2241 Shelter Island Drive, San Diego
With Valentine's Day coming up, I thought of Humphrey's By The Bay, a restaurant romantic enough for a special evening. The picture window affords a wonderful view of the bay -- even if you can't see the water at night, you look out to a panorama of twinkling city lights and the occasional masts of boats sailing by. The large, calm dining room, in cool, sandy neutrals, has an open-beam ceiling sporting wooden fans. The pictures on the wall are portraits of puffy cloud formations. Well-spaced, comfortable tables spread with white linen and thick carpeting underfoot keep the sound level low enough to hear whispered sweet nothings. It's a pretty place for a light or a serious dinner date, with the option of enjoying a show at Humphrey's Backstage Lounge after dessert. (V-Day it will be Fattburger, smooth jazz, with a $5 cover.)
The menu is cute, made of three loose parchment-like pages secured at the top with a bamboo stick. The first page lists appetizers, the second "strictly coastal" items, the third "chicken and meats." The food is easygoing So-Cal cuisine with a touch of Asia here, Italy there, Louisiana yonder. The choices are vast but unchallenging hotel-restaurant fare with something for everyone. Nothing on this menu will shock you or your sweetie or distract your cuddle from your charm.
The trick lies in finding the most appealing dishes. Among the appetizers, our scouting party especially liked the Cajun shrimp-and-corn chowder, which is well seasoned but not spicy-hot. Chopped shrimp and corn kernels abound in a bisque-like seafood broth that tastes like Maine lobster and is colored coral to match. "I'd come back just for that," said my friend Mike. "Two bowls would make a meal." "Or," said my partner, "one bowl plus the 'signature salad,' and the bread-and-butter platter -- that's all you'd need." The bread is a twisted, spongy Italian loaf from Solunto Bakery in Little Italy, and the butter arrives in a small crock at spreadable temperature. The "signature salad" mingles baby greens with Asian pear, bleu cheese, carrot shreds, cukes, and small tomatoes in a blood-orange vinaigrette so light you can't really taste the orange.
A wild mushroom tart is also surefire: a dainty round of puff pastry topped with caramelized onions, a few slivered cremini mushrooms, goat cheese, and a daub of crème fraîche.
A starter called "grilled skirt steak," which turns out to be Southeast Asian satay, is less rewarding. The wood-skewered beef is charry and flavorful, cut against the grain for tenderness, but it comes with bland peanut sauce and an extremely sour cucumber salad, speckled with hot pepper flakes and inauthentically marinated in white vinegar. In its native countries, the salad is typically made with rice vinegar or lime juice and sugar, either of which is a more palatable alternative. Minus the disappointing garnishes, you can enjoy this tasty steak in an entrée called "Humphrey's Mixed Grill," paired with Thai red-curry shrimp, glass noodles, and a cilantro-ginger beurre blanc.
The opposite flaw applies to the Dungeness crab cakes. The garnishes are swell; the cakes fall flat. Underseasoned, undercooked, and loaded with filler, they have the mouth-feel of a wad of Bimbo's white bread -- but we loved the accompaniments of corn salad, baby greens salad with radicchio, and red and yellow bell pepper purée. Glancing at the next table, I saw what we should have ordered: a happy trio of diners were tucking into a double order of baked Bluepoint oysters topped with St. André cheese, cilantro, and mizuna. I got the feeling they'd been here before.
Among our entrées, the best was a special of grilled local swordfish, sprinkled with candied ginger and orange zest and topped with a single large prawn. The moist steak rested on a square bed of gingered risotto -- soft-firm, neither chalky nor goopy -- over a slick of tart-sweet orange sauce. The combination was well-nigh perfect. Many other entrées come with a side of risotto, and the kitchen clearly knows how to handle the rice. Less successful was macadamia-crusted halibut. Mea culpa -- I forgot to specify doneness and the waitress didn't ask, so it arrived too dry, defaulting to San Diego hotel-restaurant caution (meaning it's made for Zonies, who'll send back properly tender fish). We did enjoy the plate's citrus-teriyaki glaze and accompaniments of garlic-mashed potatoes and a medley of julienne carrots and yellow squash. So don't be bashful -- specify moist, not dry-cooked.
A filet mignon was flavorful for this bland but oh-so-tender cut. It's Brandt Natural Beef, corn-fed for 100 days with no hormones or antibiotics, so of course it tastes good. It was dressed with a lightened, less costly revision of France's aristocratic sauce Périgourdine -- Madeira sauce studded with rehydrated wild mushrooms (including morels) and a hint of black truffle something (oil, shavings, bottled sauce -- not fresh truffles in any case, so don't get your hopes up). Hiding under the beef is a flotilla of blanched spinach on a bed of mashed potatoes flavored with Gruyère, a creamy, mild French cheese. Oddly, the mash tasted little different from the halibut's garlic mash. I'd guess the spuds themselves are Yukon Golds, which tend to assert their own flavor over any but the strongest amendments.
The rack of lamb consists of two double-chops of Australian meat cooked to our order of rare-medium rare. Alas, they were poorly trimmed, with too much fat left on the exterior. Cloaked in a routine Port sauce and under subdued restaurant lighting -- where you can just make out what's on the plate -- you're bound to chew through mouthfuls of solid tallow before excavating down to the meat. It's a dish with a high "ick" factor. The head chef turns out to have been on vacation that week (he'll be back before you read this), so perhaps the kitchen staff slacked off a little during his absence. The accompaniments were fine thin-skinned agnolotti pasta filled with mushrooms and cheese, a few soggy green beans, and a walnut-sized hunk of butternut squash. Here, too, we realized we'd have done better ordering the Certified Angus prime rib roast or the 20-ounce grilled Porterhouse -- simpler meats less subject to error.
Mike and I, the wine enthusiasts in our quartet, happily availed ourselves of the tasting flights: four are available -- two red, two white -- running about $10 each for three small pours. Mike caught me eyeing his reds, secretly comparing our pours. "Yes, they gave me more than you," he confirmed. Although he's cuter than me, we speculated that it was really because whites (like those I was drinking) can go back into the fridge, while reds, once opened, have to be vacuum-treated to store overnight, and even then lose a lot of savor if the bottle is more than half-empty -- hence, the heftier pour. Each glass of a flight is decorated with a "wine charm" around its stem, and you get a little card identifying the wines (by their charms) and describing each of them in breathless winelish. For instance, the Fritz Winery "Dutton Ranch" Chardonnay supposedly displayed "subtle tropical fruit flavors and overtones of honeyed pineapple," where my call would be "very ripe, high-acid grapes with powerful undertones of oak fermenting barrel." But if you like any of the quaffs enough to want to buy a bottle at a store, you can pocket the cards to remember what you tasted.
Along with the view, the house-made desserts make Humphrey's a V-Day destination. The waitress brings the evening's full array on a tray, and all are things of beauty. The pastry staff will probably go all out for V-Day, but even on a regular night they're artful. The prettiest (but not the most interesting) that evening was a gemlike chocolate-cherry "bonbon," a half-dome the size of a Hostess Snoball glazed in shiny dark chocolate, concealing a soft center of milk chocolate mousse layered with crème brûlée and cherries. On the plate, it's surrounded by a coulis made from rehydrated dried cherries. It's -- what more can I say? -- very sweet.
Our favorite was a small square of warm almond cake, with a fine crumb and deep nut flavor -- a sweet for grownups. At the other end of its long rectangular serving plate was a coffee cup topped with chocolate-striped whipped cream, hiding a pleasant "mocha cappuccino mousse." A lemon-zest cheesecake needed more lemon, and more zest in general. It was plain and heavy on a graham crust, surrounded by commercial-tasting raspberry syrup dotted with a few berries.
By the time we were done, the show at the Backstage Lounge was in full swing. I'm happy to say that in the restaurant we didn't hear a note of it. That's romantic for you. Now touch hands.
OTHER VALENTINE'S DAY DESTINATIONS:
For Popping the Question: These are places where you should have reserved three weeks ago, the day you bought the ring: A.R. Valentien at the Lodge at Torrey Pines, Azzura Point at the Loews Coronado Resort, Bertrand at Mr. A's, El Bizcocho at Rancho Bernardo Inn, Firenze, George's at the Cove, Marine Room, Milles Fleurs (the rock better be huge), Sky Room at the Valencia Hotel (ditto), Vincent's Sirinos.
Maybe You'll Pop the Question Soon: Azul La Jolla, 150 Grand, Alfiere, Candelas, Casa De Vega, Delicias, El Agave, Lamont Street Grill, Le Passage, Sally's, Tapenade.
Take the Old Lady Out -- Or Else: De Medici, Fifth & Hawthorne, La Bastide, Laurel, Le Bonne Bouffe, Molly's, Osteria del Pescatore, Primavera, Terra, Vivace at the Four Seasons (or any of the above, or a weekend brunch wherever you fancy, including Humphrey's).
My partner and me? Last thing we want is to go to a restaurant on their most crowded day of the year. He'll buy a dozen-plus oysters at Blue Water, bring them home and shuck them, while I make a zippy cocktail sauce and chill a nice bottle of Muscadet. Works for us, trust me.
ABOUT THE CHEF
The last time I visited Humphrey's (four and a half years ago), the chef was Jim Hill, a few months before his premature death. Until recently, his sous-chef carried on. A few months ago, veteran chef Paul Murphy stepped in to the top toque position. (He was on vacation at this writing and unavailable for interview.) He has worked at El Bizcocho, Temecula Creek Inn, and Delicias (in Rancho Santa Fe). From there, he went to Belgium to complete his apprenticeship and then became executive chef at the West Side Bar and Grill, a French-American bistro in Pau, in the extreme south of France. Returning to the U.S., he was executive sous-chef at the Ritz Carlton in Phoenix, specializing in seafood, before he came to work at Humphrey's.