men driving Bentleys — more apt for the SUV crowd at a suburban food-mall anchored by an all-you- can-eat buffet. Sam kept thinking it was based in Texas rather than Florida, since portions were so huge and starch-heavy. (In contrast, at most of the upscale restaurants where I’ve been eating “budget” dinners this summer, starch garnishes are minimal and carb-lite, creative, local-grown vegetable preparations are offered.) I’m in no position to snipe at anybody’s weight, but most of our fellow diners did indeed look like folks who valued quantity over quality. Even at a nearby birthday party of eight, they barely talked to their fellow celebrants but bent obsessively over the plates, shoveling it in.
We ordered a couple of sides, which only verified this impression. The King crab mac (penne) and cheese was heavy and glutinous, with a bit of fun from smoked Gouda as the cheese — still, basically, glop. The best dish of the evening was another side, Crab Fried Rice. This, at last, was light and clean, slightly sweet, where you could taste the crab and the individual vegetables (red pepper, mild green jalapeño, carrots, baby shiitakes) in the mixture. It was like a blessed brief return to 21st-century urban California, after a dinner mired in the heavy, careless luxuries of 1957.
We still had a shared dessert to choose. The Date Menu has a choice of chocolate malt cake and carrot cake. Waiter Michael brought out the whole dessert tray to tempt us further. It resembled a scale model for a downtown redevelopment project, numerous towering edifices of sweetness. We stuck with carrot cake, a wedge sized to serve as a container-port warehouse on the future waterfront. It tasted all-American straightforward — very sweet, with caramel sauce and walnut-shaped brown sugar puffs on the side. Sam’s date Jennifer took a few modest bites, as did I. These were sufficient, and we sent the bulk of it home with marathon-runner Sam, who is skinny enough to handle the calories.
As I said, I generally don’t love chains, so all the more important to compare Truluck’s to other local seafood chains. King’s Seafood in Mission Valley blows Truluck’s out of the water — fresh seafood, nice cooking (some simple, some dishes as imaginative as Truluck’s best — but better executed). Brigantine wipes ’em out, too — I’ve never eaten at an actual Brigantine, but their spin-off Zocalo in Old Town offers lots of light, interesting appetizers, along with better Puerto Nuevo local lobster than Puerto Nuevo itself, and their Miguel’s Cantina has Mexican-style seafood (in indulgently goopy sauces) cooked reliably tender. (I love bringing visitors with kids to the Coronado location — the young’uns fall in love with the food as well as the festive atmosphere.) And although Anthony’s style is too plain for me, their catch comes fresh from their own local fleet and processing company; the plates taste cleaner. And, of course, we’ve also got more remote-based fine-dining seafood chains like the popular Oceanaire and McCormick and Schmick’s. The edge all these have over Truluck’s is that the cooks respect the ingredients — and the eaters. So, given the local rivals — lots o’ luck to Truluck’s. Unless they whip their kitchen into competitive condition, I’ll wager that Truluck’s may have no luck at all here.
The big bargain news for September is, of course, Restaurant Week, September 13–18 (sandiegorestaurantweek.com), with three-course meals priced at $40, $30, and $20. You choose the ones you want, you call the restaurant to reserve.
The $40 menus are a chance to eat at top restaurants that may be otherwise off the charts financially. For instance, I’m booking for Grant Grill, which has a new chef whose work I want to try but is otherwise way beyond my newspaper budget in these leaner times — one meal there, I’d have to Tin Fork it for the rest of the month. My choice last year was 1500 Ocean. A.R. Valentien, Arterra, Cavaillon, El Bizcocho, Market, Nine-Ten, and Tapenade are among the other superb possibilities.