Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa and Marina, 1441 Quivira Road, San Diego
Red Marlin is the answer. If you can find it.
The questions are: Where do you take visitors for dinner when you want to show off San Diego’s shoreline beauty, while sharing food that everyone will enjoy? And — where do you go when, desperate for a mini-vacation, you want to escape and play tourist yourself with tasty food in a seaside resort setting?
Red Marlin is the latest addition to San Diego’s growing gallery of “view” restaurants that aren’t rip-offs. As I told our waitress halfway through dinner, “If you guys don’t watch out, you’re going to ruin San Diego’s reputation for bad food.”
“I’m taking my mom here next time she comes,” said the Lynnester. Her mom is a gourmet cook/foodie who fits right into the regular eating posse. But if my own mom (a disastrous cook) were still alive, I’d probably take her here too, for a “nice piece of fish.” This is a hotel restaurant with a blissful water view, where the cuisine rides that fine line: plenty good enough for serious eaters without scaring off the regular Yumans, Omahans, et al.
Unlike, say, Jsix, which can push hard on “hotel restaurant” boundaries because it’s located in a hip Kimpton boutique-hotel (with San Francisco foodmania ownership), Red Marlin is in a Hyatt, its rooms and suites occupied by higher-end business travelers and prosperous families. There’s nothing remotely hip about a Hyatt. And as at nearly all major hotel–chain restaurants (as numerous chefs at this and other chains, e.g., W and Hilton, have told me), standard hotel-restaurant procedure is that the menu has to be approved by multiple levels of corporate drones, on up to the suits at headquarters (in this case, in Chicago). Hence, the California modern fusion menu looks conventional; the choice of dishes seems ordinary.
What’s well beyond ordinary here is chef Danny Bannister’s imaginative tweaking of these conventions, his skill in executing the dishes, and the fine, fresh ingredients. The result is pure, easy pleasure. It won’t astonish you — except by tasting so very, very good.
Some corporate stupidities stand between you and your thrills. In the nearly five months since opening, the Hyatt has done nothing to make Red Marlin accessible or even findable. They spent $16 million on renovations but turned chintzy when it came to signage for the restaurant in the hotel lobby, on the grounds, and even at the entrance to the restaurant itself. There is plentiful free parking close to the restaurant’s rear entrance (ask for precise directions when you call for reservations) but no signs to guide you there. Tall Ben-the-Stew parked our chariot in front of the hotel, and then we roamed like Moses’ Israelites toward the unmapped promised land. After asking directions of a robo-receptionist during our tour of the modernist new hotel lobby, we wandered past the fenced-off wonderland of swimming pools and finally reached the farthest pool, still lost. We illicitly crossed the pool area for an impromptu safari alongside the yacht marina. Finally, we reached a hexagonal stand-alone building with a small, red metal sign reading “Red Marlin” on a chest-high portable steel stand set near the base of the staircase to the door. Your visiting Granny or Auntie doesn’t need this preprandial trek — and even if she’s not “mobility challenged” or wearing heels, her aging knees may prefer the ramped entrance (nothing to point you there) at the side of the restaurant. The best parking will land you behind the restaurant, where there’s no indication of any sort to tell you that you’ve found the place. So just look for a stand-alone building with an extinct wheelchair ramp occluded by garbage cans and blue recycling bins. Voila!
Okay, done ranting. The dining room is modern, handsome and airy, with lots of Craftsman-style wood, huge windows (some of which afford views of SeaWorld’s fireworks), and a carpeted floor to keep the noise down to “lively” rather than “din.” From my chair by a window I watched a pair of plump pelicans spooning in a nearby tree at the water’s edge. As we were finishing dinner, around 9:00 p.m., the lighting was dimmed romantically to show off the bay sparkling at night. Lynne, Ben, and I looked around: no potential romantic partners nearby for any of us. Hyatt!
We were debating who makes the best crab cakes in San Diego when our blue crab cakes arrived. (They’re $16 for one cake, $19 for two. Get two.) They’re major contenders, right up there with Oceanside. The crisped flour is on the outside; the inside is all crab, no starch, just a few bits of parsley. They come with aioli and slices of “preserved lemon” — not the stern, salted Moroccan cooking condiment but a sweet-sour lemon pickle, delicious on its own.
We recognized the petite, dark-shelled mussels as local Carlsbad bivalves. They’re served in a hot pot with a light Thai-style yellow curry sauce with hints of coconut, lemon grass, and Kaffir lime. “These are much more interesting than the standard French versions,” said globe-trotting Ben, who hits Bangkok regularly. “Mussels are so rich and sensuous, they’re natural matches for complex seasonings like curry.”
We ordered fried calamari for their alluring “tobiko dynamite” dipping sauce. The sauce (thick, creamy, slightly spicy, dotted with flying-fish roe) was indeed worth the gamble, and the tender squid’s light batter was greaseless and slightly spicy. A Caesar with chopped romaine (including a bit too many of the dark outer greens) flaunted small white Spanish boquerone (pickled anchovies) and generous slivers of fine, fresh Parmesan. Instead of croutons, there’s a single large slab of toasted baguette from Point Loma’s excellent Con Pane bakery (which also makes the chewy, crusty table baguettes, served with good “evoo”). The new thing in Caesars seems to be substituting one big hunk of bread instead of bite-size croutons. It does cut the carbs, since nobody ever seems to eat it.
Although the menu slants toward seafood, we fixated first on the Kurobata pork chop. I ordered it (following the Bruce Aidells meat cookbook) “medium rare — rosy pink — around 130 to 135 degrees.” (At home, I actually pull pork out around 120, 125 degrees, feeling like a sinner, and let it rest a little less than the recommended five minutes.) Waitress Tara returned to our table: “The chef says medium rare is 120°F. At 130 it’s medium, at 140 it’s well done.” “Omigod!” I said. “You’ve got a chef who can actually cook! Usually, I have to talk chefs down from 165! Well, yes, 120, bring it on!” Grinning, Tara said, “I’ll tell him that.” (She did, too.)
Truth is, there’s no trichinosis in American commercial pork anymore that would require it to be cooked well-done to kill the spores. (If you kill a wild bear or genuinely wild boar, you’d better cook it to 165 degrees — them’s loaded with trich, but not pork — not unless the hog’s been reared in some muddy backyard and fed on scraps of other backyard pigs that came before it.) And especially, pork breeders who raise heirloom breeds like Kurobuta (Berkshire) hogs aren’t fools to hurt themselves by following practices that might allow this parasite to infect their precious piggies. (The heritage breeds haven’t been engineered for modern “other white meat” leanness and quick weight gain. They’re slow growers, and like great beef, their meat is marbled.)
And so we received a perfect pork chop, thick, rosy pink, tender, with real pork flavor. (The chef brines it first, too.) The sides — bacon, apple, baby potatoes — were delicious, but you could have served that chop with a side of gravel; it was the perfect, juicy meat that counted.
Scallops dusted with smoked salt and sweet chili sauce were meltingly tender, plated over something that looked like Seussian green mashed potatoes, or maybe undiluted Campbell’s split-pea soup. It’s a fava bean and edamame mash. It verged on baby-food blandness, but the chef left a lot of the peeled baby favas whole for texture, which made a difference. (If I had my way, I’d blast it with unconscionable amounts of butter. Or truffle oil.)
Seafood tagine Provençal arrived in a conical ceramic tagine cooker, but its contents weren’t remotely Moroccan. Rather, they were a San Franciscan (or Sicilian) cioppino, lightened up, and minus Frisco’s Dungeness crab. The tomato-based sauce, seasoned with fresh thyme sprigs, held local mussels, clams, and that perfect oxymoron, jumbo shrimps (blue prawns from Hawaii) still in their shells, plus bits of finfish. The prawns were a tad overcooked (and messy to eat), but the bivalves were all fine. Lynne fell in love with the dish, while it primarily made me nostalgic for the Bay Area.
Other entrée choices are mainly maritime: The chef and our waitress both favor the seared ahi (a dish I’m bored with, so didn’t order), but apparently it’s pulled off here with great Hawaiian fish and care in cooking. Pacific salmon is scarce and exorbitant this year, but the two salmon dishes both use sustainably farm-raised Scottish Loch Duart salmon, not the awful (mushy, hormone- and antibiotic-blasted, artificially colored) Atlantic farm-raised stuff from our continent. There’s also wild unendangered sea bass, free-range chicken (a favorite of kiddies too hip for the kiddie menu), and Brandt Farm’s naturally raised beefsteaks.
Choosing affordable wines was relatively easy. Unlike most of my recent expeditions, this list has plenty around the $30 mark. Many selections are evidently chosen to comfort the Yumans — big-production supermarket names like Kendall-Jackson and Robert Mondavi. But there are plenty of interesting selections around $30, too, although I should have ordered the crisp Mentelle Sauvignon-Semillon blend from Australia first, for the appetizers, before the richer Echelon Viognier, which would have been better with the mains.
With no specialized pastry chef, Bannister’s desserts gravitate to the light and fruity. We were tempted by pears with Valrhona chocolate sauce (Les poires Belle Helene in classic French cooking) but chose a homey cobbler of Fuji apples (which aren’t very sweet) and blueberries, with vanilla-bean ice cream on the side. It tasted not just house-made but homemade, thoroughly pleasing, and anything but cloying. After food this tasty, I didn’t want to spoil the spell, and instead of the usual decaf I ordered regular espresso, which was as rich as I hoped.
“Looking at the menu on the website,” said Lynne, “I didn’t have real high expectations, but this is so much better than I imagined.” We asked Tara to box up every last leftover bit. “Too precious too waste,” I said. “This isn’t like your mom saying, ‘Eat your broccoli, think of the starving children in Africa.’ This is ‘We don’t throw away fine craftsmanship.’ ”
ABOUT THE CHEF
Many chefs are inspired to go into the business by their mothers’ great cooking. With chef de cuisine Danny Bannister, aged 28, it was the opposite. “I joke with my mom that it was her cooking that made me become a chef, because even as a young child, I always wanted to do something to make her food better. The smell of burnt wasn’t unusual. I love my mom to death, but — as a child I always wanted to help in the kitchen. I was what they call a picky eater. But as a teenager I never thought it was a feasible career. I’m from Ventura, and in Ventura, still, there are no really good restaurants, because there’s not a lot of money there, people don’t have the expendable income for eating out. I didn’t grow up knowing that being a chef was a career that could make you comfortable and maybe even wealthy.
“When I was 18, my brother and I bought a small restaurant in Ventura. I thought that this would be what we’d do for the rest of our lives — be restaurant moguls. But the restaurant was failing, and it was too late to breathe new life into it. So by the time I was 20, I decided to move to Santa Barbara and start going to college. I got a job on the pier at a little restaurant and worked there for the summer and loved the life in the kitchen, being a cook, and the camaraderie.… I still thought I’d just be a cook throughout college, while I majored in anthropology.”
Bannister hadn’t yet tasted great (or even very good) food; he simply had a hunch that eating could be something special. “Then I got a job in 2000 at the Bacara Resort and Spa,” he said, “a five-diamond restaurant in northern Santa Barbara. And everything was beautiful, superstars from L.A. would come, all the cooks in their perfectly white chef coats, perfect mise en place…I had never seen a place like this in my entire life. I really started to fall in love with food when I was there.… I thought I hated tomatoes, and then the chef insisted that I taste my first heirloom tomato, and it blew me away. I hated mushrooms as a child, and then I tasted chanterelles. Once I became an adult, in my early 20s, I tried everything again, and I really fell in love with food.
“I dropped out of college, went to New York for culinary school at the French Culinary Institute.” It was a brief but intensive course of six months (graduates don’t get a college-equivalent degree, merely a prized certificate of completion), in which he studied under three of the greatest French chefs in America: Jacques Pépin, André Soltner (of the fabled Lutèce), and Alain Sailhac — which involved tasting their foods as well as reproducing them. Bannister didn’t have the money to eat in New York’s top restaurants but worked at two reputable ones after graduation.
“I told my mom, ‘I’m never coming back, I’m gonna make it big in New York.’ All it took was one winter in New York to change my mind. I decided to come back to California and thought, ‘Why not San Diego?’ ” He worked at Third Corner (when it was a fine-dining restaurant under Derek Ridgeway and Ed Moore), Laurel, Island Prime, and Pamplemousse, in increasingly responsible positions, from lead cook to top sous-chef. “I’ve been in San Diego six years now, and I don’t see myself leaving. I’d heard that San Diego was a ‘fish-taco place’ with no good food. But there’s a lot of money here, a lot of enlightenment about good food, and since I’ve been here, I’ve seen the level of food knowledge and food appreciation grow. I’m just glad I’m here in the infancy of the growth.
“I’m not one of those chefs that is on the cutting edge, going with the molecular gastronomy. I like taking something that’s good and keeping it good. You just have to stay true to yourself and make sure you’re putting out a quality product so that people will enjoy it and come back for more. If it’s more fluff than substance, people aren’t gonna come back.”
The one principle that Bannister adheres to fiercely is using sustainable seafood. “I don’t want to eat the last seal on earth,” he says. “I love the ocean, I grew up by the ocean, I’ve lived by the ocean 90 percent of my life, and we all need the ocean to survive. I really want to be part of a movement that keeps the ocean healthy. If you’re good to the ocean, it’ll be good to you. If you’re doing either wild catch or fish farming responsibly, you’ll never have to worry about bringing these fish populations to extinction.”
I just fished out the detailed bill from Chateau Orleans (reviewed last week) from my purse, glanced at it, and discovered three rip-offs, large and small. First, I was charged full price for my beastly Hurricane, rather than the happy hour price ($1 extra) — no big deal. Then, I used one of those “one free entrée” coupons, but the $19.95 for the cheapest entrée wasn’t deducted from the bill. Finally, the menu specifies that an 18 percent tip will be added for parties of six or more. There were only four of us, but our bill indicated seven guests, so the automatic tip kicked in for an extra $37.21. I’d been feeling sorry for the sole server, who was running around trying to cover at least seven occupied tables, so I tipped him 20 percent, not realizing he’d already punched in a generous tip for himself. Altogether, Chateau Orleans owes the San Diego Reader $58.19. That’s enough for two entrées at this restaurant, or (better yet) an on-sale off-season cashmere sweater from Bloomie’s or Spiegel. Keep a close eye out and don’t let this happen to you. The food isn’t good enough to buy forgiveness for a falsely inflated bill.
Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa and Marina, 1441 Quivira Road, 619-224-1234, hyatt.com/gallery/redmarlin/index.html?icamp=redmarlinlanding
HOURS: Breakfast weekdays 6:30–11:30 a.m., weekends until noon; lunch 11:30 a.m.–3:00 p.m., weekends until noon; dinner 5:00–10:00 p.m. nightly; lounge noon–midnight daily.
PRICES: Starters, $11–$17; entrées, $26–$36; sides, $7–$8; desserts, $8–$14. Sunday brunch, $40 (kids $19).
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Light California fusion cuisine featuring fine unendangered seafood and sustainably raised ingredients. Lengthy international wine list ranges from familiar California supermarket bottlings to odd discoveries and premium wines, with plenty of affordable bottles and choices by the glass. Full bar.
PICK HITS: Blue crab cake; mussels in curry sauce; Kurobata pork chop (medium-rare); fruit cobbler. Chef’s favorites: Kurobata pork chop, seared ahi, nightly specials.
NEED TO KNOW: When calling for reservations, request detailed directions to parking (free) nearest restaurant to avoid long hike with no certainty of finding the destination (no signage). To avoid stairs at entrance, look for wheelchair ramp at side of restaurant. No signage behind restaurant where parking is best. Three lacto-vegetarian starters, one vegan starter, no veg entrées, five vegan sides. Corporate (all-Hyatt) kiddie menu available; regular menu is reasonably child friendly. Outdoor dining available, sometimes monopolized by organized groups.