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The Marine Room

2000 Spindrift Drive, La Jolla

Marine Room kicks off this summer’s unofficial series on “Rooms with a View — and Bargains, Too.” The small tradeoff that recession brings to visitors and staycationers alike is that some of San Diego’s most fabulous fare is “on sale,” with astonishing prix-fixe dinners that allow you to sample delicacies at luxury restaurants without paying deluxe prices. Instead of “very special occasion” splurges, these micro-splurges cost about a Lincoln more than plebeian dinners at mid-price restaurants. Consider them excuses for celebrating such momentous occasions as “Whew, got through Thursday, I totally need a treat — and I’m not cooking it!” or “I so crave a vacation cruise, let’s eat where we can see the sea.”

In heavily touristed cities, restaurants with water views are often overpriced rip-offs, because they can get away with it. (Prime example: SF’s Fisherman’s Wharf, where no locals but the harbor seals would be caught dead.) San Diego, too, has its share of lackluster pricey coastal-scenery restaurants from Carlsbad to Cardiff past bend of bay to Seaport Village — but some of our most scenic eateries are also top food destinations. Marine Room, with its spectacular cuisine and views, is offering weeknight bargain meals. Sunday–Thursday, you can get three courses for $40, or $55 with paired wines for the first two courses; Mondays, you have the additional option of a three-course lobster dinner at the same price structure.

With its white wood-beam ceiling and endless windows looking out to sand and waves, the unfussy dining room evokes an upscale beach house, designed with the deliberate unpretentiousness of the seriously rich — think Montauk, Gatsby, Kennedys in Hyannis Port. On some high-tide nights, the waves smack the windows at the height of your nose. At a couple of recent weeknight visits, I was glad to see that the management now seats mainly couples at the slightly anorexic booths along the back wall (instead of cramming foursomes into them, the way they did after the room’s renovation a few years ago). Maybe that’s another recession benefit (albeit not to restaurant owners) — less crowding.

The Sunday-to-Thursday–night meal is called “Passport to the Senses,” subtitled “Promoting San Diego Culinary Art as a Global Destination.” Given chef Bernard Guillas’s globetrotting propensities, this isn’t hyperbole. Raised in Brittany, he learned his craft through the rigorous French apprenticeship system — minus the severe miseries that system often affords, since his mentors spotted his talent from the start. But “Bernie” (as local chefs call him) has a wandering eye for interesting foods wherever he finds them, and a passion for travel. (If Antarctica had a cuisine, he’d commute there!) His cooking remains French in technique but has become “adventure food,” reflecting his worldwide peregrinations and displaying the wealth of flavors he’s brought home to play with, in combinations that can be downright swashbuckling for staid San Diego.

On the plates (as well as the detail-rich printed menu), every dish is a tasting dinner in itself. The food isn’t just labor-intensive but flavor-intensive. You don’t want to gobble dishes down; you want to run your fingers through the sauces and lick them, to nibble each garnish separately and then with the main ingredient. At least, I do.

The first of the “Passport” courses is called “Bon Voyage” and offers three starter choices. The simplest is Maine lobster bisque — rich, soothing, creamy, but with surprises. Floating atop is a small flower of puff pastry filled with a tart, thick mixture of cream thickened by yuzu juice. Lurking at the bottom are bits of crisp pancetta (Italian unsmoked bacon), and alongside is a twisted cracker studded with sunflower seeds. The menu lists enoki mushrooms (they should be shredded on the liquid’s surface), but I didn’t see any.

Fiji Macadamia Spiced Wild Prawns has three prawns the size of maritime halfbacks (no shrimps, these) sprinkled with chopped nuts and seasonings, served with a mound of whole-wheat couscous sharpened with a topping of baby mint sprouts. For dipping, there’s a tablespoon-sized mini-pond of lightly glutinous, unidentified sweet sauces split yin-yang between algae-green and coral, surrounded by a salmon-colored rim of aioli flavored with espelette pepper, the Basque version of cayenne. All delicious, all each others’ friends.

We found truffled Sweet Corn Mascarpone Brûlée weird but oddly wonderful — a sort of avant-garde random “happening” on the theme of salad-gone-wild. Local greens are piled atop the crème brûlée, but they’re the Birkie kids shunned by the jocks in the lunchroom. (Jim, receiving the dish first, swiftly pushed the herbiage to the side. Good move.) The superb corn custard is head cheerleader, sweet but imbued with alluring dark, funky notes of black truffle. Outliers include small, soft rounds of “preserved pear” and a crunchy almond tuile tasting more like aged cheese than nuts. (We didn’t love it.) We savored every element thoughtfully, to explore each flavor and try to guess what “Bernie” was thinking with this not-quite-coherent combination. Our waiter (d’un certain age), flagrantly smitten with Michelle’s sea-green eyes and honey hair, bent to her shoulder and told her — not us, just her — “The chef would be so happy to see the way you eat, tasting everything so carefully. It’s people like you he cooks for. Not those people [gesturing to the next table over], who just wolf everything down like they’re starving….”

The main course on “Passport” is called “The Journey” — again, three choices of adventure-travel. Pomegranate Cashew Crunch King Salmon tells its tale in the title. The skin under the salmon is as crispy as the nuts on top, and the tender meat has the muscular power of genuine wild coldwater fish, while the light pom glaze is a genius match. The canny group of garnishes includes red quinoa — darker, tastier, “wheatier” than standard tan quinoa, a high-protein Peruvian grain. The ensemble includes baby bok choy, a couple of golden gooseberries, and “Buddha Hand essence,” a sweet gold-colored reduction from the juices of a weird-shaped Asian citron resembling an arboreal sea anemone. (That’s Alaska, Persia, Peru, England, and China on one plate — talk about “global”!)

The kitchen was out of diver scallops for “Peri Peri Spiced Diver Scallops” and substituted more prawns. This peri-peri is probably not the same as the incendiary piri piri of West Africa, but most likely the newly discovered South African breed of semi-hot capsicum. But on these shrimps, you could barely taste chili — mainly salt, salt galore. The sauce was a sweet, charming “Maltese orange saffron emulsion.” The cast of thousands neutralizing some of that sodium explosion included sticky black Asian rice, vanilla-braised leeks, white asparagus, kohlrabi sprouts, undercooked preadolescent carrots, and a spear of lemongrass piercing a pretty circle of lotus root, plus a few thin slices of honeydew so firm and intense they were surely compressed by liquid nitrogen, the “molecular” technique that local top chefs are now embracing.

Black Angus filet mignon, ordered “very rare,” came rare enough, and tender (of course), with a thick, slightly sweet Petite Syrah glaze to add interest to this rather bland cut. The meat was topped with a lacy circle of cooked lotus root, cradling another yin-yang: half guajillo chili butter (delicious, gimme more!) and half huckleberry chutney. I wasn’t sold on the cumin-Gouda mashed potatoes. Mingling cheese with mash made the texture sludgy — this flavor-combination might work better with sautéed sliced fingerlings (like potato nachos) or in a gratin. A small, thick slice of firm-cooked eggplant was purple all through and faintly sugary from drinking up the meat’s sauce.

If you order matched wines, you can get Chablis, Malbec, or one of each. The steely Chablis was a stern, flawless antidote for the sweet flavors in the starters. For entrées, Michelle’s green eyes and soft plea bewitched our waiter into substituting a gentle Cab for the muscular Argentine Malbec.

Both the “Passport” and the lobster dinners end with a sweets array called “Trilogy,” which I’ll describe later. Eat your lobster, then dessert.

With the lobster prix-fixe, you can start with a creamy wild-mushroom soup that includes espelette pepper, truffle oil, and frosted huckleberries, with bacony bits of pancetta for punctuation. It’s odd and amusing, but finally I could do without the fruity undertones, preferring mushroom soup to be really mushroomy. Afloat is a miniature puff-pastry cup (sound familiar?) filled with fromage blanc, classy French cream cheese. The alternative is a charming salad, but — take the soup. The paired wine is a Louis Roederer Estate Brut (champagne) from Mendocino. For my taste, I’d drop this ultra-dry vinous bling and substitute a mellow white more compatible with a fruit-fungus flavor combo — maybe a Condrieu viognier (fat chance, at this price!).

The lobster, an Australian tail, comes in your choice of three preparations. Our tail not taken was “guava Kalbi glazed” in white-port hibiscus sauce, which sounded too sweet and possibly harsh to both Sam and me. I opted for the pistachio-butter-basted tail. Like its fellows, the meat was served out of the shell, set atop its empty crimson carapace. The flesh was intense and buttery, albeit not as tender by nature as its Maine cousins. It was scattered with fine-minced pistachios and accompanied by red quinoa, green and white asparagus spears, and another pair of too-firm preteen carrots. A small shell of compressed melon slices shaped into a flower held unidentifiable microgreens — Sam and I both guessed newborn pea shoots. The sauce was the sweet, fruity “Buddha Hand essence” of the Passport Dinner’s salmon. The pour was the same French Chablis.

Even better was the fennel-pollen-spiced lobster tail. Unless you know it’s fennel pollen, you wouldn’t guess it, because it doesn’t have the same mellow anise flavor of fennel seeds or the sharp licorice kick of fennel root, but a subtle, slightly spicy taste all its own — a shadow of licorice with a whip. This was plated over the dreamy Maltese orange-saffron infusion (another repeat, from the Passport Dinner’s scallop dish) and came with a slice of spicy linguiça sausage and a soi-disant “blue crab risotto.” “Do you taste any crab in that, or is my palate fading on me?” I asked Sam. “I was wondering if it was just me,” he answered. Maybe the cooking liquid includes crab jus. (Ever notice that whenever a menu listing goes on for miles, there’s always some ingredient you can’t ferret out — chefs playing “find the enoki” maybe?) The wine for this tail was a serious Alsatian Pinot Gris — not to be mistaken for Italy’s lighter, chancier Pinot Grigio — called Beblenheim, Domaine Bott-Geyl. (Gotta remember that next time I look at a wine list. Beblenheim Bott-Geyl. Yeah, right.) With plump legs, full body, and fine fruit, it was grand with these sweet-spicy-buttery flavors.

“Trilogy” is three desserts in one, evolving from week to week. Both Sam and I preferred the sweet-sour hibiscus lemon tart, a wedge of sandy pastry (thin underneath, with a bit of a lip at the edges) topped with a rosy glaze spotlighting the idiosyncratic, rhubarb-like flavor of hibiscus flower (aka jamaica in Mexican sauces, “sorrel” as a British Caribbean soft drink, or “screaming red zinger” as tea). It reappeared at the Passport dinner, when Jim and Michelle fell harder for Almond Amarula crème brûlée (Amarula liqueur is made from a recherché African fruit), tasting nutty and butterscotchy. The lobster dinner’s Trilogy included a Valrhona Chocolate Crunch, a round of dark mystery pastry that shatters into fine shards of intense semisweet chocolate, like a sophisticated remake of Nestlé’s Crunch. I found it shatteringly sweet. At the “Senses” dinner, it was replaced by a refreshing Port blackberry sorbet, garnished with a Valhrona chocolate “straw.” (I passed my straw to chocoholic Jim.) The espresso, competent at both meals, was better at the Passport dinner because the Michelle-besotted waiter rushed it posthaste to the table before the crema had time to recede.

These amazing dinners are bargain meals? The cooking at Marine Room will challenge your mind and excite your palate, while that legendary close-up sea view will feel like an instant vacation. Eat! Enjoy!

But now comes the dark matter of the damned star rating (which I always hate, hate, hate having to decide). Chef “Bernie” is so creative, imaginative, and accomplished, I need to explain just what I mean by 4 3/4 stars for food and why he doesn’t get the whole fantastic five. These were my fourth and fifth dinners here; I’ve been chewing this over for nine years.

It’s a matter of tiny flaws that would bother only a fanatical foodie. It’s not that a line-chef oversalted some prawns, or a single dish that doesn’t quite make sense. It’s too many sweet, soprano sauces. (At least on the prix-fixe dinners. There’s more variety on the full à la carte menu, of course.) That’s a frequent problem with “fusion,” when Western chefs fall in love with the sweet-tart-spicy notes of Asian cuisines, without fully embracing the funky, “smelly,” noirish condiments (fermented anchovy sauces, shrimp paste, dried shrimp, fermented tofu, etc.) that provide Asia’s earthy bass backbeats, propelling the full dance of the flavors.

And perhaps there really is too much happening on these show-offy, rococo plates. In Florence, Italy, visitors who plunge into all the museums, basilicas, Renaissance churches, et al., often suffer “art fatigue.” Here, you can develop a little “palate fatigue.” You work all your tasting muscles, all the time, enjoying wonderfully entertaining food that falls the slimmest millimeter short of being fully rewarding. These scintillating platefuls are delicious intellectual and aesthetic exercises that don’t quite penetrate to those deeper, complex emotions that food can evoke. They are exciting but not moving; they bring vast pleasure but no sudden welling of joyous tears, no surprise meltdown of the heart. (What does? For me: the lentils with duck egg at El Biz and the sea-urchin bisque that Patrick Ponsaty used to cook there; the corn agnolotti with lobster at Kitchen 1540; the crab-stuffed porcini at Trattoria Antica; and, yes, swooping way down in price but not artistry, the insanely complex filé gumbo at Frankie the Bull’s and the definitive tom yum at Sab-E-Lee — to name a few local examples.)

Marine Room serves cuisine to be admired as much as savored — like a dazzling IMAX movie (a good one with actual content, not just special effects) that enthralls while you’re watching but ultimately doesn’t yield the deep satisfaction of, say, replaying that B&W DVD of Seven Samurai or Casablanca for the umpteenth time. It’s spectacular sensual pleasure, but merely a soupçon of comfort to the soul.

Good News Note: Speaking of Frankie the Bull’s, it finally got its beer and wine license (yay!). Happy hour daily, 3:00–6:00 p.m. Go glug the best gumbo in town, chomp a smoky rib or three, and down a cold brewski for me. But it’s also changing its name — Frankie has left the building for good, so now it’s Bull’s BBQ.

The Marine Room

2000 Spindrift Drive, La Jolla

  • 4.5 stars
  • (Near-extraordinary)

HOURS: Sunday–Thursday 6:00–9:30 p.m., Friday–Saturday until 10:00 p.m. Lounge opens 4:00 p.m.

PRICES: Monday-night lobster dinner, $40; Sunday–Thursday “Passport to the Senses” dinner, $40; both $55 with wine pairings for two courses. À la carte: Appetizers, $12–$18, entrées, $27–$45, some specials higher. Desserts, $11.

CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Elaborate, labor- and flavor-intensive modern French cuisine with global flavors. Wide-ranging wine list, normal markups, decent lower-end choices, but most over $50.

PICK HITS: Generally excellent, including most prix-fixe choices.

NEED TO KNOW: Food and scenery rating is 4 3/4. Valet parking $5. Resort-casual to business-casual, date-dressy weekends. No vegetarian entrées, but kitchen can devise meals from vast array of veggie garnishes. (Request when reserving.) Catch-22 accessibility: Wheelchair ramp at far left of parking lot to mezzanine-level lounge, with wheelchair bathroom — but lounge tables not reservable, dinner served there typically only for overflow crowds, e.g., weekends. Dining room downstairs, non-wheelchair restroom.

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cantab July 19, 2009 @ 4:05 p.m.

"I need to explain just what I mean by 4 3/4 stars for food and why he doesn’t get the whole fantastic five ... It’s not that a line-chef oversalted some prawns"

Naomi, your reviews are wonderful but you need to be tougher when you assign stars. A line cook who messes up a dish is a major fault. A really good restaurant delivers a consistent experience. Michelin stresses consistency in its evaluations, for good reasons.

Line cooks are the Achilles heel of American restaurants. We have many chefs with great talent here. We have fewer restaurants that can deliver what the chefs can when they cook personally.

When a dish in San Diego has an obvious flaw, such as too much salt, I always wonder whether the line cook was a gardener the week before. You mention that Bernard Guillas "learned his craft through the rigorous French apprenticeship system." That's what we are missing in California: line cooks who are part of a system of quality rather than just unskilled help.


Naomi Wise July 25, 2009 @ 2:16 a.m.

As noted, I HATE having to assign star ratings to food reviews. First, this is a free weekly. Somebody before I got here decided it would make the reviews seem more "professional." Pretentious, far as I'm concerned. Second, this is San Diego.

  1. Reviewers for Michelin (backed by a big tire company) and the NY Times (our national paper) visit destinations at least six times, even more when the highest rating is contemplated. (I don't know how Frank Bruni finds the time!) Now, I probably have the best restaurant budget of any critic in SD but it is still quite modest -- the best that all those "buy your new breasts here" ads can pay for. I can squeak in some high-end destinations but have to make flash judgments based on one meal or at best two. Now, with Marine Room, I've actually managed to eat there five times over nine years (mostly at these econo-prix-fixe specials) so I felt more than usually ready to address the restaurant seriously. There were very few flaws in all these meals -- and I've noticed that Frank Bruni at the NYT (which I read religiously) tends to forgive trivial problems (e.g., a line-chef stubbing his toe on the salt shaker, a dish that doesn't come together) in all but his top ratings. So when a chef in SD dares to SWASHBUCKLE, he's due high praise, ignore the trivia. Only reason Chef Bernie can get away with it is Marine Room's history, reputation and fabled view. I want to encourage culinary swashbuckling as best as I can, because there's damned little of it here. Why? See #2.

  2. San Diego: As soon as I moved here from SF, I realized that this is not SF, NY, Hong Kong, Nawlins, or any other serious food city, but a land of intensely conservative eaters that prefer dimmed down (if not "dumbed down") cooking. (Local/organic OK -- unfamiliar, NAY!) Hence, every star rating I give here is at least a half star higher, and usually a full star higher, than I would have given the same restaurant in San Francisco (if I had to "star" it for the free weeklies there, which I didn't). Thus: My 4 3/4 star would be at best a Frank Bruni 2 1/2 (on his scale of three stars) but more like a Bruni two-star -- and as noted, Frank can be quite forgiving of small flaws with two-stars. Yeah, maybe some line chefs here should really be gardeners. At my favorite SF restaurant, La Folie, the line-chef for a while was a guy named Trey Foshee. You may have heard of him.

Few bold chefs stay here (we've lost Steven Rojas and Wade Hageman of Blanca in the last few weeks; Better Half was the latest to close following Cerise and more recently Crescent). It's San Diego, Jake: Nothing gold can stay. Doing the best I can go keep the gold, encouraging any signs of creativity, imagination, derring-do, trying to rouse some enthusiasm to try it, eat it, maybe people will like it if they dare approach it.


Josh Board July 26, 2009 @ 4:24 p.m.

You're right about salt. I recently ate at Anthology, which previously had good food. They used so much salt (even on a salad!) that it was gross.

I do disagree with you about the Marine Room. I've noticed the food isn't as good as it used to be (maybe that's just me). You mentioned loving the lobster bisque. I had it a few weeks ago, and it was horrible.

Also...I've never understood why critics never care for the various systems. I find the star system to be perfect. On the times I don't read a review (for a movie that looks like a cheesy romantic comedy), seeing the 1 and a half stars, is really all you need. Nothing in the written review about Sandra Bullocks performance is even necessary at that point.

Siskel & Ebert used to always complain about the thumbs up/thumbs down. And, that makes a bit more sense, as that's just a "good" or "bad"...and many times, you're on the fence about something. Or they may hate to give a "thumbs down" to a film that had many great aspects about it.


Naomi Wise July 29, 2009 @ 8:18 p.m.

Josh -- As a film critic in the old days (before I became a food critic) I felt okay about giving star ratings to movies, in a way that doesn't feel okay with food. Why? Because a movie is a DONE DEAL! It's out there, finished, what's on the screen is what you get. Two nights or two weeks or two months later, still the same film. Twenty years later -- still the same film, even if your own reactions may have changed.

And even the theatre it's shown in doesn't make much difference, so long as the print isn't fatally scratched and the projectors and sound systems work. I saw most film classics at scrungy cheap "art" theatres, often in 16 mm prints cut down from 35. Or Westerns and horror flicks in Times Square grind-houses, back before urban Disneyfication. Enchantment still happened. (Of course, critics mainly see films among colleagues in nice screening rooms, so no 7-foot tall basketballer or trannie in a tutti-frutti hat is going to plunk down in front of you just after the credits.)

Whereas food is mutable, changing night by night, even with the same chef and kitchen crew and (not always) the same menu. Even your fellow-diners can affect your subjective reaction,e.g., an invasion of stilleto-heeled shrieking banshees or hard-drinking stentorian businessmen can poison your palate. That's why the Michelin guys give it six tries over a year, similar for the NY Times.

I, too, have a faint sense that Marine Room's food isn't quite what it used to be, but I can't check that without time-travel. Chef Bernie is all over the place, now -- today New Zealand, tomorrow Macy's Cooking School, so he surely can't be paying full attention to his kitchen. And his lobster bisque is constantly changing (every single time I've eaten there except these last two, in the space of 10 days, it was different) so I don't know whether you and I sipped the same bisque. But: Sandra Bullock in a romantic comedy I don't even have to see to know it's 1 1/2 stars. That's a given. Marine Room's lobster bisque: What's it today, compared to yesterday and tomorrow?


Josh Board July 30, 2009 @ 12:59 a.m.

You know what, Naomi. That's a great point regarding a food changing. I hadn't even thought about that. I guess it's just up to the reader to realize that the attached stars are based merely on one meal (unless stated otherwise).

I had eaten at Chili's five times, and hated it all five times. Then I got the Monterrey Chicken once and loved it. I might only eat there once a year, but now, I always love my meal. So, I'm not sure how I would've rated that if the one meal I love, was the first meal I had.


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