750 N. Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego
It’s been ten years since I last ate at Top of the Market. Back then, the menu was similar to the downstairs Fish Market (plus a few luxury bites), with higher prices for identical upstairs-downstairs items. The cooking was inconsistent, and the Top struck me as mainly a fancy, view-endowed tourist trap.
This year, the Top acquired a serious new chef, Michael McDonald, to remake the menu and upgrade the quality. It’s still pricey, for sure, while the views of Coronado across the bay are still priceless — but now much of the food is worth the cost. You can add this to your list of where to take visiting out-of-towners who want both seafood and scenery on the downtown coast.
A table on the enclosed, heated patio proved comfortable and quiet, a far cry from the hubbub of the downstairs Fish Market, and at 8:40 that evening, we got a full view of fireworks on the bay.
The chilled seafood platter is sized as an appetizer for four or entrée for two. It includes half a Maine lobster tail, half a Dungeness crab, about eight black mussels, and four each of littleneck clams, jumbo oysters, and big, velvety Fanny Bay oysters. It comes with a sweet champagne mignonette, plus sparky cocktail sauce and plenty of lemons. It was one of the best of its ilk that I’ve encountered.
The wine list is steep, but I found a favorite Chilean Casa Lapostolle Chardonnay to start at $40 (about $5 above other restaurants’ average). I mentioned to our waiter that, when it was gone, we’d like a bottle of Yalumba Eden Valley Viognier. It arrived right on time, no reminder needed. That’s service!
Our most striking appetizer wasn’t seafood at all. In too few months, foie gras will be banned in California. Here, it was seared to a crispy crust, set atop grilled brioche squares with garnishes of balsamic strawberry and a brulée of black Mission figs. Mmm-hmm!
Seared sea scallops came with such elaborate accompaniments, it was easy to forget the scallops themselves. Below their meats, a swoon of creamy celery-root purée; on the side, a slablet of poitrine parée, meaning pork belly, and a puff of greenery with Dijon vinaigrette. On top, one large poached egg, to be broken so it would ooze over all the rest. Not quite coherent, but scrumptious. And blue-crab crabcakes proved good and crabby, with Tabasco aioli and marinated heirloom tomato. Hamachi sashimi was also pleasing.
The entrée menu is divided between “Mesquite Grilled” and “Specialties.” After hearing a nearby table asking about “groper” (setting off a quick game of R-rated charades at our table), we decided to order it — grilled New Zealand grouper, with baby artichokes, yummy cannellini beans, roasted sweet peppers, pancetta, and a potato cake. Grouper can be a fine-tasting fish, but here it was oddly dull. The Fish Market chain has a central processing plant up in Monterey; perhaps this adds extra travel time before the fish reaches the restaurant and your plate. Local opah (and to this chain, “local” can mean from anywhere along the West Coast) suffered the same lack of sparkle, and its scattershot accompaniment of Manila clams, peas, pancetta, potatoes and sweet corn broth did it no favors.
The sole finfish standout was ”True Holland Dover Sole” — a fish that used to have a ritual attached to it in uppity restaurants, with tuxedoed waiters filleting and boning it at the table. Not here, not now, but you do get tasty, crisp-edged sautéed fillets, with wild mushrooms, a buttery, peppery potato purée, skinny green beans, and meunière sauce. An in-season, local spiny lobster was sheer edible fun, with meat even sweeter than the Maine lobster we’d enjoyed on the seafood platter. Huge, split, and lightly crusted with brioche, it was served with beautiful veggies and not quite enough lemon beurre blanc. We couldn’t even think about dessert.
If you don’t have a rich aunt, there are several ways to think about a seafood dinner here without bankrupting yourself. (Our bill came to $100 per person.) There’s the seafood platter as a potential main course. And since the appetizers are generally more imaginative than the entrées, you could focus solely on those, starting with some good clam chowder, if you’re famished.
3382 30th Street, North Park
Or, lacking both the rich aunt and the yen for a view, you could head to Sea Rocket Bistro in North Park for more adventurous seafood, also emphasizing appetizers, but at a more merciful price, in plain, bare-table premises. There, too, a new chef, Chad White (formerly of Roseville) has been ingeniously remaking the menu, following the restaurant’s mission to use local farm produce, sustainable Pacific seafood, and pastured (grass-fed) California meats.
The most brilliant dish of our meal came at the end: uni gelato. That’s right, sea urchin ice cream. Well, why not, at a time when salted caramels are so trendy? Tender uni puréed up nicely as an ice cream flavor, lending its velvet texture and a touch of true-born sea salt to the sweetened frozen cream set atop a pungent perilla leaf. It’s not a joke, it’s exquisite. (Several more conventional desserts are also offered.)
There are only a few entrées (three seafoods, a burger, and three vegetarian/vegan dishes), the menu’s emphasis more on small plates. My companion and I began with a half-dozen Carlsbad-raised Luna oysters, which arrived with lemon slices and a violently spicy dip. The bivalves awakened our appetites, and we savored a whole, fresh sea urchin served in its spiky shell, caught by local diver Mitch Hobron. (Anthony Bourdain says that San Diego’s sea urchins are the world’s best, the envy of Japan. That sounds about right.) Alongside are lemon slices and delicious, crunchy, lavender sea salt, a perfect complement to the sweet, unctuous meat.
Chef Chad regularly roams the dining room; he told us about two new dishes not yet on the printed menu. A big fan of “using everything,” whether maritime or terrestrial, he’d recently discovered a source for the offal of prized black cod, including both livers and roe, which were being dumped in the trash. His crostini of the livers revealed the piscine equivalent of foie gras, even richer than the monkfish liver served at sushi bars. Crisped outside, pink and tender inside, garnished with a touch of Asian hot sauce and some sweet, thick red jam, the livers seemed more like fowl than fish. As for the roe, Chef Chad ensconced it in an omelet-like puff of — well, who knows what. It was a little bland, but the roe’s crunch was intriguing. (All in all, though, I think I’d rather see it used in something like the dip, taramosalata, usually eaten with bread or raw vegetables.)