2150 Harbor Island Drive, Harbor Island
“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.