2401 Camino del Rio South, Mission Valley
After nearly nine years in San Diego, I’d never been to any of the Bully’s restaurants and felt a tad guilty about my ignorance of a local institution. The mini-chain was established back in 1967, when I was still hanging around the Haight, festooned with beads, eating brown rice, and inhaling. A few weeks ago, Samurai Jim and Michelle had lunch at Bully’s East and reported positively. “Did you know it’s not all red meat but lots of seafood, too?” Jim asked. Michelle had been captivated by a special of tender salmon steak. We made a date to eat dinner there during Restaurant Week, when the menu was $30 and included three choices of both appetizers and entrées and four options for dessert.
The decor won my heart immediately: woodsy, comfortable, cozy — minus any hint of high-class steakhouse snootiness, no ermines and pearls. The long list of cheap (mainly $8) cocktails further warmed the spirits. Somehow, steakhouses have become associated with classic cocktails, so a little purely recreational drinking during the first course, especially at people’s prices, seemed apropos. Michelle’s Blue Mojito (splashed with blue curaçao) was the best and brightest; Jim’s elaborate Mai Tai was mellow. My Hurricane was just okay, a mere tropical drizzle.
Our waitress was a brown-haired “blonde” — cordial, sweet, clueless about the wine list, and thrown for a loop by the concept of eating “family style.” No, we weren’t ordering one dinner to split between three of us, we were ordering three dinners, but it didn’t matter who got what dish, etc.… Don’t panic, girl. Relax. Take a breath.
One of the three appetizers offered on the Restaurant Week menu, the “prime rib bits,” was basically a downsized duplication of one of the mains, but as substitutions weren’t allowed, we decided to add an inexpensive extra appetizer from the regular menu, crab-stuffed mushrooms “with Bully’s own American cheese sauce.” With this, we received five medium cremini (“baby ’bella”) mushrooms, each stuffed with a little blob of crab meat swathed in the wet papier-mâché of a thick béchamel sauce (that is, butter, flour, and milk). All around the mushrooms there was more of the pasty white sauce, amended with bland cheese. “Béchamel, béchamel mucho,” I started to sing. “Darn, I really had hopes for this dish.” Then I said, “As my late buddy Artie Traum used to sing, ‘All my prayers have been answered, and the answer was no.’ ”
The first official Restaurant Week appetizer offered sesame-crusted seared ahi. Not much searing, but nice ahi, and a light scattering of gomen, Japanese black sesame seeds, which have a darker and nuttier flavor than the white ones. The fish was plated over an amiable Asian coleslaw, alongside a ponzu-like dip. Too bad this isn’t on the regular dinner menu, it’d be a “pick hit.”
That’s more than I can say for our other appetizer, a choice of either a chicken or shrimp Volcano (we went for shrimp). This proved to be a mound of “roasted garlic-mashed potato” resembling wallpaper paste in its weighty, dairy-free purity, topped with a handful of whole medium-size grilled shrimps swamped in “our own volcano sauce,” which seemed to be a vinegary bottled hot sauce diffused with something milder, possibly chicken stock. It resembled buffalo-wing sauce, but with no indulgent sign of the requisite melted butter.
As expected, the “prime rib bits” appetizer (which, since it came with the meal anyway, I took it home as my next night’s dinner) was a miniature of the prime rib entrée — but with the beef chopped into inch-size chunks, most pieces prominently displaying ribbons of fat. These “bits” came from the outer edges of the roast, which is where the fat is. They’re not on the regular menu, which is good because I don’t think chefs are legally allowed to send out a side of Lipitor with the appetizers.
Michelle and I were conspiring to share a couple of wines by the glass as we headed into the entrées, from a rich array of choices, until boozehound Samurai Jim decided he’d like wine, too, so we switched to choosing a bottle. The list of reds was no thrill — affordable supermarket choices like Clos du Bois and Murphy-Goode, and then a great leap upward in price. (Corkage is just $10. Worth bringing your own, especially if you’ve got some Rhônes in your hall closet that would flatter this food.) But then I spotted a list of “Other Reds,” which included a $38 Rutherford Ranch Rhiannon Meritage, mellowly mingling Merlot, Syrah, and Zin. It was a serendipitous guess. Had our roast beef or steak been sublimely great, this choice might have been too mild-mannered — great beef (that is, well-aged USDA Prime grade) craves the dark underlying tannins of serious aged Bordeaux or top California Cabs — but the meats here proved to be lightweights as well.
Horseradish-crusted prime rib (ordered very rare, arriving medium-rare) was a thin slab (about eight ounces) of pink meat with a white topping, a creamy, slightly sweet horseradish crust — gentle, not challenging. The meat tastes like USDA Choice, and it is tender and decently flavorful, but this is not the roast beef that thrills men’s souls — or women’s either. (I’ll go over this one more time until y’all finally get it: A prime rib is a particular cut from the rib-loin section just under the backbone of the steer — no quality implications in the name — whereas USDA Prime is the government’s top grade, a congratulatory judgment of the quality of the steer, based on how tender and rich-tasting the meat is likely to be, according to the proportion of fine wisps of fat marbling the muscle.)
The roast beef came with nice grilled asparagus and a “loaded baked potato.” Michelle said, “This isn’t loaded. Where are the chives, sour cream, bacon, and so forth?” “I mashed in all the sour cream,” I answered, “a whole teaspoon’s worth. Whatever butter it has was already in there.” This is when we noticed that we hadn’t received bread and butter with dinner, to furnish extra butter for the thirsty spud. “Do you think they’re skimping for Restaurant Week?” asked Jim. “But that’s when they’re supposed to be luring new customers,” said Michelle. “You’d think they’d do everything as best as they could.” I said, “Especially with the baked potato. I bet a lot of people go to steakhouses as much for the potato as for the beef.”