2150 Harbor Island Drive, San Diego
“Oh, Oysters, come and walk with us!” the Walrus did beseech. “A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk, along the briny beach.” — Lewis Carroll
Aagh, Valentine’s Day coming again — probably the worst night of the year for dinner out (just as Mother’s Day is the worst day for brunch) — huge crowds, exhausted chefs and servers, quality slippage, all that. I like to keep it simple and sexy with oysters (typically, at home, bought from Blue Waters) — raw on the half-shell, or lightly cooked in some luscious fashion. As it turns out, Tom Ham’s Lighthouse has terrific oysters done several ways, a spectacular bay view, an enormous comfortable dining room, and reasonable prices. After the oysters — well, it’s a matter of taste. Not my taste, for sure, but lots of locals love it.
The real Tom Ham bought Bali Hai in 1955 and made the floundering restaurant a popular success. In 1971, he bought the Lighthouse — an actual, working lighthouse — and built a restaurant around it that, ever since, has been charming diners with its water view and convivial atmosphere. (Notice that I didn’t mention “gourmet food.”) It’s now run by the next generation of Hams. A few months ago, executive chef Erik Sarkisian won an award for his oyster creation at the Bay Wine and Food Festival, and my foodie alarm chimed: Why not try the place at last?
I like using Restaurant Week bargain meals to check out longtime veterans that can handle a crowd more easily than some trembly new fledgling. And here, the $30 price included no fewer than 11 entrée choices — plus 50 percent off wines!
The dining room includes a real wooden boat parked in the center and affords all tables and banquettes bay views that include the glittering city skyline at night. The blonde hostess, blind to the implications of my middle-age spread, tried to seat my foursome at one of the small, couple-sized booths next to the window (there are larger ones against the back wall), but we declined in favor of a more breathable table. The room was reasonably full; as we arrived at 7:00, the early-eating grandparental regulars were abandoning ship. Music played faintly in the background, too soft to actually make it out (it’s probably at full volume in the first-floor bar). If it’s what was playing downstairs at the entrance (and on the website), it features hip jazzy sounds mainly from the ’50s and ’60s — Sarah Vaughan, Bobby Darin’s “Sailin’,” Otis Redding, Fats Waller. Two thumbs up.
After we declined the offer of cocktails (we requested the wine list instead, despite the temptation of the knockout Bali Hai mai tai), no server would even look at us for some 20 long minutes. But suddenly — showtime!
Dinner began with a chef’s amuse, a deceitfully fine omen: a slice of cucumber thickly piled with crabmeat, lightly dressed with sweet sushi vinegar and a touch of hot pepper. The lovable table bread was a warm, crusty loaf of light, yeasty white, served with swirled room-temperature butter.
My buddy Sam and I are like the Walrus and the Carpenter when it comes to raw oysters, and those are a good opening gambit when checking out a seafood restaurant, so I ordered a modest à la carte starter of a half-dozen on the half-shell. The assortment included Chefs Creeks, Fanny Bays, and Carlsbad Blondes, all shucked expertly (not a whit of grit, so you could drink up the shell-juices), served with a balsamic mignonette and a vibrant New Orleans–style spicy cocktail sauce — plus coarse-grated fresh horseradish and lemon wedges for doctoring the latter to taste. The farm-raised Carlsbad Blondes lived up to their names — smooth-shelled and sort of bland, they’d rather be surfing. The big, craggy Chefs Creeks were nearly as creamy as my favorite little Kumamotos. (Didn’t check out the Fanny Bays — six oysters divided by a foursome means not everyone gets one of everything, and briny Fannys are not my fave — we left them to tablemates Jim and Michelle, not yet oyster nuts.)
Then we tried the two rewarding renditions of cooked oysters. The recipe that won the award at the food festival, “Cortez Style,” is complex and seductive, resembling a warm upscale ceviche: diced fresh tomatoes, mini-cilantro, minced bacon, and swoony chipotle beurre blanc, with part of the oyster chopped into the sauce on top and a remaining succulent bite at the bottom of the shell. The more you eat, the more fascinating; it’s well deserving of the award. And the “Classic Rockefeller,” with spinach-flavored Pernod (anise liqueur) in a creamy béchamel, is old-fashioned and just swell, exactly what you expect from a Rockefeller.
That was the climax of the meal. Lowering expectations, the New England clam chowder is also old-fashioned and good, if you don’t go all food-snobby over it. The creamy liquid is milk, thickened with a flour roux (not reduced cream and/or bashed-up potato), but it’s not icky-thick. The liquid is filled with clam-meats (as likely as not canned or frozen) and diced potato, with a token fresh clam in the shell, lurking near the bottom. It’s the standard version you expect when you order it, which makes it above-average for San Diego. And with that, the good times were over.
“Never play cards with a man named Doc. Never eat at a place named Mom’s…” wrote Nelson Algren. And never order lobster bisque at a joint that doesn’t have whole lobster on its menu. Great bisques are made from shells and spare parts. Tom Ham’s only lobster entrée is an Australian tail, so here we’re likely starting from commercial lobster products. The waiter ceremoniously poured a shot of sherry into the dense coral broth, which gulped it up like a Victorian girl’s school headmistress. “Tastes like Campbell’s Cream of Tomato Soup,” observed Sam. Lots of insipid seafood bits were afloat, probably the ubiquitous lobster-knuckle meat that’s been plaguing local restaurants the past few years.
The best entrée bargains on the Restaurant Week menu were the USDA Prime rib-eye steak and the Prime rib roast beef normally served on weekends only. Couldn’t do it — that’d be letting Tom Ham’s off too easy. As Samurai Jim said while we worked out our order, “Any bubba with a rib eye can make a great steak on the backyard grill if he doesn’t cook it to death. Seafood is more challenging.”
Simplest seafood entrée: an Australian lobster tail, its meat splatted atop its empty shell, with steamed red potatoes and boiled artichoke. Warm-water lobster (Australian, or our own local catch) is chewier and less buttery-tasting than cold-water North Atlantic lobster (e.g., Maine). I liked the idea of pairing it with artichoke. In the Bay Area, the Dungeness crab catch of late autumn is celebrated by dinner parties of steamed crabs, local Pescadero artichokes, melted lemon-butter, and garlic bread or garlic-butter spaghetti. But here, the overcooked artichoke was small, dank, and mopey. The putative melted-butter dip that came in a small metal shot-glass didn’t taste very buttery. A fog of depression overhung the plate.
Good scallops are rarely battered — it’s an assault on their delicate flavor. Here, they’re thickly crusted with panko and ground macadamias. The crust serves to disguise mediocre catch — certainly not diver or day-boat or fresh Baja specimens. These were chewy and insipid, maybe frozen. They came with another metal shot-glass of lemon beurre blanc that doesn’t live up to its name — again, the butter doesn’t taste buttery — plus tender spinach, and blandly pleasant sweet-potato mash that might’ve gone AWOL from some plate of pork, where it would belong.
“Sea Bass Papiote” (sic) has the fish garnished with pine nuts, artichoke hearts, feta, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, and garlic butter, wrapped and baked in a parchment-paper envelope (papillote). Sounded great, but peering into the crater formed by the opened brown-crisped wrapper seemed to offer a glimpse into some level of hell. The slightly overcooked bass at the bottom was overwhelmed by bits and bites of garnishes that didn’t work with it or with each other. The harshly acidic dried-tomato slivers were the red devils of this Dantean vista. On the side came “truffled mac ’n’ cheese.” Couldn’t distinctly taste cheese, and certainly no truffle, but spotted a few shreds of fresh mushroom clinging to the slightly creamy pasta. It was evidently made with mild white cheeses and truffle oil — adult kiddie-food.
Speaking of devils, “Shrimp Diablo” (billed as “another local legend for 30 years”) is a remnant of the San Diego fad of the ’80s, prawns wrapped in bacon and stuffed with something-or-other. Maybe back then, the prawns were fresh from the Mexican Gulf. Here, they seem to be farm-raised Thai jumbo shrimp. Those can be okay with careful Asian treatments to baby them along and reawaken their inner shrimpiness, but in this recipe they’re stuffed under the shell with spicy fresh bread crumbs, then bacon-wrapped and grilled until chewy. They taste like generic sea-meat. They’re swamped in a moat of black beans, surrounding both the shellfish and the plate’s central turret of chili-polenta cake, tingeing everything they touch with militant beaniness, like some horror movie: The Black Beans That Ate San Diego.
Are we done yet? Oy, dessert. There’s no espresso, but the Café Moto coffee is good dark-roast. To my shock, the peanut butter chocolate ice cream pie with Oreo crust, whipped cream, and warm chocolate sauce was actually good — well proportioned for adults, letting the ice cream rather than the garnishes take the lead role. With the soggy grilled drunken pear, a lively blackberry cabernet sorbet seized center stage while the pear slept it off. In the creamy, oversized lavender crème brûlée, you’d taste the lavender if you knew it was present, otherwise not. The final brûlée stage was a bust: the topping was barely crisped, and cold. As Samurai Jim said, it needed a longer time under the torch, and a shorter time before being served.
So, it’s still old-time pre-foodie San Diego. Go for the view, go for the atmosphere, go for the oysters and maybe the steaks. Or don’t go, if that’s not what you want. There’s more than one oyster in the sea.
Tom Ham’s Lighthouse
2150 Harbor Island Drive, Point Loma, 619-291-9110, tomhamslighthouse.com.
HOURS: Weekday lunch 11:30 a.m.–2:00 p.m.; Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. Sunday champagne mimosa brunch 9:30 a.m.–2:00 p.m. Dinner nightly 4:30–10:00 p.m. Happy hours daily 4:00–6:00 p.m.
PRICES: Brunch prix fixe, $28 ($16 kids). All-day menu starters, $5–$14; salads, $8–$11; oysters, clams, mussels, $3–$18; sandwiches and entrée salads, $11–$20. Dinner starters, $5–$18; salads, $8–$20; seafood entrées, $18–$50; meats, $20–$41.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Seafoods with touches of creativity, steaks, grills, roast beef. Affordable, well-chosen wine list. Full bar, including sister-restaurant Bali Hai’s famous mai tais.
PICK HITS: All oyster preparations, especially “Cortez-Style”; New England clam chowder. Possible good bets: lobster stack; steamers bowl; Louie salad; Prime-grade rib eye, weekend Prime rib roast beef.
NEED TO KNOW: Elevator access to upstairs dining room. Superb views. Casual atmosphere. Rating based on extended Restaurant Week dinner (second week).