This being a Gaslamp restaurant, prone to conventioneers and tourists who send back perfect fish for more cooking, I remembered to say the magic words when ordering the horseradish-crusted black sea bass. “We’re not Yumans, we don’t want it desert-dry — we’re coastal, we want it tender.” Ashley and the kitchen got that one, too. The bass was a tall, moist monolith of steaky white fish, very lightly bread-crumb crusted — but I didn’t really taste any horseradish. It came with a mound of terrific creamy polenta with a pleasant sourness, most likely a splash of crème fraîche. Broccoli spears and carrots were the token veggies.
The prix-fixe dinner’s porcini-dusted scallops (most likely decent dry-pack, not dayboat or diver) were cooked tender, displaying their natural hint of sweetness, but the crust was a bust. The mushroom powder was burned deeply bitter, as senseless in the context as instant espresso. Once that bane hit the surface of the hot skillet, the only proper garnishes for the dish would be wooden stakes or silver bullets. A tarragon cream sauce (a keeper) clung valiantly and vainly to the scallops, trying to soak away the touch of evil. And was the silly, blithe heap of mashed sweet potatoes supposed to be the good fairy with an antidote to the poison? (Who decided sweet yams would go with scallops?) Asparagus and cherry tomatoes were present, too. As Tommy Lee Jones said in The Fugitive, contemplating a train wreck: What. A. Mess.
The sweet potatoes unfortunately recurred, this time as a gratin, with roast Maple Leaf duck, glazed with lavender honey. They shouldn’t have. (Duck is not Thanksgiving turkey.) And neither should the carrot-broccoli veggie garnish, repeated from the bass entrée — the identical tedious veggie combo you’ll find in about half the varieties of Lean Cuisine.* A restaurant this potentially good shouldn’t be serving something so close to old-time “Sysco medley.” Soleil claims to cook Modern California cuisine, so you expect and crave more interesting vegetation — don’t we grow it all right here? (With the food average teetering at 3.7, the blah veggies resulted in a loss of a half-point in the overall rating.)
The duck’s ultra-sweet sauce and rich meat cried out for earthy, dark contrasts — say, a heap of wilted arugula, celery-root mash, braised baby turnips, or maybe broccolini or broccoflower. The duck skin was soft and flabby, although I rather liked the thin layer of soft fat underneath. The meat was tough. I’m not sold on Maple Leaf brand duck, which most local restaurants use — guess I’m still spoiled by the availability of fresh little local Muscovies and busty, skinny-legged Moulardes at the supermarkets and Asian groceries up north.
The dessert for the prix fixe was competent, ordinary vanilla crème brulée with fresh berries. Jim chose Krispy Kreme bread pudding, the decadent donuts melted into a custard. Maybe Krispy’s moment is over: we all craved a sharp hit of cinnamon to brighten up that familiar, cloying vanilla-Crisco-cholesterol flavor. More sophisticated choices include chocolate babycakes, lemon meringue tart, and a Florentine cookie basket, not to mention a plate of four exciting international cheeses with fruit garnishes.
The menu says, “The spirit of community starts with sharing.” The portions drive home that motif. (I got six good dinners out of the doggie bags.) Even with the small flaws, we’d been eating very well. Emmy, who’d just read that week’s Tom Ham’s review and paid attention to prices, voiced the moral of the story: “I can’t believe that anybody would rather eat mediocre food, view or no view, when for the same price or less, they can eat delicious food here.” At the end, food-only costs ran us about $44 per person (reviews are splurgier than reality, of course), but the large portions can easily halve that price for moderate eaters who take home goodies to enjoy on the next weary weeknight when cooking seems unimaginable.
*Note: Now and then I like to mention discoveries of decent-tasting, not-too-evil store-bought food products to fill in when you’re too fried to cook or go out. Latest find is Kashi frozen dinners. Not as tasty as Michael Angelo’s Eggplant Parmesan or Nancy’s Quiches (or whatever Trader Joe’s is offering this month that you’ll never see again), but filling, virtuous, not awful. The calorie and carb counts are about the same as mainstream frozen “diet dinners” (e.g., Lean Cuisine) but for about ten ounces, rather than six or eight. Big-brand diet dinners typically offer two ounces of soggy or dry meat-protein, and gooey sauce sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, plus a stick of broccoli and four ounces of “empty carbs” (mash or white rice), and always leave me hungry. Kashi offers a huge heap of interesting, healthy whole grains (plus the same skimpy two ounces of protein and insipid gravy as the bad guys, but minus the corn syrup). You’d think you were back in the ’70s eating hippie stir-fry — except, after nuking, their typical understated Asian sauces are easy to re-season with shots of Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce, lime juice, soy sauce, sesame oil, hot pepper oil, and/or a complex Caribbean-style hot sauce like Jump Up and Kiss Me. After that, they could even pass for faintly ethnic food.
Sad and sadder gossip: “Tan me hide when I’m dead, Fred, tan me hide when I’m dead. So we tanned his hide when he died, Clyde. And that’s it hangin’ in the shed” at big, splashy Bondi, Australia’s giant foothold in the Gaslamp. Seems as though in hard times, size counts, mate — and the bigger they are, the harder they fall. But the dissolution of another, foodie-beloved biggie is a shock: The Marriott abruptly decided to tear up Arterra, firing the chef, sommelier, and restaurant manager in one swell foop, if my reliable informant has it right. The corporate suits want to remake the restaurant into something else entirely. What that might be remains a mystery, but don’t be optimistic. I’m thinking franchise, the way they did downtown, replacing Molly’s with Roy’s. Hey, Chef Maitland — email me when you get your next gig, I like your cooking!