Kirk has been hosting mmm-yoso!!!, a food blog, for over 7 years now. Amazing. Sometimes he lets Cathy post about her culinary adventures. And every once in a long while ed (from Yuma) posts about his. Today is one of those days. Thanks Kirk!
Unlike our largely unplanned visit to the Kensington Grill, Tina and I had made a reservation at the Sea Rocket Bistro so that we could get together with some old friends of ours visiting from Monterey, Steve and Helen. None of us had eaten at the restaurant previously, but I had heard some good reports on it and it looked interesting online, featuring fresh seafood and local ingredients.
Finding parking anywhere close to the corner of 30th St. and Upas proved to be difficult, so we were a few minutes late for the reservation, and I forgot to take a photo of the exterior. As soon as we entered, Tina and I were overwhelmed by the loud crowd packed two and three deep at the bar – this is a picture from our table:
Clearly happy hour is a big deal at Sea Rocket, but maybe the name of the place should be changed to Sea Racket because IT WAS EXTREMELY NOISY. I am tolerant of most restaurants’ ambience since I am primarily interested in the food, but still, it was difficult to have a conversation with our friends even though we were sitting as far away from the bar as could be arranged.
Looking at the appetizer side of the menu – which we were told had just been printed – we selected the watermelon salad and the local steamers. Before any of our dishes arrived, a nice plate of sliced artisan bread, accompanied by herbed honey butter, showed up at our table:
This was a very promising start the meal. The bread had a nice, light and crunchy crust and a smooth and flavorful crumb. We all liked the slightly sweet slightly herby flavor of the spread.
The bistro had an extensive beer and wine list – in fact, more beers seemed listed than wines. Since it was a Wednesday, all bottles were 20% off. I was amazed to see an Albariño from Edna Valley on this wine list as well, and having been so pleased with a similar wine at Kensington grill, we selected a different Albariño to accompany our meal:
Although this wine is more expensive (by winery list price) than the version from Tangent, neither Tina nor I thought it was quite as good as that wine, lacking the peach and tropical fruit salad finish. On the other hand, particularly with 20% off, the wine was priced very well in the restaurant ($38.40 after discount).
Large chunks of yellow and red melon accompanied a small round of goat cheese – all topped with roasted pumpkin seeds, a little frisee, a baby lettuce leaf, and a white balsamic dressing. Very nicely done. Good flavors and a well presented dish.
At first, I was a little surprised because in my neck of the woods (or I should say, my old neck of the woods) steamers were automatically clams, not any shellfish, and obviously, I had not read the menu carefully. On the other hand, the dish had a lot going for it. The salty winey broth was very flavorful and complemented both the shellfish and the surrounding slices of bread well. Every slice of bread was dipped and eaten. Nonetheless, the dish also reminded me why neither mussels nor clams are a major part of the San Diego fishing industry. While fresh, the ones in this appetizer were not especially succulent or plump. Nor were they plentiful.
At this point, I need to pause and address one of the more unusual aspects of our meal. Having once waited tables (a long long time ago), I am very tolerant of servers. In both San Diego - and especially Yuma - superb servers are not common; nonetheless, our experience this evening was truly unique. For example, we asked our friendly server about the smoky salty fish with the steamers – as we no longer had our menus to look at. She replied, “It’s just fish, some kind or another," and then added. "We call it fish sausage on the menu, but it's just fish." But of course, it was called "yellowtail bacon" not fish sausage, and it definitely was smoky and salty in flavor. She also mentioned that she was sometimes clumsy, or maybe she said klutzy, and then as if to prove that point, she actually broke a wine glass (fortunately with no wine in it) while serving us. That was a first in my dining career. And then there was the problem with the fish that Helen and I had both ordered, the sculpin. We overheard a different server explain to an adjacent table that the kitchen had run out of sculpin, so we wondered what we were getting. When we asked our server about the fish, she first accused the other server of being new and really being a hostess, not a server. Then of course she had to later explain to us that we weren't getting sculpin – maybe – she wasn't sure – but that they had not run out, they just didn't have any sculpin that evening, she thought, but maybe we would get black cod instead. “Really just about the same fish.” Of course, that made me wonder why the sculpin was listed on the supposedly freshly printed menu. In any case, the server was still unsure what we were getting when she brought Helen and me black cod ($18 on our bill, though still called sculpin there):
The fish was perfectly grilled fresh black cod. It was lightly seasoned, allowing the flavor of the fish to shine through every taste, though black cod can also be quite good when marinated (as in this recipe of Kirk’s).
This was also perfectly cooked. The fish was moist and yet it flaked nicely. Notice that both fishes were perched on the same pile of diced firm waxy potatoes, rainbow chard, mushrooms, and anaheim pepper strips. Underneath the veggies was a creamy and flavorful horseradish sauce. While I prefer restaurants that accompany their fish choices with different sides, flavorings that complement each type of fish perfectly, I had to agree with Tina that this particular vegetable/potato combination had a nice flavor and texture. Its simplicity was a good match to the lightly seasoned fish. Each of the various vegetables was cooked well. And a good variety of tastes and textures.
Steve had ordered the seafood stew ($18). When it first arrived, we all thought that he had received another appetizer plate of steamers. The same clams and mussels, the same slices of good bread, and the same shredded leek topping:
Further investigation, however, showed that the few chunks of fish were not smoked or salted, and the broth was different, lacking the bacony tastes of the appetizer, but having a smoother and less assertive tomato/pepper flavor. The menu called it a piperade sauce, but I noticed little capsicum heat.
I felt kind of bad for Steve even though he said the stew was okay overall, because it was much more of a replay of the appetizer than we had expected. To some extent, that is my fault because I did not read the menu carefully enough and the decision to have steamers as an appetizer was probably mine (once we decided that uni would not suit everybody at the table). However, I think we were all surprised by how similar the dishes were, particularly the bread slices and the slivered leeks. While I cannot fault the server entirely, a truly skilled waitperson might have pointed out how similar the stew was to the appetizer and perhaps suggested a different appetizer. But it is clear that our server was not having a good evening overall.
Sometimes, you get real lucky. That's how Tina and I felt after our meal at the Kensington Grill. Sometimes, not so much. That's how we felt about Sea Rocket Bistro. Not to say we didn’t have a good time; it was great eating with Steve and Helen. And by no means was this a disastrous meal. Many items were well-prepared and tasty. Prices were very fair. If I go back to the restaurant, I will probably start with a bottle of some excellent local brew at happy hour and then settle in for some simple grilled fish or a grass fed burger with bacon jam. That sounds like a better plan.
Sea Rocket Bistro, 3382 30th St, San Diego, CA 92104, (619) 255-7049, Open 5 -10 pm daily.