831 W. Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego
Harbor House Shiver me timbers, the "tall ships" are here this week for the Festival of Sail (August 17--21), a treat for residents and visitors alike. Twenty vessels are plying the bounding main (well, the placid bay) along the North Embarcadero, from the Cruise Ship Terminal to Hawthorn Street. If trudging the waterfront leaves you with tired tootsies and a longing for a sit-down seafood dinner, Harbor House is a short pedicab ride or a brisk walk from the south end of the festivities. In business since Seaport Village's beginnings in 1980, this imposing two-story building is off Kettner, smack-center of the Village's southern edge.
You can eat in two distinct venues. Each has its own entrance and kitchen, but both are supervised by aptly named executive chef Ken Cooke. Wherever you sit, you can order food and beverages from either menu -- although when we tried to order an "upstairs" fish downstairs, our waiter was unaware of this possibility.
The wooden stairway on the Village side of the building takes you to the oyster bar and pub, a vast, informal dining room that includes a bar (for oysters, hooch, whatever). The decor is nautical, with pillars made of faux pilings, brick-façade walls, and wood floors -- it looks like a renovated 200-year-old building. The peaked ceiling shows off a complex pattern of sound baffles, which lowers the noise level, even if squalling babes and squealing tots are nearby. Three sides of wraparound windows overlook water vistas and greenery. If you arrive early enough (before 6:15 p.m.), you should score a window table, as we did. (Arrive near 7:00, without reservations, and expect a minimum half-hour wait.) Watching a sailboat glide along the bay, my partner sighed happily. "I'm already glad we came here," he said. "I needed a break from the city."
An "oyster sampler" should include more than one species, but our half-dozen bivalves were all from Fanny Bay, farm-raised in a warmish-water inlet in Vancouver. They were mild-flavored and a little mushy, as you'd expect from the sheltered upbringing. The made-from-scratch cocktail sauce was tastier than supermarket versions. Fried clams consisted of thick cornmeal batter (resembling strung-out hushpuppies) around tough, skinny clam strips. You're buying the batter -- plus that cocktail sauce and a clean-tasting house-made tartar sauce.
The hefty clam chowder was enjoyable, with diced potato, minuscule corn kernels, tender clam meats, and near-imperceptible bits of bacon. A dozen oyster crackers were already afloat in the liquid, not served in the package, so we couldn't dole them out gradually to keep a few crisp ones on top. They mushed out in moments.
The oyster bar menu centers on simple, popular American seafood dishes. Current fresh fish and their various preparations are detailed on a two-sided menu card. "Be sure to read both sides," the waiter reminded us. Lightly smoked Alaskan King salmon fillet, finished by broiling, proved a fine piece of fish, if cooked to an Arizonan dryness -- parched at the edges, slightly moist at the center, like a Yuman who's spent too much time in the sun. The plate included a ramekin of vinegary remoulade sauce to moisten the fish. A chewy, undercooked Sysco-style veggie medley (broc, zuke, carrot, one mushroom cap) rode along, unredeemed by a sprinkling of minced fresh herbs. The highlight of the plate was a skin-on red potato sprinkled with chopped fresh rosemary -- a taste of home.
The menu features several seafood showpieces, including paella and cioppino. Looking around at our fellow diners, we decided that simpler might be better. We settled on "the Nantucket Bucket," offering New Zealand "cockles" (clams) and Atlantic blue mussels in a broth of white wine, olive oil, butter, and herbs. The mussels were all open (no stiffs in the group), sweet, and cooked just tender. But the clams may have been sleeping off jet lag, since their juices failed to bring the broth to life. An accompanying slab of garlic bread was compromised by a glaze of burned tomato sauce.
A page of the oyster bar's menu is devoted to margaritas and martinis. After recently suffering lousy margaritas at three successive Old Town restaurants (two of which also flunked Dinner 101), I was delighted to find the house version here honest and tasty, with Sauza, Cointreau, lemon juice, and little (if any) sweet-and-sour filler. The beer list not only features microbreweries on draft but also boasts three-beer tasting "flights." An abbreviated version of the multipage downstairs wine list is printed on the back of the menu. Up or downstairs, you're sure to find something you like at the price you're prepared to pay. (For me, at our downstairs meal, that was a crisp Karly Sauvignon Blanc from Amador County for $30.)
Both the main dining room and the oyster bar offer dessert carts. I later learned that the fruit tarts and profiteroles are made in-house; other choices come from a small local dessert company. The carts' contents differ between the two venues, but many items are common to both. A New York cheesecake drizzled with Chambord raspberry liqueur was tall, dense, and velvety over a graham cracker crust, so rich that I doled out the leftovers for my next three breakfasts. A key lime pie had an alluring graham crust amended with crunchy minced almonds. Its filling was standard, but the topping tasted like nondairy whipped chemicals (e.g., Cool Whip), which is to whipped cream as Nucoa is to Plugra.
Next evening, still looking forward to the Festival of Sails, we moseyed over to the downstairs main dining room, which has its entrance on the south side, facing Embarcadero Marine Park North. Strolling all the way around the building is a treat, with park views, bay views, and a "secret" lagoon with a small waterfall and a wooden footbridge. The dining room is plusher than the oyster bar, with thick carpeting, ecru-clothed tables, and napkins swirled inside the wine glasses -- not wrapped around the silverware. The ceiling is low, however, and the view is, too, eye level with the upper halves of joggers in the park. The crowd here is no more formal than in the oyster bar: The same board shorts and T-shirts prevail upstairs, downstairs, and outside.