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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.

On the top tier are clams and small blue mussels in a seductive saffron champagne sauce that again begs you to swab your bread in it. The shellfish didn't fare as well that evening. "You know how we South Americans overcook our seafood?" Francisco said, plucking a shriveled mussel-meat from its shell. "The cooks here must be Ecuadorian, like me."

Perhaps we should have ordered the jumbo lump crab cakes, instead -- the chef's pride and joy, I learned. They're done East Coast style, with lots of crab and fresh herbs and no bready filler.

When we ordered our entrées, this time we remembered the magic words: "We're not Yuman!" we cried. "We're not Zonies! We live here and we don't want dried-out fish." The result: Everything was cooked perfectly.

Pan-seared dayboat scallops were sweet, tender, and translucent at the center, bathed in a caramelized shallot-herb sauce bedecked with copious shallot shreds, whole shallot cloves, and delicious micro pea-shoots, as slim and crisp as alfalfa sprouts. These were the clear, vivid flavors I'd been hoping for from this restaurant. Underneath were a few ravioli made of thick, slightly gummy spinach pasta, thinly stuffed with herbed goat cheese. (Lynne liked them, I didn't.) Horseradish-crusted salmon were Atlantic-farmed fish. (Its milder flavor is actually preferred by the Midwestern conventioneers who form so much of the patronage here.) The flesh was moist and flaky, topped with a pouf of flour and mild horseradish, and lightly dressed in a lemon-dill sauce. It came with one sawed-off crab claw and a succotash of corn, diced zucchini, new potato, ripe and sugary red bell pepper, and crab shreds, a combination that won the coveted Lynnester seal of approval.

The evening's special was a thick fillet of white sea bass from the Sea of Cortez, heavily salted on the surface, topped with refreshing julienne lemon rind and more of those wonderful fetal pea-shoots. It rode on a bed of white rice pilaf that everyone ignored. Alongside was a single butter-poached shelled Maine lobster claw ("oohs" and "aahs" all around) and slim, crisp-tender flageolet green beans.

As you'd expect, the please-all-comers menu includes numerous meat dishes. The steaks are USDA Prime, and the current crop (from primo purveyor Newport Meat) are dry-aged 28 days. Not yet aware of this marvel (had I known, I'd probably have ordered the rib-eye), we chose a roast rack of lamb, cooked to our order to a beautiful dark-rose medium-rare and surrounded by a superb red-wine reduction sauce sweetened by invisible carrots. (It's one of those three-day production numbers with everything strained out after the final reduction.) "I've never eaten lamb this good," said Francisco. "And the sauce is really wonderful." It came with a mini-cassoulet of white beans, carrots, greens, and merguez, earthy Tunisian-style lamb sausage -- a mixture as marvelous as the meat. The rack was my partner's favorite dish of the evening. Ditto Francisco. For the female side of the table, the scallops were a strong contender.

The wine list runs rather steep (for instance, a mere half-bottle of Trimbaugh Gewürz is $46!) and is oddly short on whites by the glass. It does include a bottle of Matua Valley Marlborough (New Zealand) sauvignon blanc at just $24 -- a crisp, citrusy quaff that flatters all but the most richly sauced seafood.

All desserts are housemade, with all the chefs in the house collaborating on ideas for the ever-changing array and a recent CCA grad executing them. A butterscotch pot de crème features a dark chocolate pudding with a layer of caramel on top. Plunge in your spoon, and the center turns into a butterscotch-chocolate swirl. You also get a fudgy dark chocolate biscotto (I guess that's the singular of biscotti) and a profiterole filled with vanilla whipped cream that tastes exactly like the filling of a Twinkie or Ding Dong. Of the evening's trio of housemade sorbets, one was an austere lemon-flavored ice. The others were creamy, more like sherbets, in flavors of coconut and mango, both intense and distinctive. (If they could talk, they'd probably say, "I yam what I yam.") The coconut vanished in mere seconds under the assault of four simultaneous spoons, and the mango was thoroughly appreciated. Even the decaf espresso was potable.

"You know, I've eaten at all of the Cohn restaurants except the pub-grub joint up in San Marcos," said the Lynnester. "Normally I'm not that crazy about them, but this is the best of them. The ingredients seem as though they're higher quality here, and the dishes really work. Instead of just throwing on one thing after another, everything on the plate goes together." QED: Theory confirmed.

ABOUT THE CHEF

Jonathan Hale is executive chef of Blue Point. "My mom was a really good cook," he says. "She is an editor and she did a lot of cookbooks, so I got the passion from her. I grew up in London, and around when I was 17 I moved to New York, where my best friend's mother was a restaurant critic. She'd take us out and say, 'You can't order all the same thing. You've got to try everything.' It was fun. During college, I was a history major, but I worked during the summers as a waiter on Cape Cod. I really enjoyed that, so I decided to go into the restaurant business. I worked at the Hyatt, and then I went to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America). After I got out in '92, I worked in restaurants in Aspen, Colorado, for three years, including a neat little French place. The chef-owner there had worked for Daniel Boulud [in Manhattan], and as his sous chef, I learned lots from him. Then I moved to Hawaii and worked for seven years for Jean-Marie Josselin at the A Pacific Cafe restaurant group in Maui and Kauai. When my wife and I had our first child, we came back to the mainland.

"We were on a plane to New York with our one-year-old, and when we looked at the United Airlines map, I pointed to San Diego and asked my wife, 'Have you ever been?' I'd never been here either. We decided to move, as random as that -- we made our plans on the plane with the baby in our laps. We didn't know a soul here, but it turned out that a friend of mine from Hawaii was really good friends with people who work at the Prado, and they got me an introduction to David Cohn. Now I've been at Blue Point for four years."

After the Cohn Group opened Mr. Tiki, up the block, Hale was splitting his time between the two restaurants, along with chef de cuisine Jesse Cruz (who now heads the Tiki kitchen). This proved difficult. "I came to realize it was a little too much, with two kids, two restaurants, to work at my best, so I came back here to focus exclusively on Blue Point.

"We get fish from five different companies...We found a little company that's really consistent with scallops from Boston. Scallops are so hard to get -- there's not that many out there. I feel bad because we use so many, I feel personally responsible for annihilating many, many beds... We really have to be picky with our seafood, our produce." I asked if he had the freedom to buy and cook whatever he wanted. "Yes, part of the opportunity here is that we have free rein to do pretty much anything we want. David [Cohn] is receptive to just about anything we come up with."

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