3382 30th Street, North Park
(No longer in business.)
When the Linkery moved north and Sea Rocket took over its former quarters, I could barely contain myself. Seafood in North Park, less than ten minutes from home via my favorite scenic “Secret Freeway” (Pershing Drive, through Balboa Park)? And not just any seafood, but ultra-fresh seafood caught mainly locally — including sea urchin — served with equally virtuous local produce? Yes! They didn’t have to beg for my attention: Four weeks after the opening I was impatiently emailing the owners to ask: “Are you ready for prime time yet? If not yet, then when?”
They said they weren’t. They were still learning where to buy fish, whom to buy it from, how to cook it best. Another five weeks along, and their choreography still needs work, but the food is coming right along. When I heard that my implacable acquaintance, foodie princess Ariana (a glam blonde version of Anton Ego of Ratatouille), was eating there regularly and raving about the cooking, I figured they were as ready as they needed to be.
Now, if you care deeply about service, decor, and comfort, lop off at least a half-star from the rating. But Sea Rocket offers some extremely fine dishes (particularly their sea urchin presentations), and it’s such a sincere, ethical, ecologically minded (and affordable!) restaurant, bringing a desirable menu to a hungry neighborhood, that in this review I’m mainly going with what’s on my plate.
So let’s get the problems out of the way — bury Caesar before we praise him. What we have here, same as at the old Linkery, is an architectural noise machine: high ceilings; uncarpeted floor; big windows; a busy, open kitchen with the clang of pots and pans; and naked wooden tables and chairs. (Many of the tables are bar-height, too, which can be a problem to the mobility-challenged, the height-challenged, acrophobics, or flunk-outs of the fifth-grade PE course in Monkey Bars 101.) Somewhere there’s music (how high the moon), but whatever it is, it’s swallowed up in the ambient echoing yadayada. Adding aesthetic insult to auditory injury, the walls are painted a sludgy shade of “welfare green” — not the vibrant green of ecology but the depressive shade of “Ye who enter here, forsake all hope” municipal bureaucracies. (Odd, how other departments are typically also painted in different ugly colors, but welfare offices and juvie hall always seem to be this precise green. Maybe it’s the cheapest color.)
As for service, the staff are all friendly and nice, and I’m sure they’ll do well in life once they get their degrees and move on to their real professions, but meanwhile, they need a stronger choreographer to direct their moves. The kitchen is working frantically to turn out dishes, but if you stand near it for a few minutes, you’ll hear distress cries of “Who’s getting this?” and “Which table for the fish stew?” You don’t get to keep your server for the whole meal; evidently the owners have chosen the “let’s all pitch in and raise the barn” mode of operation, and that means that your table can (and probably will) fall off the radar at some point. Eventually, you will probably get what you ordered. (I must say, though, that the slip-ups were minor compared to disasters my posses suffered at both our meals at nearby Urban Solace.)
Ariana, who has been known to torture professional waiters for perceived minuscule missteps, puts up with this hippie-dippie do-si-do, but while I haven’t succumbed to her degree of enchantment, I quite enjoyed most of what I ate, and even adored a few things.
Sea urchins are strong draws here — served “live” and raw in the shell, or in a bisque. (If you’re passionate about them, call the restaurant before you go to see if they’re available that night.) Truth is, once the top half of the shell is cut off and the blobby brown liquid inside drained away, leaving only the delectable sex organs, the urchin isn’t really “live” anymore. Its tentacles may still wave by reflex, only because the creature’s nervous system is too primitive to realize that its tiny soul has already passed on to the great kelp-bed in the sky. So go ahead and enjoy the sweet, soft meat spooned straight from the shell. (If you don’t do it, a local lobster will.) The bisque, too, is served in halved urchin shells. The soup is creamy and rich, with wonderful flavor, but you’d better not lift the spiky “bowl” to your lips to drain it to the dregs. If you want your emptied shells, they’ll give them to you. (They make beautiful household ornaments. For a couple of weeks, they’re also pretty good at scaring off cats from newly seeded garden beds. Cats look at them, hunch their backs, hiss, and run away. In the sun, the spikes will eventually fall off, making mulch and leaving delicate white shell bowls behind.)
Drawing from a Greek seaside classic, fat, long, local sardines are skewered on bamboo and grilled with a rub of lemon zest and oil, served with greens and a fine, sensual salad of Lompoc lima beans with olive oil. It’s really easy to slide the flesh off the bone-structure of the sardine. If you like rich, fatty fish, you’ll love these, and so will your “good cholesterol” count. A yummy sardine or two should just about wipe out last Sunday’s eggs Benedict.
“Steamers” (Carlsbad aqua-farmed mussels or clams) come in a zesty white-wine broth, along with hearty, flavorful Cardamom Cafe bread from the new bakery just around the corner.
That appetizer proved unexpectedly redundant that evening. We ordered an entrée of Fisherman’s Stew, which was supposed to include clams, squid, and fish, as well as mussels. It was all mussels that night, like Ahnold. (They’re great, sweet mussels, but I’d been looking forward to eating calamari cooked some way other than the ubiquitous deep-fried rendition, which seems to have supplanted all other squid applications.) But the stew’s tomato-based sauce was delicious, in the way of great Italian grandma home-cooking, assuming Grannie came from the Mediterranean coast. The sauce was rich and fresh, not too thick or dense, with plenty of garlic, onions, and herbal undertones — classically Ligurian and irresistible.
Seared scallops featured jumbo diver scallops aquacultured in Baja (most likely the chubby mano de león subspecies), served with a few soggy zucchini slices and “smoked” mashed potatoes. We couldn’t taste any smoke, but we appreciated the ample butter in the spuds. The scallops were sweet and fresh, cooked with care to perfect tenderness. To repeat from earlier reviews: Baja scallops may not have the subtle, sexy undertone of Maine scallops, but they’re much more reliable, always sweet, with no danger of jet-lagged flavor loss.
The Lynnester had already scouted Sea Rocket and had sampled a fish du jour with vegetable pistou on her earlier visit with Ariana. The attraction, per the menu, is “a ratatouille-style mixture of seasonal vegetables.” Lynne loved it her first outing but was disappointed this time around with the vegetable mix, which wasn’t as exciting or perhaps not as adeptly cooked. Obviously, Sea Rocket is still having consistency problems. The fish was yellowtail (last time it was halibut). It wasn’t bad but was slightly oversalted and slightly overcooked.
By dessert “our” waiter had grown scarce, so we grabbed whoever was around. All the whoevers were pleasant and accommodating, but we’d long since finished our coffee (very good French press, an Italian dark roast from Caffé Calabria) by the time our ricotta cheesecake with berries showed up. It was marginally okay — lean, dryish, kind of homey and amateurish. Later yet came our empanada stuffed with peaches and rhubarb. “This empanada dough is way too thick and doughy for fruit,” said Lynne, accurately. “It tastes like it’s made for beef and onions,” said Ben. Right again. The dough for Argentine-style empanadas de horno (baked empanadas) is tougher and much less buttery than pie or tart crust, and here it was rolled out too thick. It’d be better, in a dessert, to use the very short and rather difficult dough for Chilean-style empanadas de hoja (fried empanadas, in which the dough separates itself into thin, buttery layers, like strudel or croissants). That could be a knockout, not a knockoff.
Basic question: Will I go back? Of course I will. I envision Sea Rocket as a terrific neighborhood restaurant in the not-too-far future, once the kinks are worked out. It’ll probably always be too noisy for me (unless they spring for some sound-baffles and carpeting — hey, starting today, everybody go to Sea Rocket every week and drench them in money so they can redecorate!), but the food’s already universally interesting, and some dishes (e.g., the sea urchins and those divinely simple grilled sardines) are exceptional. Of course, I don’t mind a bit that the restaurant is openly devoted to the methods and mission of the slow-food movement. At the risk of seeming insufferably earnest: Global warming, soaring oil prices, salmonella from unsourced factory-farmed tomatoes and peppers — these are just a few scary signs of what a pleasureless, fast-profit-centered ethos has brought us to. No accident that slow food and locavore cooking are gaining currency at this moment. They’re good for the planet, good for our bodies — and, wow! They taste great, too.
Rather than include a chef interview this week, let me suggest that you visit the restaurant’s website and click “blogs.” You’ll find videotapes of diving for urchins, fishing for bass, and hunting great white whales, along with vast amounts of owner Dennis’s prose, from which you can learn everything you want to know about Sea Rocket, sustainable seafood, the difficulties of opening a restaurant, and more.
Sea Rocket Bistro
*** (Good to Very Good)
3382 30th Street (Upas Street), North Park, 619-255-7049, searocketbistro.com
HOURS: Open daily from 5:30 p.m. “until everyone’s fed” (about 10:00 p.m. weeknights, 11:00-ish on weekends).
PRICES: Soups and salads, $4–$12; seafood starters, $9–$13; entrées, $14–$22; desserts, $7; locally baked bread, $1.50.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Seafood — local and unendangered — with sustainably raised or organic local produce, cooked with Mediterranean influences. About 18 mainly Southern California wines, all available by glass or bottle; 16 bottled craft beers, plus others on draft. $10 wine-corkage fee.
PICK HITS: Sea urchin in the shell, sea urchin bisque, grilled sardines, fisherman’s stew, seared Baja scallops, any dish with Carlsbad mussels.
NEED TO KNOW: Half-price beers, wines, and grilled sardines at tables as well as bar during happy hour, 5:30–7:00 p.m. daily. Very noisy room. Two lacto-vegetarian entrées; two vegan salads. Many tables and chairs are bar-height, so reserve (and specify) to snag a normal-height table, if that matters. (Also, sea urchins and oysters not always available; call to check.) Small parking lot behind restaurant, access on Upas Street via narrow alley/driveway to the left of the fast-food parking lot.