880 Harbor Island Drive, San Diego
The first warm day of spring, I headed for Harbor Island to catch some rays at lunch. A few minutes later, I was sitting on the lanai at the water's edge at Island Prime C Level, the Cohn Restaurant Group's newest local restaurant, with chef Deborah (Kemo Sabe, Indigo Grill) Scott at the helm. It's on the site of the old Ruben's, stylishly remade with plenty of space to eat al fresco. Two restaurants share the same building and kitchen -- the higher-end Island Prime to the right of the front door and the more casual C Level to the left.
C Level itself provides a choice of venues -- a wood-paneled indoor dining room (which I ignored), a roofed and shaded patio, or the umbrella-shaded sunshine of the lanai. Outdoors, you can watch boats sail by in close-up, with the downtown skyline and the Coronado Bay Bridge in long-shot view. Just down the block is the Reuben E. Lee, looking mighty yare for a non-floating wreck; the Cohns currently lease it as a storage area for Island Prime, but another company hopes to turn it into a hotel.
The weekday lunch crowd here is dressier than the usual San Diego dinner crowd. Most wear serious corporate business drag (suits, dresses, heels); some larger groups wear name-tags, too. Many are hearty eaters: We saw several lunch orders of brick-cooked chicken, huge Kobe beef burgers, and (for a more dietetic choice) the BLT Wedge, an entire, trisected head of iceberg lettuce with bacon, baguette slices, and blue cheese dressing on the side -- owner David Cohn's pet dish.
The menu headings are C-going cute: Appetizers are called "Under Way," salads are "Kelp Beds," and entrées are "High Tide."
That day for lunch, my partner chose the "High Tide" Lobster and Jalapeño Cheddar BLT, which comes with a bowl of sherried lobster bisque. The first thing you need to know about the C-level lobster (which appears on the menu in several guises) is that it's inexpensive bulk lobster meat (like lump crab, but with smaller lumps) extracted from the critters' knuckles. Hence, the lobster BLT is literally your proverbial "knuckle sandwich." The stuff tastes bland, barely like seafood at all, and on that day the melted cheese was gentle, too. It's supposed to be jalapeño cheese, but the menu was recently changed from plain Cheddar -- the earlier version is what we got: The ooze on our sandwich resembled Velveeta. Tomato and mellow applewood-smoked bacon completed the array of mild, soft ingredients served on white-bread toast. As we were about to discover, seafood that doesn't taste like seafood is what many of C Level's patrons prefer.
For example, the accompanying sherried bisque, made from the same bulk lobster (rather than shells and spare parts, as French chefs do it) is sweet and creamy but carries only a whisper of lobster flavor. This, it turns out, is a response to customer demand, says chef de cuisine Mike Suttles. "Josh -- Joshua McGinnis, the original chef de cuisine -- who's a great chef, worked on the lobster bisque for three months to come up with a perfect one. But when we served it, we were getting constant complaints about the strong flavor. They said it tasted too much like seafood," sighs Suttles, who came over from Blue Point when McGinnis moved to a gig in L.A. "So Deborah came up with this one on the fly one day. It seems to be the answer to the problem. Once we stopped using lobster bodies and roasting them off traditionally, that ended the complaints." If you do want a heartier bisque-style soup with more lobster flavor, there's a Sherried Lobster Kettle Pan Roast ($12), which includes lobster claw meat. Incidentally, the soup-and-sammie combo sells for $17, while for just $12 at several nearby restaurants (including the Boathouse, C Level's neighbor on Harbor Island), you can get a whole Maine lobster with melted butter. Your call.
My lunch, plucked from the "Kelp Bed," was the C-Level Louie, a San Francisco treat that I direly miss down here. At S.F.'s Cliff House (another "view" restaurant, overlooking the Pacific) and at any number of good dives, they make it with briny little "cocktail shrimp" and satiny-sweet Dungeness crab meat. At C Level, they make it with precisely four medium shrimp that have been boiled in plain water for a couple of minutes too long. The flavor had a muddy undertone. For $4 more (bringing the salad to $19), I went for the option of adding a handful of Alaska King crab meat. All of this species is frozen when caught, and it ran true to form -- low in gusto, with a rough, raggy mouth-feel. The rest of the salad is excellent -- good Russian-style Louie dressing on the side, fresh lettuce, the requisite slices of avocado, hard-cooked egg, red onion, and tomato -- plus additional fillips of golden pepper cubes, capers, and edamame. If you can overlook second-rate seafood, it's a first-rate Louie.
We returned the next night for dinner with our friend Provvi. All around the Bay, lights were twinkling on boats, bridges, and buildings. A fire was roaring in the hearth of the roofed patio, and on the lanai, the long stone "planter" that bisects the space is lined with lava stones, heated by hidden gas plumbing. Heat-stanchions added more warmth. The night was chilly but we felt toasty. The business-lunch crowd was gone, and the evening diners had changed into their casual civvies.
Potentially the best of our starters was a bowlful of littleneck clams and Fox River mussels in a pinot grigio broth with pancetta and rapini (strong Italian wild broccoli), with crostini toasts alongside for dipping. The clams were sweet and tender, and the sauce was initially delicious -- until the mussels kicked in and peed in the pool. "These have an odd smell," said Provvi. "I don't like it." Indeed, these were the mussels that Anthony Bourdain warned us about in his Kitchen Confidential. They'd obviously been sitting in the walk-in for a few days, befouling themselves until their shells and meats had developed a faint stink. I spoke with Mike Suttles about this the next day. He'd been off the previous evening, "or else I'd blame myself," he said. He disclosed that the restaurant's fishmonger is Fish Warehouse, the same source that Oceanaire and Blue Point use. "It's one of the most professional seafood companies that I've seen in San Diego. We get deliveries six days a week. We go through so much product, we pretty much turn everything over every day. But I've had to constantly retrain my guys on changing out the pans for the mussels, to put 'em in perforated drip pans with ice on top and not just throw 'em in a hotel pan and stick 'em in the walk-in when we're busy. It's a constant work in progress."
A pair of modest-sized crabcakes are typical of the Delaware Bay region, seasoned with Old Bay spice mix, a few bits of bell pepper and scallion greens, and a lot of salt mixed into the mayonnaise binding. There's no bready filler, but the lump crabmeat -- again, sans SD-taboo "seafoody" flavors -- is nothing to write home about. A spicy coral remoulade for dipping streaks the plate, and next to the cakes is a small salad of spring mix and applewood bacon chunks in a slightly harsh vinaigrette. A Caesar salad was nothing special either, as the lettuce was limp and the pair of anchovies decorating the top were dry. "Where's the olive oil?" Provvi quipped. The croutons consisted of two slices of toasted baguette, one of them spread with Kalamata tapenade.
Crispy Buffalo Oysters are the maritime equivalent of chicken "Buffalo wings," with five bottled bivalves for the protein, drenched with Crystal hot sauce from Louisiana. Unlike the famous version invented by the gals in Buffalo, there's no melted butter added to it to soften the heat -- the sauce is spicy, but not good-spicy. It comes with a cole slaw of red-and-white cabbage shreds, cucumber wedges, julienned green apple, and carrots in a mayo-and-vinegar dressing enlivened by chunks of blue cheese. The slaw is placed over more hot sauce, which makes the plate look like the site of a bloodbath.
After learning about the lobster meat at lunch, we decided against ordering the lobster-mac entrée for dinner, figuring it would taste a lot like the version we didn't like at Dussini's a few weeks ago. Instead, we went for the Kobe beefburger ($22) and were glad of it. C Level may be to blame for the disappearance of Snake River Kobe burgers from Trader Joe's freezer case -- the restaurant is using giant quantities of it in this popular and frequent off-menu "special." "It's awesome, it's so tender," said the waitress. "They feed the cows sake and give them massages." The sake and massage folklore isn't exactly true, the owner of Snake River Farms told me a couple of years ago -- the steers are just plump Wagyu breed cattle, carefully raised in a more wholesome environment than the normal feedlot. One of the joys of the dish is that the beef (ground by Snake River) is reasonably safe to order rare -- and when you do, that's how the kitchen grills it. The garnishes include portobello mushroom slices, plus tomato and lettuce. Alongside comes a delightful green apple "sauerkraut," its sweet-sour dressing spiced with cinnamon, plus a conical wire basket of slim, salty, herbed and Parmesan-flecked french fries, which were lukewarm when they reached us. (The regular C-level burger is also worth a try, made with good ground sirloin from Newport Meats, the same company that handles most of Snake River's Kobe.)
The most serious entrée is the diablo brick chicken, "marinated in Dijon mustard for 40 hours," the waitress told us, and served with gorgonzola polenta. The portion is an airline cut (breast plus wing-drumette) infused with mustard flavor, but with slightly dry meat. The polenta is soft and heavy on cheese, as lumpy as Mommy's dreaded cream of wheat cereal. Filling out the selection was a Parmesan crisp sprinkled with crushed red chilies, a large boiled asparagus spear, and a pillow of cooked arugula.
A special of fennel-crusted mahimahi was less than special; for that matter, it was less than fennel-crusted. The fish was cooked to local taste -- a little dry -- and came with a wild rice mix and grilled baby bok choy. We liked the bok choy.
A full-time pastry chef creates all the desserts. Provvi loves chocolate, so we ordered her a mud pie -- rather grainy chocolate ice cream topped with whipped cream and a sprinkling of nuts, drizzled with aggressively sweet chocolate syrup (resembling Smucker's banana-split sauce), atop a fudgy "chocolate decadence" crust that tastes as if it's made of supermarket-quality cooking chocolate rather than a premier brand. You have to love really sweet sweets to enjoy this one. A key lime pie had a graham cracker crust shaped into a "cup," like a strawberry shortcake. The filling was a weighty lime pudding topped with stiff whipped cream. Perhaps a better choice for our tastes would have been the ice cream trio; since both the ice cream and the waffle cones are made in-house, I'm tempted to call them Ice Cream Cohns.
What the Cohns are good at is restaurant design and ambience -- creating varied, handsome environments to sip, talk, and nosh. C-level is typical. "I'll bring my out-of-town guests here," said Provvi as we left. "They're not foodies anyway." The restaurant's name and its motto are both accurate. The food is pretty much C-level -- as in a passing grade of C. The motto is "views to dine for," and that sums it up. With so much to fill the eye, you hardly notice what you're eating or how much you're paying for it. Next week, if all goes as planned, we'll check out Island Prime, the more formal dinner house.
ABOUT C LEVEL
Executive chef-partner Deborah Scott was on vacation the week I went to C Level, so I spoke with chef de cuisine Mike Suttles. Mike has been with the Cohn group for four years, previously cooking under Jonathan Hale at Blue Point, the Cohns' fine-dining seafood restaurant. I asked how Island Prime's kitchen handled having two very different restaurants on a single site. "There are two separate lines in one kitchen," he said. "We have separate staffs -- but one's twice as busy and makes the same amount of money as the other one. C Level is the really busy one. Last Wednesday [the day I lunched there -- N.W.] we had an absolutely full house from three in the afternoon until nine o'clock at night."
The menu has numerous cheese dishes on it, not what you'd expect from Scott, whose cuisine at Kemo Sabe and Indigo Grill emphasizes spice and audacity, rather than C Level's gooey comforts. "Deborah grew up in Virginia," said Mike, "and this food is more of what comes from her background in the Low Country -- like, the she-crab soup and crab cakes come from that. She was calling her mom a lot for recipes, and her mom sounds like a real down-home, country-cookin' kind of gal."
A new menu had just gone in that week, dropping a few dishes and replacing them with items previously served only in the dinner house. "A lot of people who dine at Island Prime come to C Level for lunch, and they asked for these dishes. Deborah will do anything for anybody; that's really her philosophy. We started getting a lot of requests for the ahi stack so we decided to make it available to everybody. As for the lettuce wedge, that's one of David Cohn's favorite dishes.
"David's given us a lot of freedom here to make things happen, and a lot of top-notch equipment that he's brought in. Our pastry chef came from Baleen and makes all the desserts, including ice cream. She even makes the cones, on a specialized waffle-cone maker that's small, very thin, and looks like a panini press. She's having a good time with that stuff. Deborah buys her all kinds of fun little toys."
Future plans, he said, include expansion of the patio past the current planter-box border to install a wet bar during the summer, along with a raw bar. "People have been asking us for oysters on the half-shell, things like that. I guess sitting right on the water gives them the idea," says Suttles. He and Deborah are still tackling the difficulty of tweaking the menu in so busy a restaurant. "We'd planned on a soft opening, but we hit the ground running with 800 covers on opening day," he says, "and the pace has never really slacked off." Another issue is how to maximize the kitchen's efficiency for the hectic pace of the C Level staff. "That line down at the C Level is one of the hardest lines for any chef to work on. We have some design problems with how the line was put together. We're gonna try to deal with it, but it does create some problems for us -- putting food out on a fast-paced lunch can be really tough sometimes."