565 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
So, I find myself re-reviewing a Cohn restaurant because the chef has changed. And soon there will be others (such as Bo-Beau, the remake of Thee Bungalow). Yes, I’ve laid my grudge to rest. That doesn’t mean I love the Cohn restaurants; it means that I no longer blame them for everything wrong with SD food.
Shortly after arriving here in the fall of 2000, I ate my way through most of the Cohn Restaurant Group — the new Prado, then Kemo Sabe; Blue Point (my instant favorite of the group); the awful, doomed Tupelo, deep in the Gaslamp; the so-so Dakota; and later, the Gaslamp Strip Joint. They all struck me as “enfoodtainment,” passable B-grade food with occasional flashes of excellence, and I slowly developed a foodie grudge: if San Diego food didn’t begin to compare to San Francisco food, I decided, it was because the Cohns’ ubiquitous, popular restaurants were teaching the city to embrace mediocrity.
(What made it worse was that every time I noted in review any flaw in one of his restaurants, David Cohn assaulted me and the Reader with flurries of furious emails from himself and his many friends and professional associates — he was the head of the local chapter of the California Restaurant Association. When my predecessor, Eleanor Widmer, panned Corvette Diner, he’d tried to lead a campaign to fire her. A lost crusade. In my case, following the Tupelo review, I did learn from a correct snipe from the Cohns’ fish merchant, that I needed to invest $35 in a new seafood encyclopedia pronto, instead of relying on an obsolete one published before sushi came to America. But I still hated the tactics. The harassing emails finally stopped — I think I have straight-shooter chef Deborah Scott to thank, after I discussed this issue with her when she opened Island Prime.)
What’s finally changed my mind has been the rapid departures of many serious out-of-town chefs from top San Diego restaurants (often after I’d given them raves). The Cohns didn’t have to send a bunch of goombahs to scare off, for instance, Steven Rojas at El Bizcocho — it was the locals whose indifference chased him away. I realized that the Cohn Group doesn’t actively promulgate mediocrity, they merely cater to existing tastes for, shall we say, great decor and no scares from the food — and they make a mint off it. So, no more blame to the not-so-evil empire, only for specific gaffes at individual restaurants.
As mentioned, Blue Point has always been my favorite of the Cohns’ many complaisant children. Sure, in creativity or culinary éclat, it’s not Le Bernardin or Esca in New York or Aqua in San Francisco (or even the local Le Fontainebleau), but it has a Frisco vibe of sophistication and of attention to quality that outshines the more popular mid or upscale local competition (e.g., the Fish Market, Top of the Market, Crab Catcher, King’s, Truluck’s, etc.). It’s not cheap, but you do get what you pay for.
Sam and I often pop in just for oysters. This time, during Restaurant Week, we settled down with our friend Teresa for a whole meal created by the new chef, Daniel Barron. Barron took over this kitchen after a musical-chefs game prompted by Jeff Thurston, of Prado, disastrously departing for Cosmopolitan (and I hope he’s found a good gig by now). Jonathan Hale, talented longtime chef at Blue Point, moved over to Prado, and Barron came to Blue Point. Barron has cooked all over the U.S., was nominated for a James Beard “Best in South” award when he was in Tennessee, and, most recently, his menu at AnQi Bistro in Costa Mesa was ranked as one of the “Top Ten Molecular Gastronomy Restaurants in America” by Gayot.com. The Blue Point website chef’s bio reads: “Here [at AnQi] Chef honed his interest and talent using modern techniques such as molecular gastronomy while creating a wide array of different cuisines.”
Molecular gastronomy at a Cohn restaurant? Not bloody likely and certainly none that we could perceive. The Restaurant Week menu for $30 was an amazing bargain (about half price). All its dishes were drawn from the regular menu. We asked our server which dishes were new, from the new chef. “All of them,” she said. Restaurant Week menus tend to the conservative side, but the full menu shown on the website offered no sign of avant-garde cuisine either.
The cocktail list ($12) is hugely tempting. There are three or four wicked new ones I’d like to try (rosemary syrup! lavender syrup!), and when Sam and I come back to belly up to the oyster bar again, we’ll do so. But the bar, like the restaurant, was crammed with Restaurant Week crowds. We found Teresa there, sipping a red wine, and proceeded to our table — a scallop-shell-shaped booth just right for three (how rare is that, to find good seating for three?) at the back of the restaurant, facing the open kitchen, so we could watch the chefs (including, I think, the new one) slaving over hot stoves. The wine list of the week offered plenty of great choices for $30 each. We started with a Kim Crawford New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to go with the oysters and were rather shocked to find it sweetish, not typically grapefruity — a surprising change. For the second course, a crisp Bridlewood Chardonnay proved just right. (Had we ordered a red, it would have been Chilean Casa Lapostelle Cabernet, an old favorite.)
We began with the Restaurant Week choice of raw oysters but doubled it with an extra order ($15 for six) — hey, waiting at the bar for a table at Pascal’s Manale in N’awlins, I once plowed through two dozen huge Apalachicolas in 90 minutes, and it was only the ample accompanying hooch that made me forget the rest of the meal. Almost no calories to oysters! The sampling here included Malpeques (briny and excellent) and Fanny Bays (softer, pleasing), and I’ve actually forgotten the third species (unknown, with rather thin meats). They come with three interesting mignonettes, but you know, great fresh oysters don’t need all of that. The three of us went with the NY Times critic Sam Sifton’s choice: a squeeze of lemon juice for small, delicate oysters like these. (Hefty Apalachicolas are, of course, a different story, calling for classic NOLA spicy DIY cocktail sauce.)
The lobster bisque reflects the ooh-gimme Maine-lobster entrée on the regular menu (a trio of ravioli, poached claw, grilled tail — $50). That leaves lots of other lobster parts to make a good stock. The bisque is rich and thick but not heavy, lightly creamy with citrus hints and ample shreds of lobster meat.
A Chesapeake Bay lump crabmeat crab cake proved the lightest ever, with a subtle coating (a bare hint of crumbs). The center was almost pure crab, and wonderful. No idea how it was made or how it held together. It came with a caper aioli and a daub of something resembling home-style spicy, thin ketchup. Aces!
We were three, and there was a surprise fourth entrée option, a whole fish du jour. Skipping the option of grilled wild salmon with maple-soy glaze (and polenta, which I love), we chose the whole (beheaded, boned-out) skin-on fish: a lightly breaded red trout with a minimalist stripe of some white saucelike substance along the topside of its body. Oh, maybe the stinginess of the sauce was the molecular part! We should have gotten the salmon instead, as the trout flesh was rather dry, the flavors plain, and it came with an untamed primeval forest of stalks of Chinese broccoli, or something of that weedy ilk, badly undercooked and with no discernible interesting seasonings. (It could have used some of that maple-soy mix!) It was like chawing on tree shoots. Nobody ate much of either the fish or greenery, so I was able to reconfirm from the next night’s gently heated leftovers that it was a really unlovable plate.
Pasta-lover Teresa had her heart set on smoked pappardelle with toasted crabmeat, reggiano parmesan, roasted mushrooms, and a touch of cream. I’m unconvinced that smoking noodles has any magical effect on them. (In the late ’60s I tried smoking banana peels, and they had no magic either.) I found the pasta a bit tough, the garnishes undistinguished, lacking spark. But my friends liked it better than I did, and they’re good tasters, too.
The house’s smoker returned in full force with our third entrée, a smoked free-range pork chop. It was a huge, thick hunk from high on the hog (most likely loin), where the meat is lean, maybe too lean. (Everybody who loves shoulder butt, honk!) It tasted only slightly smoky, less so than the thin smoked center chops I sometimes buy at the grocery (good for a quick sauté and a warm bath of tarragon mustard cream sauce with chopped cornichon pickles — one of those brilliant French classics designed to quickly make the most of cheap meat). But no, this was fine meat, all the worse because after smoking there was no choice of done-ness. It looked pink but was quite dry. The accompaniments, however, were scintillating: a round of creamy bread pudding with smoked blue cheese and wild mushrooms, andouille gravy, and a small mound of gooey, sweet-sour braised balsamic cabbage. This is serious and delicious cooking, like I expect from Blue Point.
We were awfully full to address desserts, but, hey, they were free! The house-made sorbet was rich and fruity, velvety from, I believe, apricot pulp. (By now the dining room was in full roar mode, so it was hard to hear the identification of the fruit.) We liked the honey ice cream accompanying the dismissible liquid chocolate cake (yawn). The vanilla bean crème brûlée was pretty, but yawn again. The espresso is decent, and our good server did bring it with desserts, as I like.
I probably oughtn’t assign a star rating based on a Restaurant Week meal, but all nine dishes we tried are drawn from the regular menu and cost about the same as average choices (aside from that $50 Maine lobster trio of my feverish desires). I did drop the red trout from the average, a trick statisticians will recognize: any score wholly out of line with the rest is set aside. Our appetizers were excellent, and the full regular menu offers numerous chances to find fine food. (See boilerplate “Pick Hits” and then “best guesses.”) Okay, I’m a little defensive after all David Cohn’s email attacks, but I really believe this remains a three-star restaurant — maybe not quite the same as it’s been all these years, but still fine. Only — where’s Chef Daniel’s molecular razzle-dazzle? Cohn, set this man free! ■
Blue Point Coastal Cuisine
★★★ (Very Good)
565 Fifth Avenue (at Market Street), Gaslamp Quarter, 619-233-6623; cohnrestaurants.com
HOURS: Daily 5:00 p.m. to closing (about 10:00 weekdays, later on weekends).
PRICES: Soups and salads $8–$12; chilled seafood, oysters, $13–$23; starters $11–$14; Mains $28–$50. Sides average $6. “Cavi-hour” at bar (until 6:30 p.m. weeknights), roes and trimmings $15–$90, sampler plate $40.
CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Main thrust is pristine seafood, but plenty of land-based choices, too. Well-chosen wine list, heavy on whites, plenty of affordable choices and glasses. Interesting cocktails, $12.
PICK HITS: From Restaurant Week menu (all on regular menu): lobster bisque, raw oysters, crab cake, house-made sorbet. Probable good bets from regular menu: cold seafood assiette, mussels in coconut green curry sauce, clams in sambal butter broth, Alaskan black cod, scallops with white corn dumplings, Maine lobster trio, grilled lamb with house-made lamb sausage.
NEED TO KNOW: Valet parking $12. Cheaper parking at Park It on Market, Sixth and Market. Noisy when crowded (conversation, not music). Wraparound heated patio. Good professional service. Supper-club decor but locals come “dressy casual.” No vegetarian starters or entrées, but sufficient lacto-veggie sides and salads to make a meal.