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Island Prime

880 Harbor Island Drive, Harbor Island

It started with a single oyster, a pearl of an oyster. The occasion was one of those Taste of the Gaslamp eat-arounds a few years ago. Too many of the participating restaurants took the cheap route, ladling out near-identical offerings of penne pasta with minor tomato-sauce variations. Blue Point, in contrast, served pristine raw oysters with a tart mignonette dip, and nothing could have hooked me faster. Since then, Blue Point has been my top candidate for the "best of breed" in the ever-expanding Cohn Restaurant Group, but I've never found time to sit down and eat a meal there. With the latest, most lavish Cohn project -- Island Prime -- just opened on Harbor Island last week, it seemed a good moment to test my theory before venturing into the newest venue.

"I must say, the Cohns do make good-looking restaurants," said the Lynnester, inspecting the decor of Blue Point. I couldn't agree more. The interior resembles a converted Edwardian bank, or maybe ballroom. It combines the '50s and the '90s -- the 1890s -- with high ceilings, crown moldings, and vast chandeliers with oystershell-colored shades that cast a gentle glow (sometimes the glow grows so exceedingly gentle, one may need a flashlight to read the menu). The booths are soft, the rug is thick, the leatherlike chair pads are comfortable. At the far end is an open kitchen, with six or seven cooks a-cooking even on "slow" nights. But in summer, there are no slow nights: Hotel concierges, a waiter told me, often recommend Blue Point to conventioneers and tourists. Yet about a third of the diners looked like locals, maybe even regulars -- they were appropriately dressed and they ordered well.

But before we subjected friends to the experiment, my partner and I made a scouting visit. We found the main part of the menu divided into "hook" (appetizers), "line" (seafood entrées), and "sinker" (desserts), with additional sections of cold seafoods, soups and salads, and meats. Our unnamed Washington State oysters (firm, plump, and briny) came with three dips, including a vibrant, sweet-tart sake-ginger mignonette. A "Maine lobster stack" appetizer seemed familiar -- after searching our memory banks, we identified it as an upscale rendition of last week's shrimp parfait at Puerto La Boca. The top layer mixed lobster meat with full-fat mayo. Next came an inch of chopped avocado over shredded raw Florence fennel (a.k.a. anise), all plated on a slick of orange-colored vanilla-mango vinaigrette punctuated with mandarin sections. The citrus and the charming sauce bought off some of the richness, but the mayo tsunami still struck me as a waste of good crustacean.

Crab-stuffed salmon trout was a hit. Its crisp skin was bathed in a delightful semi-sweet sauce of reduced apple cider. The flesh was piled high with lump crabmeat and scattered with lightly toasted sliced almonds. Accompaniments were a few fingerling potatoes and shreds of greens. A dish of bacon-wrapped halibut seemed like a fine idea -- a razor-thin slice of smoky meat to add flavor to a very mild fish -- but we forgot to specify the doneness. By default, the fish was parched dry to touristic tastes. It came with fresh Oregon morel mushrooms, which, alas, were mixed with mealy English peas. (Too much heat has made a poor vintage in the local pea-vines this year.)

The table breads are terrific -- a good thing, because many dishes here will have you sopping up the sauces. "We used to bake bread in-house," said our waiter, Owen, "but a few years ago, after we remodeled the kitchen, the bread ovens and the baker were moved to the Prado. We still get fresh loaves every day, ready to be finished off here." The sourdough is barely sour, and with its hard crust and cushiony white center, it would make a genuine muffaletta sandwich. The brown pumpernickel is mild and sweet. If you ask nicely, your waiter will send you home with half-loaves of both, your choice of baked or brown-and-serve. The wait staff here, by the way, furnish superior service compared to most local restaurants -- they use their brains and have actually tasted everything on the menu.

We returned a few nights later with the Lynnester and our neighbor Francisco, who hails from the coast of Ecuador. A lobster bisque was so creamy that we were glad we could share it among a foursome. When it arrived piping hot, it seemed bland, but a pinch of salt and a moment's cooling brought it into focus. "This has port and rosemary, yes?" asked Francisco. "They make the taste less harsh than most bisques." He was right: A typical bisque includes sherry, which is nutty but sometimes sour, while port is sweeter and smoother. I learned later that the chef uses whole live lobster culls (one claw missing) rather than empty shells to obtain the rich lobster flavor, and he keeps the tomato to a minimum. Aswim in the center of the bowl were fingertip-size chunks of lobster. The more we sipped, the faster our spoons dipped. We were too polite to lick the bowl, but not too bashful to swipe our bread in the last drops of broth.

The two-level "Chef's Seafood Tower" is the featured appetizer extravaganza, available for two or more ($18 per person), but a party of four should order it sized for two or three if they expect to eat entrées. That's not to say that you should necessarily order it at all; there are plenty more fish in this sea. The tower's bottom tier holds cold raw oysters (two per person), ordinary-quality large prawns and raw ahi, and previously frozen crab legs and crab claws (with the shells evenly sawed off around the center). Tucked among them are the evening's creative mignonette (chipotle-spiked that night), cocktail sauce, and a delicious little seaweed salad dressed with toasted sesame oil. "My aunt used to work at a crab-processing plant in Washington state," said my partner. "She'd send us five-pound bags of these sawed-off crab claws, rejects because the shells were broken or jagged. They freeze the crab in brine because the salt keeps the water from freezing solid, so the meat doesn't get ice crystals. But the process drives the salt into the flesh. You keep the texture but you lose the taste." He took a big bite of leg meat. "Ooof, salty! That's gonna cost me another beer," he concluded.

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