1775 E. Mission Bay Drive, Pacific Beach
I woke up and — whoops — it was already mid-August. Nearly all my friends were vacationing in places with unbearable weather and aged parents. I wanted a little vacation of my own without those disadvantages. Say, dinner at a posh resort. With patio seating. A bay view. Good food and wine. My friend Dave was still in town and always enjoys a tasty meal, so we headed for Acqua, at the Hilton Resort on Mission Bay, which promised to meet all my criteria.
The two-level patio was lovely, and if we’d stayed long enough (we didn’t), we might even have watched the SeaWorld fireworks from there. But, alas, an army of shrill 20-somethings was occupying the section of the patio next to the bar, and they weren’t only there for happy hour, as we’d hoped, but for the duration, and the libations had them growing shriekier by the minute. From literature later found in the lobby, they may have been part of a convention of “sanitary specialists” (sewer folk), though the gals wore high heels, push-up bras, and short, low-cut date dresses. The dudes wore untucked tees and cargo shorts — the usual gender discrepancy. It could have been any Friday night in P.B. or Saturday night in the Gaslamp. Our excellent waiter was even more disturbed than we were: the madding crowd obstructed his path from the kitchen and bar to tables in the patio’s more civilized seaward regions. Well, these things happen to even the nicest places.
Acqua’s eccentrically designed menu is divided into First Course (appetizers) and Second Course (more appetizers), followed by Third Course (entrées) and finally The Pastry Chef. Each dish listed in the first three comes with an optional by-the-glass wine pairing ($9–$16) from an enviable international wine list. (The bottles list has some serious treats if you can afford them, e.g., a Mouton Condrieu Viognier for $110, a Bouchard Meursault Les Clos for $85, a Joseph Phelps 2005 Cab for $110.) There’s also a three-course prix-fixe dinner for $39, no pairings. The executive chef for the resort is Hermann Schäffer, and that umlaut over the a suggests he may be the force behind the Viennese pastries. Chef de cuisine is Mark Honeywell.
We began with a lively yellowfin tartare, a hefty cube of succulent diced raw tuna scattered with black sesame seeds, with occasional protrusions of cucumber and red bell pepper pieces. The mound was roofed with sliced cucumber and topped with guacamole-like avocado purée enlivened with chopped scallions and crunchy, skinny green stuff, maybe seaweed. A chile vinaigrette lent a gentle nip. The matched wine was a fruity Hugel Alsace Gewurtztraminer, and that’s exactly what to serve with chile-nipped raw tuna.
Sliding into second courses, a highlight of the meal was a five-spice roasted butternut squash soup with lobster and cream — a resort in a bowl. The cream floated over the surface, and our waiter brought a small container of good lobster meat to stir in or to eat on the side. We stirred it together into a pale orange liquid paradise, slightly sweet, subtly spiced. This came with an interesting Qupé Bien Nacido Rousanne, with moody hints of dark herbs under its surface amiability.
Our next round of seconds rose to the challenge of the first. Seared diver scallops (two, but large) were served on pancetta, surrounded by cremini mushrooms and pearl onions, with a thin, dark sauce that included truffle essence. Make sure you save some bread for sopping. I was sorry to learn that some time after the website menu was posted, the kitchen substituted ordinary cremini for divine chanterelles, but I guess to everything there is a season. With its meaty umami darkness, the scallop treatment contravenes local seafood-cooking clichés. The recommended matched wine is a Pinot Noir, which we didn’t try, having a lot of white left from our first round of dishes. With these flavors, though, a gentle red would make sense.
A grilled medallion of venison, topped with a firm poached or fried quail egg, was served over sliced apple, crisp applewood smoked bacon, and an intriguing celery-reduction sauce. The tender, deep-red venison was thrilling — the venison I’ve always hoped to taste. It is farmed, like nearly all restaurant game, but the chef treated it properly as mammalian game — lean meat meant to be eaten rare. (Yeah, exceptions should be made for funkytown game meats like bear, beaver, muskrat, manicou, etc.) The combination was a joy. This comes with a Brouilly Gamay Beaujolais, a light, dry red that somehow left us both with a shrill soprano aftertaste, a high-pitched meow on the palate. We’d have preferred a Pinot Noir, Merlot, or Côte du Rhône.
After these scintillating starters, our entrées were sort of boring. Not terrible, just same-old, same-old, less interesting than the choices listed on the obsolete website menu. Brine-marinated pork tenderloin reached us a tad overdone (pinky-brown), plated atop velvety thick bacon-potato purée (delish!) and surrounded by fresh clams in a thin garlicky sauce that seemed to evanesce. The pairing of pork and clams is borrowed from a traditional Portuguese dish more vibrant than this hifalutin upgrade.
A half-order of filet mignon looked mighty like a full portion, six inches in diameter, maybe eight ounces, garnished by a trimmed grilled portobello mushroom cap (gills painstakingly removed) pickled in balsamic, and by duck confit ravioli — the reason we ordered this choice. The beef was rare, rich, tender. The ravioli were actively unpleasant. Loose bits of dryish minced duck rattled around inside the pasta shells, with nothing to smooth the texture. The mouth-feel seemed crude, unfinished. We craved a cream sauce inside, better yet a mushroom cream sauce or some other sauce more original but equally suave.
The dessert menu, with its old Vienna pastries, tempted us into eating more, although we were already satisfied. We passed on the Nutella palatschinken (crêpes), the Linzer Tort, and even the tempting Mohr im Hemd (“Moor in a shirt”), a flourless dark chocolate terrine with whipped cream — the Moor’s white shirt — and chocolate sauce. I succumbed instead to a cheesecake jones, anticipating the Viennese version of “a light mousse on a Linzer cookie with vanilla Grand Marnier sauce.” The top of the small disk of cheese mousse was hollowed into a shallow pond filled with apricot jam. Alas. I spooned most of that to the side. The cheesecake itself was barely sweetened, with a distinct sour cream tang. I loved it.