8110 Camino del Oro, La Jolla
I've always wondered why I've never seen any reviews of The Shores, the less formal, less ambitious restaurant next door to the exalted Marine Room, but under the same ownership and same awesome executive chef, Bernard Guillas. So here -- a review to sadly, with some embarrassment, answer the question.
Before we trudge further in this tale, it seems reasonable to say that the best thing about The Shores is its weeknight early-bird dinner (Sunday--Thursday, 5:00--6:00 p.m.), which offers three courses for $20 and three choices each of appetizers, entrées, and desserts. The choices are equivalent to the à la carte dinner fare but at a price more attuned to their true value. A cash-strapped traveler could combine this bargain with a Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's for a full day's affordable sustenance; together, the two eateries' meals would make a Motel 6 of the mouth.
The bad news is that I'm grouping these three establishments into a single sentence, which hints at the quality of The Shores' cuisine. It is by no means the pits among the "view" restaurants -- I can name seven worse malefactors without pausing to think -- just as I can name five roach motels in this county that make any Motel 6 look like the Ritz. But don't mistake The Shores for a simplified or lower-priced Marine Room cousin -- it's a much poorer relative. The food is nothing like brilliant Bernie's, and yet for an à la carte dinner here, you pay pretty ritzy prices (figure $150 for two, with one shared bottle of $30 wine) for ordinary, fill-'er-up grub. There's not even a hint of the Great Guillas in the food or the menu, nor much personal creativity from the chef de cuisine who oversees this kitchen.
The Shores is set in a charming, family-oriented resort hotel (with relatively modest prices, given the prime beachfront location), where youngsters play Ping-Pong in a central courtyard or frolic on the sands. The restaurant's wall of windows looks out on a shallow beach. Swimmers, snorkelers, and kayakers share the sea, and novice surfers gently wipe out a few hundred feet farther up the Cove's curve. The sun sets right into the water (wear shades). The restaurant is light, airy, comfortable, with capacious white-clothed tables and a few half-shell banquettes. Most diners are probably hotel guests, but we spotted one foursome who seemed to be UC grad students finishing an early-bird dinner as we arrived.
My companion and I began scouting with a dinner from the normal menu. Once we'd ordered, a basket of Bread and Cie pain levain, baguettes, and skinny, delicious bread sticks arrived, with room-temperature whipped butter. At least, I think it was butter. (It certainly wasn't the Marine Room's primo Plugra.) Our best dish of the evening was an appetizer inaccurately dubbed "Kobe short-rib- stuffed portobello." Nothing was actually stuffed into anything -- you had long slabs of portobello in balsamic glaze topped with juicy chunks of short-rib meat dripped with melted cheddar. Fun food.
Things went downhill from there. Louisiana blue crab cakes were sludgy and starchy, tasting more of bread filler than crab, though the diced sweet potato and andouille sausage accompaniment was pleasing. Then came a vat of New England clam chowder amended with sweet corn. It had the expected creamy consistency and tasted of starch thickener -- but not many clams. It was okay, if you don't mind "boring" as a flavor.
We divided our entrées between The Shores' two focuses, Midwestern Angus beef steaks and California-style seafood. If you want a starch or a specific vegetable (other than the one the kitchen provides with your entrée), you need to order it as a side dish. The Pacific swordfish loin arrived dryly well done, despite our pleas for medium-rare. It was topped with chopped tropical fruits and a sweet, fruity cream sauce. On the side, to share, was an unadorned plateful of mushy steamed broccolini. "How nice, they made-a this especially for me," I quipped desperately in my best Chico Marx imitation. " 'Cause I was born in Broccolini, New York-a."
Next, a steak. The previous night at JRDN, I'd savored a paragon of full-flavored, well-seasoned rib-eye. Here, the same cut, cooked rare to order, came with three sauces (a passable béarnaise, a sour stone-ground mustard aioli, and an odd, gelatinous Cabernet reduction). For all that, it was just another dead cow, lacking an interesting seasoning rub and not wildly flavorful on its own. My companion poured béarnaise over the soggy broccolini in vain hope of revivifying the comatose veggie.
We tried a couple of desserts. Key lime pie had nice, tart custard but a mushy graham crust. Bailey's Irish Cream cheesecake was cloyingly sweet, worsened by chocolate drizzles.
No assessment of The Shores would be complete without a pass at their most popular offering, the Friday night seafood buffet. (Other friends had tried it once and reported that it was "plain but not bad.") My mini-posse and I started with the shellfish on ice. It was not a fabulous array. It was, in fact, a cheap and modest array. Medium-size peel-and-eat shrimp with uninspired cocktail sauce and bland dumbed-down remoulade (neither New Orleans nor French -- maybe Nebraskan). Green-lip New Zealand mussels. Florida stone-crab claws with hard-to-extract meat (some lush, some stringy). The best selection of the entire buffet consisted of salmon "tequila cilantro cured" and/or "lightly hickory-smoked." All the salmon slices were in one pile, so there's no way to tell whether both processes were applied to the fish, or if there were supposed to be two different versions. Whichever, the salmon (cured, for sure) was bright and juicy. It came with soi-disant "buckwheat blini" that looked and tasted more like palm-size breakfast pancakes from a mix (could it be Aunt Jemima buckwheat mix?). There were herbed crème frâiche and capers to spoon on to taste.
Around a corner were soups and salads. A lobster bisque came with clever optional garnishes of sweet-corn relish and toasted pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds), which almost succeeded in distracting the palate from the utter lack of lobster flavor in the thick pink colloid. A "Louisiana gumbo" was worse -- essentially a spiced-up tomato soup with fleeting bits of sea bass, andouille, chicken pastrami (huh?), mushy crawfish, okra, and gumbo filé. It was a Gumbo of Ignorance, even less authentic than the Campbell's canned version, assembled with no hint of the zest and complexity of true gumbo. (For one thing, no traditionalist in Louisiana would ever use both okra and sassafras - filé -- to thicken the same soup. Well, there are rare exceptions, but to succeed with such a violation of custom, you have to know deep in your gut what gumbo is. The Shores' version is what it isn't.) It also had too much cayenne dumped in too late in the cooking to integrate with the rest of the ingredients. (Ouch!)
The salads included a potato salad with hidden shrimps, figs, and other gourmet ingredients, all lost amid the copious spuds. A bow-tie-pasta-and-crab salad left us asking, "Where's the crab?" An iceberg lettuce salad with Gorgonzola and other goodies had a dessert-sweet maple dressing that recapitulated the horrors of Midwestern college-dorm food.
Hot dishes: A "scampi station" offered stir-fried-to-order small shrimp (about $3 per pound, wholesale), teeny scallops, swordfish, mushrooms, and various garnishes. Its very name is a lie. "Scampi" implies large, meaty prawns, not bland krill. Other hot entrées (salmon and mahimahi) were dead in their chafing dishes; they should have been switched out for fresh batches before we arrived, and I didn't see any switching during the whole two hours we were there.
An "All-American Cheese Maker Selection" next to the raw bar offered a choice of six cheeses -- Tillamook cheddar being a typical example -- all of them so young and innocent, they could have been virgins laid out for sacrifice to some volcano god. Chalky or flat or inane, none was aged enough to savor by adult humans. Spread 'em on baguettes and throw them into the volcano -- let 'em become grilled cheese virgins!
The dessert selection looked like a supermarket display of the final products of an orgy of Betty Crocker mix-mania. The only delicious flavor among them was furnished by big, ripe Carlsbad strawberries. Even if the pastries were housemade from scratch, the Betty Crocker analogy remained apt upon tasting them. We tried many, liked none.
There are worse (if usually cheaper) seafood buffets in town, just as there are worse seaside restaurants. But I was left wondering: What is the purpose of The Shores? Is it to subsidize the Marine Room by serving mediocre ingredients at high prices? Is it to feed an unjudgmental captive audience at the hotel? I'd love to stay there (looks nicer than a Motel 6), but if I did, I'd hoof it a few blocks to Piatti or Barbarella's to buy a dinner with actual flavor at a better price. Unless, that is, I got in off the beach in time for the early-bird special -- I could use the savings to amortize a serious dinner at the Marine Room.