4622 Park Boulevard, San Diego
Lei Lounge has been generating a lot of buzz lately. Like last week's Confidential, it serves a summer-friendly menu of creative global tapas meant for sharing, along with a drink list of what I'd call "candy cocktails." You remember Ogden Nash's quip, "Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker." Today's hip bartenders combine the quick and the dandy into easy-drinking cocktails that appeal to the newly legal set.
Lei also serves up comfort with an underpinning of cool. In front, it's a minimalist-chic room with a faux-waterfall behind the bar, a dozen-plus barstools, and a few tables set around the room. But the real action is through the back door. On a generous-sized outdoor patio, groups of six or more cluster into thatch-roofed white-leather cabanas, each furnished with white-leather benches and a low table for grazing -- plus all the mod-cons: chandeliers, fans, heaters, speakers, and flat-panel monitors showing peaceful tropical scenes. The cabanas even have filmy white curtains that theoretically can be drawn for a bit of privacy, but nobody actually does. Smaller parties sit in the center of the patio at umbrella-shaded tables decorated with pink paper-flower leis or can lounge by the fire pits on a white-leather banquette in front of a well-tended garden wall. If it's chilly, the patio is warmed by heat stanchions and flaming metal tiki torches. The mood lights and video projections come on after darkness falls: Welcome to South Beach -- or is it Waikiki? -- or is it just spring break in Rosarito?
Maybe it's closest to a spiffed-up version of the latter. While the crowd encompasses all ages, the majority of patrons are those whose drinking licenses are still fresh and unwrinkled. The early-comers are waiting when the restaurant opens its door. As their friends arrive and join them, the volume grows raucous with cocktail-fueled hilarity. Some of the customers also wear loud fragrances. One young woman seated at the bar sported such a quantity of some shrieking "celebrity" floral (probably Liz Taylor's White Diamonds) that her scent KO'd us all the way out on the sidewalk.
Arriving with my partner and the Lynnester, we came not to party but to eat. Lei's menu ranges from small dishes for a couple or threesome to nibble on, up to medium-large plates that can be noshed by a group. The kitchen sizes many of the plates to match the number of people at the table -- a smart move that spares diners the dilemma of dividing a three-piece hors d'oeuvre into four portions. (You may still have to halve the pieces on the sampling plates.)
Although the menu lists 37 tapas plus nine starch side dishes, many choices offer only slight variations on a theme, e.g., coconut shrimp vs. coconut calamari, or pistachio-dusted mahimahi vs. pistachio-crusted squid. Three of Lei's main food groups are dumplings, skewers, and spring rolls -- all available either solo or grouped as samplings.
"Dumplings" are actually Japanese-style fried wontons. ("You can get them steamed if you prefer," said our waiter, making a sour face. As it turns out, the chef himself prefers them steamed, like Chinese dim sum.) The flavors lean China-ward: Fillings include lobster with a good soy-ginger dip, crab with garlic-oil dip, and shrimp with a gooey Southeast Asian sweet chili sauce. We chose the sampling, with two of each filling and all three sauces. Lynne and I liked the garlic-oil best (warm olive oil with a couple of whole roasted garlic cloves floating at the bottom of the cup), regardless of what filling it accompanied. My partner favored the soy-ginger. The shredded bulk lobster meat had little flavor, but the lobster filling was lively, seasoned with ginger and sesame oil. The shrimps were small but tasty, amended with tiny snips of chives. The crabmeat served is bland lump crab, which returned to haunt us in other dishes.
The most attractive-sounding skewer, of premium Kobe beef, was also disappointing: The ultra-thin slice of meat was cooked well-done and tough, coated with a slick of coconut sauce that added nothing. If you like Kobe, or want to find out if you do, you'd be better served by investing in the Kobe steak-frites, a grilled mini-steak that you can order rare. The chicken skewer is pounded breast coated with Indian-style curry sauce. If you order this solo (rather than in a sampling), it comes with basmati rice and sweet-pepper chutney. There's also a Thai chicken skewer with peanut sauce (that we didn't try) and an ahi tuna skewer.
Spring rolls with well-crisped wrappers are available in three flavors. Our favorite filling, Mongolian duck, is a sweet, mu-shu-like mixture of caramelized onion shreds, shiitake slivers, and julienned carrots, plus a few chunks of dryish duck confit. Alongside is a thick cherry-flavored dipping sauce. The veggie roll is stuffed with mushy cabbage and carrot shreds and is served with more of the sweet chili dip. The Philly cheesesteak roll -- well, that's what it is.
Our favorite dish fit none of the above categories. Seared sea scallops with curry cream sauce turned out to be fine-quality dayboat catch, exuding a lovely maritime aroma (an amazing bargain at $12). They arrived with crisped surfaces and translucent centers. The Madras curry powder in the sauce was mild, warm, with plenty of saffron (and no floor sweepings from the spice warehouse). The menu says that the dish has a garnish of candied ginger. It doesn't -- the chef later confessed that, with his kitchen slamming, he hasn't gotten around to making it yet.
When we ordered the pistachio-crusted calamari salad, the waiter warned us that the squid would be salty. We decided to take that chance. They proved saline, indeed, but for good reason -- the salt is deployed as a distinct flavor, not a habit, complementing the nuttiness of the ground pistachios. (Surprisingly, this was the only notably salty dish we sampled.) Crisp calamari sat atop a salad of fresh spring greens and ripe little pear tomatoes moistened by a mild miso dressing that worked just right with all the other flavors.
Lobster tempura turned out to be hunks of tender but anonymous-tasting seafood dipped and fried in a delicious batter that dominates. It tastes like half of a heavenly fish 'n' chips -- so pair it with one of the great shoestring fried-potato variations (from the "Sides" section of the menu), like the Belgian frites with chipotle remoulade. The fries are crisp and ultra-thin, rich with potato flavor. (These are exactly what I'd hoped for at Confidential.) If you'd prefer a green accompaniment, you can also get a combo of lobster and shrimp tempura on a salad dressed with a passionfruit vinaigrette.
Shrimp and mango rolls come wrapped in chive-flecked crepes (rather than the cabbage still noted on the menu). The filling includes chewy lime-marinated shrimp mingling with mango chunks and touches of Chinese mustard and soy. The crepes were a bit thick and gluey; they needed more crisping. Undercooked, they soaked up too much liquid from the fruit and split at the seams, making it nigh impossible to transfer them from platter to plates.
Coconut shrimp were intensely sweet, nicely cooked, and came with a mango chipotle sauce, but the overall impact was so forgettable that...What was I saying? Crab empanadas had semi-crisp flour tortilla wrappers. "These aren't empanadas, they're chimichangas!" Lynne exclaimed. They're stuffed with that insipid lump crabmeat and are topped with melted Boursin (French garlic cream cheese). The menu says they come with tomatillo salsa verde. This was both missing and sorely missed. Something sparky would have brightened up the bland-on-bland flavor combination.
Faced with a short and uninspiring wine list, and by a weeknight happy hour offering specialty drinks at half price, I started with a Hurricane. Katrina it was not. Made with only one type of dark rum (rather than several, in the classic style) and lots of passionfruit juice, it tasted heavier and sweeter than the authentic N'awlins rendition. I passed on a Blue Hawaii when I saw the ingredient list and discovered that it included coconut and (gaah!) cherry liqueur. (The true Blue Hawaii that grownups drink on the islands consists of pineapple juice, vodka or rum, blue curaçao, and a squeeze of fresh lime -- nothing more, unless you count ice.) Meanwhile, my partner explored the international beer list, featuring brews from nine countries, plus Hawaii. Next round, Lynne and I both switched to pomegranate martinis, which taste something like Kir royale, bright and not too saccharine. If you're still sitting up straight at the end of the meal and you want a dessert other than crème brûlée or "dim sum donuts," the drink list can furnish that course, too. Something called a "frozen coconut" (made with ice cream and coconut-flavored booze and served in a coconut shell) sure looked like dessert as the waiter walked by.
Most of the dishes we tried were fun and tasty but a tad predictable, less cutting-edge than they were at Confidential last week. Even so, as the meal ended, Lynne (who lives nearby) was scribbling a list of things she wanted to try again. "I'd return for those," she said. "It's a great place to hang out." Indeed, it's an absolute hoot. I'd love to come with a gang some warm summer night, snag a cabana, graze and down cheap silly drinks until we're all silly, too. That's what Lei Lounge is there for.
ABOUT LEI LOUNGE
Lei Lounge opened in late April. Its owners are brothers Bill and Michael Weiss, who also own several restaurants and nightclubs in Philadelphia as well as the popular Bourbon Street bar next door. They're partnering at Lei with Mike Mack and Michael Skueish. "San Diego being known for an outdoor climate, me and Michael Skueish had a concept for an outdoor restaurant with cabanas, sort of like a tropical getaway," says Bill Weiss. "We're here from the East Coast. We don't take the climate for granted like everybody else does. We wanted to have a South Pacific sort of feel to it." What, I asked, will they do when it pours in winter? "We'll probably have to close it when it rains. We have a lot of umbrellas over the tables, but if we have a heavy downpour...."
The restaurant's original chef was from Philadelphia and returned there once things were rolling. Now the head chef is Philadelphia-born San Francisco transplant Guy Ferguson, who was hired in January, months before the opening. "I got into the profession because I like to be around food," he says. "I tried other things, but I keep going back to the kitchen. I love cooking for people, I love sending things out for people to enjoy. After kicking around for a number of years after high school, doing all kinds of stuff, I finally found my way into the kitchen around 1994 and decided to make the culinary field my occupation. I went to the CCA [California Culinary Academy] in San Francisco, and for the next ten years I worked at Italian and Greek restaurants there, and then at Aqua, at Huntington Hotel, and at Black Cat, one of Reed Hearon's restaurants." While living in the Bay Area, he explored the many great Asian restaurants, ranging from his favorite, the famed Slanted Door, to the various "great little holes in the wall."
Then he and his wife took off for two years in Paris so that he could attend the world-famous Cordon Bleu cooking school. "I studied pastry there, to round myself off in the field," he says. "When I got back from Paris -- one of the great things about the culinary industry is you can pretty much go wherever you want. After ten years in San Francisco, my wife and I were ready for a change. San Francisco had peaked as a place for food, and we lived right downtown in the city and it was starting to get to us. I've always loved California, and we decided on San Diego. It's just a great spot -- great food, restaurants, amazing weather, just about everything you can ask for over here. You tie all those things together, it was a no-brainer...But Northern and Southern California turn out to be two different animals as far as food goes -- not as many foodies here, not as much experience with eating in restaurants, with trying different ingredients. I'm still getting used to that."
Ferguson doesn't get to exercise his newly learned pastry skills much at Lei Lounge. "We're just doing some basics," he says, "crème brûlée and a sort of dim sum donut. The space is really limited in this kitchen, but we're planning on putting on some more desserts down the road. The restaurant just opened, and it's taken off so much, we're just trying to get everything together and we don't have the time yet [for fancy desserts]. We can count on a fast pace every night. But it's a great spot for being creative. The owners give me a lot of freedom, which I really appreciate."