880 Harbor Island Drive, San Diego
Three-course dinner for two: $130. Bottle of David Bruce Pinot Noir: $58. Panoramic view of the bay, the bridge, the downtown skyline: Priceless. The food is pretty good, too.
Island Prime shares a building (formerly Reuben's Restaurant, gutted and redone) with the casual, outdoorsy Island Prime C Level (reviewed last week). Deborah Scott (of Kemo Sabe and Indigo Grill) is executive chef for both, as well as co-owner with the Cohn Restaurant Group.
The two dining venues have little in common. Even though they're physically on the same level, IP (as the menu calls it) is referred to as "upstairs." It certainly feels more upscale, a "fine dining" restaurant-steakhouse, though the tables wear no tablecloths, and on weeknights we saw more polo shirts than suits. An older crowd dominates at the early seatings, while around 8:00 the age group shifts to late 20s and early 30s.
The dining room with its huge glass windows is paneled in wood with painted panels in sorbet pastels. Partial walls divide the expanse into more intimate areas, creating two sub-restaurants. Tables near the window are quieter, dimly lighted, and romantic. Those closer to the entrance are mainly booths, substituting comfort for scenery, and action for serenity -- 1950s pop-jazz plays in the nearby bar-lounge, lights are brighter, and a clattering semi-open kitchen sends parades of servers hoofing it toward C Level and bussers returning with used plates and tots' high chairs. But it's never rackety: The faux open-beam ceiling is lined with acoustical bubbles, and the floor is covered with a thick, textured jute carpet, which absorbs noise like a sponge. These design features ensure that, at the window tables, the volume is lively but pleasant -- the ideal sound level for a restaurant. Even though a tour bus was parked outside, and its passengers were eating chicken breast at the table next to ours, we heard our own conversation and barely overheard theirs.
The menu and the long wine list are printed together in a thick, narrow pad. After starters and salads, the entrées are split onto two pages. The first section consists of nine "composed entrées," featuring seafood, meat, and poultry with all the trimmings. The next page, called "turf," is a steakhouse-style listing of 9 unadorned grilled or roasted meats and 12 options for sauces, rubs, compound butters, and mustards. (You get to choose one.) Sides cost extra and are on the following page.
Friends Lynne and Fred joined us the first night. We lucked out and got a window table, well away from the kitchen action and the lounge. We began with an appetizer of Filet Mignon Tartare. The chef draws on her Southern heritage for many of IP's dishes, phoning her mom in Virginia for recipes (e.g., the she-crab soup at C Level and the Iris chopped salad at both venues). The Tartare may not be Mom's, but it speaks with a hospitable drawl: It's closer to a rich, beef-flecked potato salad than to the Russian-French classic of chopped raw meat and powerful condiments. The tender filet pieces are mixed with chopped fingerling potatoes, blue cheese, and truffle vinaigrette. A caper garnish is the only remnant of the European tradition -- there's nothing fierce about this civilized Tartare. A seared ahi stack with Pacific Rim flavors has the same proportion of protein to creaminess. It offers crabmeat, avocado, and sprinkles of black tobiko roe, mingling with a kicky papaya-mango salsa. "It's funny, these two dishes taste very different -- one's the ocean, the other's the land," Fred noted, "but the textures are almost identical."
"Ooh, I want to try these," said Lynne, finding fennel-crusted diver scallops on the menu. The scallops were of fine quality, served atop elephant garlic risotto with pancetta and basil oil. The risotto was cooked to firm-soft, and if I'm not thrilled with elephant garlic, that's just personal taste.
The appetizer that evoked aahs all around the table was the lobster kettle roast (available at both venues). It proved livelier than the bisque that I'd sampled downstairs a week earlier, though both supposedly start with the same broth. (One possible explanation may be that Scott was on vacation the week we ate at C Level.) In the kettle roast, several delicate pieces of lobster claw meat from the "thumb" float in a creamy broth with a gentle lobster flavor. Order this while you can: The chef is thinking of taking it off the menu -- just to get those cumbersome kettles off the crowded stoves.
In the course of our first dinner we discovered more upstairs-downstairs differences: The IP staff is more professional and knowledgeable than the pretty young women who served us at C Level. They have more time to pay attention to details, free from the hectic pace downstairs. Upstairs also gives you soft, warm dinner rolls or zaftig popovers, whereas at C Level, with its sandwich-laden menu, "Ya gets no bread with one meatball."
My partner and I returned a few nights later for a "mopping-up operation." We began with a soufflé of Gruyère, Parmesan, and undetectable truffles, dotted with sweet sherried figs, and a Parmesan crisp on the side. It was comforting and filling. I'd seen a review praising the baby beet salad. We expected whole tiny beets but were instead served thin slices of beets, a breaded round of baked goat cheese, and a heap of spring mix studded with walnuts so thickly glazed that they tasted like brown sugar lumps -- with no nuttiness left. (Is sugar Xanax for nuts?) Meanwhile, several plates of the Iris chopped salad (named for the chef's mom) passed us en route to other tables. We wished we'd ordered it instead.
Island Prime lives up to its steakhouse name, serving USDA Prime Midwestern corn-fed beef, tender, and well marbled. There's also an aristocratic Kurobuto pork chop among the steakhouse-style entrées. Since steak is more common than roast beef at most restaurants, we gravitated to the roast prime rib. We requested and received a rare center cut, which proved fatty, salty, and tasty, and a relative bargain at $21 for 12 ounces (or $29 for 21 ounces). When we returned, I enjoyed a succulent 18-ounce bone-in rib-eye and expect to enjoy it several more times as I work my way through the vast slab of protein that I doggy-bagged home.
The list of side dishes includes many variations on mashed potatoes, plus fried and baked spuds, spinach, mushrooms, and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus. The best, fresh shaved corn with black truffle and herbs, has become the restaurant's signature dish. "Omigod, this is amazing!" said the Lynnester at first bite. Each of us echoed her rhapsodies. The truffle component isn't the usual splash of oil, but crunchy black truffle shavings, lending earthy contrast to the supersweet corn kernels and lush cream sauce. This dish alone is worth the voyage.
"Lightly smoked wild mushrooms with herbs, garlic, shallots, and red wine" (the menu says) spill out of two rectangular packages of puff pastry. Don't hope for morels or chanterelles: The mushrooms are mainly creminis (the brown version of button mushrooms), with a few strips of baby shiitake and rehydrated porcini. The garlic is hard to detect. Instead, you get a lash of black pepper, heavy salting, and a sharp-flavored sauce. Sautéed spinach with cream, pancetta, and roasted garlic had tough leaves, splotches of melted cheddar, and a peppery cream sauce (and again, no perceptible garlic).
At our first meal, our other side was a lobster/aged cheddar twice-baked potato, which is not only enough for two as a side (as recommended) but would make a whole meal for a duo at home. Rising from a decapitated, hollowed-out potato was a giant pouf mingling melted cheese and mashed baked potato flesh, mixed with chunks of bulk lobster knuckle meat. This type of lobster meat has only a hint of seafood flavor, and its texture resembles fork-mashed canned tuna. Arriving in a nearly burnt potato shell, it had grown chewy from the baking, and the flavor combination confused my taste buds. After childhood summers in New England gobbling steamed live lobsters with drawn butter, my palate just can't get around the Californicated combination of lobster and melted cheese. Lynne and Fred didn't say much, and they also didn't eat much.
Real lobster -- in the shell, that is -- appears on an entrée of lobster, rock shrimp, clams, and mussels on black squid-ink linguini with an arugula-Pernod cream sauce. The sauce is very rich, lightly herbal from the licorice-flavored Pernod, and heavily salted -- you don't taste the salt, but it raises an instant thirst. "Love this sauce," said the Lynnester. The Australian lobster tail hulking over the plate proved sweet and reasonably tender. It was surrounded by tiny rock shrimp and sweet little clams, but the mussels were (as at C Level the previous week) a little "off." They weren't as funky as they'd been downstairs, but they still had a whiff of their own exudates. (I spoke with chef Deborah about this the next day, and she promised to delve into the problem and correct it. I believe her, because the restaurant's official mussel-handling practices are correct, and because she's encountered nasty mussels at other people's restaurants and was aghast to hear that some had come out of her kitchen.)
Porcini-dusted rack of Colorado lamb featured ordinary, slightly greasy meat with a delicious smoked tomato glacé. Blobs of spicy Moroccan-style tomato jam decorated a bed of tiny green French lentils, which were cooked a little crunchy. "Shouldn't lentils be softer?" Lynne asked. "Oh, but I love them this way," my partner answered. He was pretty much alone in that preference, sharing it only with the chef -- since our next dish showed that the crunchiness was deliberate.
Great Northern beans of similar texture accompanied an herb-crusted Alaskan halibut fillet with a yuzu beurre blanc, clams, and pancetta. "I could handle the lentils, but these are just too hard for me," said Fred. My partner liked them even better than the lentils, but none of us liked the fish: Once this bland species is cooked a few seconds past translucent, it's scarcely worth eating. Ours was cooked to conventioneer standards -- well done -- and most went into a week of dinner donations to my favorite feral cat. At second visit, we ordered pomegranate-teriyaki mahimahi and asked the server for medium rare. It arrived cooked well-done, too, but this gamier fish withstood it better, and we liked the zingy glaze. The accompanying udon noodles, dressed with sesame and ginger and splotted with bok choy pieces, were delightful, tasting as if they could have come from a serious Hong Kong restaurant.
Desserts are deliberately "retro," says the chef. A pineapple upside-down cake was a giant warm rectangle drenched in caramel. My partner and I liked it but wearied after a couple of bites. "Anybody want to take this home?" we asked. "Me, me!" said Fred. We tried both the "trios" -- three house-made ice creams and sorbets, served in house-made waffle cones. Their flavors change frequently. That night, we liked the pistachio best among the ice creams; the others didn't get much play. The sorbets had an icy texture. "I like the passion fruit," said Lynne. "It's the only one with a really strong flavor."
"You know, the only Cohn restaurant I've really liked before this one was Blue Point," said the Lynnester. "This was a real surprise. The food's much better than I expected, and the view is just great -- I'm even thinking of taking my boyfriend here for a special evening."
Both venues of Island Prime will be serving a buffet for Mother's Day this weekend (10:00 a.m.--2:30 p.m., $50 adults with one glass of champagne, $16 kids 6--12, free for under 6), same dishes upstairs and downstairs. If this sounds like your mom's cuppa tea, best reserve for it right away, because a lot of other moms' husbands and grown children are already on the phone.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Deborah Scott still speaks with a trace of her native Virginia, where her mom cooked Southern food and her dad manned the back-yard grill. "I call them Ward and June Cleaver," she says. "They're both in their eighties now, and I feel fortunate they're still flourishing." The grill awakened her interest in food. "I used to go camping a lot, and what really absorbed me was the meats and the smells of that rustic-type cooking." Once she'd earned a degree in English literature, bartending her way through college, she studied at the Baltimore International Culinary College and then won an advanced degree in the graduate studies program of the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in Hyde Park, New York. After working in several restaurants back East, she moved to California in 1992 and opened Mediterraneo in Alpine. She went on to open the original Indigo Grill in Little Italy (now reopened and flourishing at a better site) and Kemo Sabe, under the aegis of the Cohn Restaurant Group. She still heads those kitchens as well as those of Island Prime and Island Prime C Level.
Kemo Sabe made Scott's reputation as an audacious, spicy chef. "The food at Island Prime is totally a departure for me," she says. "It's kind of fun to do, but it's definitely a departure from my signature style.... The whole feel of the building is very retro, so first, I went on consideration of that retro feel. Secondly, the clientele we get in a restaurant like this, compared to Kemo Sabe or Indigo Grill -- it's more varied, with a lot of tourists, a lot of people from the hotels and the Convention Center, and some older clients from Reuben's, quite a bit of people from there.... So I've done some tweaking here and there to play to them, to emphasize what I think of as a retro style. Our desserts are very retro -- like the Mud Pie, which I used to eat at Chart House when I was a kid.
"There's a big difference between Island Prime and C Level. I can be in C Level -- it's a very casual feel -- and then you walk off the floor into Island Prime, and it's a bizarre feeling, like you're walking from one restaurant into another. The people at C Level are coming off boats or taking a nice lunch-with-a-view away from the office. Island Prime is much more upscale in feeling. The appetizers at C Level are sized for sharing. Those at Island Prime aren't as large and cost a little more, but some have slightly better ingredients.
"I see both restaurants as places that people can take their out-of-town guests to or gather new memories for San Diegans who might remember having their prom at Reuben's. I always listen to suggestions and take 'em to heart and tweak the menu to fit the audience."
Deborah didn't yet know that Island Prime had been picked as one of Conde Nast Traveler magazine's worldwide "Hot Restaurants" of 2006. When I told her, she said, "I love the restaurant business...it's like having this dinner party every night. I just feel so appreciative about being able to do that, and to have received the recognition that I do is a bonus. It just makes me so happy to be doing something I enjoy."