Seafood Soups, Chowders, and Bisques
Lobster Bisques: Not all lobster bisques are the same. Some of the fancy chef versions have gotten so frou-frou, they’re no longer satisfying, while others (e.g., in some “view” restaurants on the coast) are ill-made with godawful extruded “lobster knuckle meat.” What most of us want from this dish is old-fashioned, creamy decadence, with lots of lobster flavor and real lobster meat. The town’s favorite, by general acclaim over many years, is at Red Tracton’s. Other top sources: Bertrand at Mr. A’s (classic French version, a trifle less creamy), Blue Point (extremely creamy, with mellow Port instead of sherry and loads of lobster-tail meat), Café Sevilla (complex, with shrimp and mussel meats), Clay’s La Jolla (with a bleu cheese brioche crouton). Mille Fleurs currently offers a “lobster consommé” that’s probably superb, but it’s not a bisque.
Bud’s Louisiana Cafe: Seafood Bisque. At this Tierrasanta home of all foods NOLA, Bud Deslattes offers a crazy-wonderful “seafood bisque.” It isn’t exactly a bisque — but that’s not bad! It’s really a creamy sweet-corn chowder with shrimp, crab, and crawfish meat added, the liquid flavored with touches of tomato, sherry, and hot pepper. (Also see “Gumbos,” below.)
Dobson’s: Mussel Bisque En Croute. Like Tracton’s lobster bisque, it’s one of the top local favorites. I haven’t eaten this. I want to, and I’m going to!
Los Reyes: Siete Mares. You get a full-flavored, tomato-streaked seafood stock loaded with big pieces of in-shell crab, shrimp, clams, and fish. The portion is gigantic (easily feeds two). It’s a bare-bones Golden Hill eatery, but this soup holds up well as takeout. (And at home, you won’t be embarrassed about picking up the crab shells to chomp and suck and slurp.)
Magnolia: Crawfish Bisque. In a very delicate cream soup, the rich liquid showcases the faintly smoky flavor of bayou mudbugs, which the restaurant gets shipped from Louisiana. Also try the gumbo here.
*Sea Rocket Bistro: Sea Urchin Bisque. If you love uni at sushi bars, this soup is your heaven. Served in halved urchin shells, it’s creamy and rich and deeply maritime. Just don’t succumb to the temptation to lift the spiky “bowl” to your lips (ouch!) to drain it to the dregs.
Westgate Room: Seafood Chowder. A creamy broth filled with scallops, clams, tiger shrimp, lobster, Parmesan, and thin-sliced black summer truffles is served with an airy, puffed vertical poppyseed cracker (like some playful god’s heavenly breadstick). It’s endlessly interesting.
Rich Vegetable Soups, Meaty Soups, and Gumbos
Arterra: Daily puréed vegetable soup. Last time I ate there, local organic cauliflower soup had a darker, richer flavor than any mere cruciferous vegetable can confer, reminiscent of black truffles. Floating in the thick liquid were bits of rich braised beef and sautéed root vegetables. No doubt whatever chef Jason Maitland is making will be interesting. Most of the menu is expensive, but they’ve also caved in to the economic downturn with affordable choices like burgers.
Bertrand at Mr. A’s: The current soup for winter is a soulful green lentil soup with country sausage. Be on the lookout for a frequent special of corn soup as well.
Bud’s Louisiana Cafe: Seafood Gumbo. A spicy New Orleans classic with shrimp, crab, crawfish, andouille pork sausage, and okra in a dark, roux-based broth.
*Bull’s BBQ: Gumbo. Thick, rich, emphatically piquant, dark as Hades, loaded with bay shrimp, shredded chicken, andouille, red and green peppers, and carrots, based on a foundation of deepest-mahogany, near-smoky roux (Louisiana’s long-cooked flour-and-oil blend), it’s the best gumbo in town — and comes with moist, corny, jalapeño-spiked corn muffins.
Candelas (both downtown and Coronado): Along with a rich black-bean soup and a very filling four-cheese soup with shrimp, the soup star here is Crema Fabiola, a semi-spicy chile poblano cream soup, soothing but subtly seething with banked fires from the chilies. In the center is a small Pacific lobster tail propped up on a heap of exotic, slightly glutinous rough purée of potatoes — most closely resembling Bolivia’s chuño, freeze-dried mashed potatoes — that eventually melts into the soup as added enrichment. Like them or not, you can’t not love the soup.
Currant: The last time I ate at Currant, caramelized five-onion soup was a whole new twist on the classic, actually a meat soup, filled with tender shreds and bites of short ribs among the very sweet onions and tangy liquid, plus (somewhere) black truffles, topped with a crouton spread with roasted beef-marrow butter. Since then, the chef has changed, but an onion soup of the same name is still on the menu; let’s hope he left this winner untouched. Other great French onion soups: Mille Fleurs (of course), and a fine Normandy version at Chez Loma in Coronado, flavored with apple cider.
El Vitral: Crema de Elote con Poblanos — creamy corn chowder topped with streaks of poblano chile aioli, offering sensuous, primal comfort and most of a meal for $8.
1500 Ocean: The seasonal, sensational-sounding soup from chef Brian Sinott (who loves and understands root vegetables) is a celery-root bisque with braised pork belly and beet “froth.” How to get around the steep entrée prices? Just choose an appetizer “tasting” plate (salumi, raw seafood, cheeses) or the substantial appetizer pasta.
Gourmet India: Mulgatany soup. Nearly all Indian restaurants offer soothing lentil soups as starters. In addition to the standard sambal, this one also serves “mulligatawny” (its usual Western spelling), a rich, filling south Indian specialty with lentils in a coconut-milk broth, available either vegetarian or with chicken.
Kous Kous Moroccan Bistro: Harira. Morocco’s lemony, herb-loaded vegetarian lentil soup is irresistible but usually comes only as the first course in prix-fixe Moroccan dinners. At Kous Kous, everything’s à la carte (and wonderful).
Mona Lisa: Minestrone. For all the shopping I do there (prosciutto, cheeses, pasta, bottled anchovies, mostarda, etc.), I’ve never gotten around to eating at Mona Lisa, but this one is the “blogger’s choice” for the best minestrone in town.
*Pomegranate: Borscht. I grew up hating borscht, thinking it was that horrible cerise purée my mom poured from Manischewitz bottles. I discovered the real thing later, tasting it in (of all places) a Ukrainian restaurant in Kathmandu, then seeking it out at Russian restaurants in San Francisco. Georgia makes the “soul food” of the Slavic world, and to my tastes, Pomegranate’s herb-rich Georgian version actually beets — oops, beats — all of them. The vibrant, chunky mixture of potatoes, beets, carrots, tomato, red pepper, cabbage, and beef is built on a rich soup-base of marrow bones and meat, finished off with a jungle of fresh dill, cilantro, and tarragon, plus an optional dollop of sour cream to crown the princely potion.
Super Cocina: Whatever’s available. This Mexican restaurant, with “housewife” cooks from all regions of Mexico, has an ever-changing array of foods, but the daily fare always includes at least one substantial and delicious soup.