825 Camino de la Reina, Mission Valley
King’s Fish House’s announcement of its May–June Maine lobster event (ending July 4) set the gears spinning: I realized that my last review was eight years ago — pleasant memories, but high time for a revisit. It may be a chain (a small one, with a dozen restaurants plus a few classy spin-offs like Michelin-starred Water Grill), but even chains change, depending on who’s in their kitchens.
King’s features a rotating menu of regional specialties along with their regular charbroiled, fried, sautéed, and skewered seafood, with the menu changing daily to reflect the fresh catch. With the Lobster Fest, of course, the focus is New England. As a kid on the East Coast, Maine lobster was probably the first adult food I fell in love with, at age eight, and I still find it more tender and flavorful than our local spinies, good as those are. (Mama, don’t let your kids eat off kiddie menus. Get ’em started young on lobster so they can eat you into bankruptcy before they’re teenagers.) King’s has come up with multiple ways to show it off, from sushi to steamed to New England clambake. Aside from the lobster roll sandwiches (a waste of good lobster, what with all the bottled mayo), I meant to try as many as possible.
If you’ve never been to King’s and don’t know what it looks like, it’s a cornucopia of kitsch. The giant restaurant, seating 400, is broken into a festive-looking bar famed for its graffiti, a main dining room, an indoor patio, an outdoor patio, and who knows what else. (I think somewhere there’s a sushi bar, somewhere an oyster bar.) The decor is sort of crab-shack-with-gigantism, sporting large and amusing old-timey-looking signage (old-fashioned typefaces and graphic images and sepia tones) and photos of patrons on the walls. The large sign for the new(ish) sushi offerings is as bright and garish as a poster for a samurai movie. Fortunately, between the ample spacing of the booths and tables and whatever they’re using for soundproofing, it’s not noisy inside, just lively, with a faint background soundtrack that seems to be mostly ’40s mellow jazz.
We began with a cup of lobster bisque, with bits of lobster and pleasant little buttered croutons made from the excellent house sourdough bread we’d enjoyed while waiting for our orders. The soup’s texture was heavy, but the lobster flavor was quite dim, hinting at roux-thickened milk rather than cream to finish the broth. Lynne’s fine-tuned palate picked up a little smokiness — not from the fast browning of the lobster shells that is the standard start of a bisque, but from something alien. Retasting, I detected a faint smoky bitterness, along with a graininess at the bottom of the bowl — a taste remembered from my ex’s earliest stabs at gumbo, hence likely some slightly burned roux-flour.
A “crunchy lobster roll” (a full-size party roll with about six pieces) was our venture into the house sushi. The coating over the rice was crunchy indeed but sticky and heavily sweetened with eel sauce, with a core of lobster meat at the center of the rice. The pieces rapidly turned into what Ben called “deconstructed lobster roll.” That is, fingers or chopsticks, they fell apart after the first bite — probably a flaw in the rice, which had lost its stickiness. (Either it was cooked too long earlier and had started to dry out or the mixture of rice to condiments was off.) “Now you see why Japanese sushi chefs have to spend years mastering rice before they’re allowed to touch fish,” I said. As for the lobster deviled eggs, they were regular deviled eggs (and not particularly good ones) topped by a few bites of lobster. Big deal.
Taking a break from all lobster, all the time, we enjoyed a cold seafood platter. I hoped it would resemble the extraordinary platter served at King’s’ Royal Brasserie in the Gaslamp (before King’s reshaped and degraded it into Lou & Mickey’s steak joint), a fabulous array that even included little in-shell periwinkles speared atop tall, thin skewers, as though Vlad the Impaler had invaded the seas. This one is much less elaborate, if only half the price. It’s still good eating, with delicious raw clams and oysters, a few small, salty Dungeness crab claws, and shell-on shrimp. Dips include a tangy red-wine vinaigrette along with a cocktail sauce with horseradish, Tabasco sauce, and lemons on the side. (Mark amended ours — to fiery.) All that was missing was an actual teaspoon or two, for mixing up and spooning out the dips.
The lobsters come whole on large platters, with a card on the table to instruct eaters in the techniques of crustacean dissection. We got the requisite claw-crackers and lobster forks, but the implement I missed were small kitchen shears, which would have helped to separate the edible from the inedible sections of the thorax without knocking things around in the struggle on our platter-crowded table. They’re not normal seafood implements in restaurants, but then, most restaurant lobsters I’ve eaten have been split and/or partly cut up — or else served on normal-size plates.
We ordered one 11/2-pound steamed lobster straight up with drawn butter and a 11/4-pounder in the New England clambake. Both lobsters were disappointing by dint of slight overcooking that toughened the flesh. This was not the lobster of childhood Easter vacations on Cape Ann, with flesh so soft it seemed to melt into the warm butter.
The clambake, however, was charming, with clams, mussels, delicious parsleyed red potatoes, and amazingly sweet and scrumptious corn on the cob. (Where did they get that, months before corn season?) The salty cooking liquid came in a bowl and also had spilled onto the plate. It’s great for dipping into with that good house bread. Both lobsters’ thoraxes held not only tomalley, so fresh it tasted nearly sweet, but also great, gooey gloops of black lobster roe. (I have to admit, it’s been so many years since I ate a female Maine lobster of reproductive age, I’d forgotten that the roe is black, soft, and globular. Amid my tablemates’ jokes about offshore oil spills, I had to ask the waitress to verify that it was indeed roe.)