831 W. Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego
Harbor House Shiver me timbers, the "tall ships" are here this week for the Festival of Sail (August 17--21), a treat for residents and visitors alike. Twenty vessels are plying the bounding main (well, the placid bay) along the North Embarcadero, from the Cruise Ship Terminal to Hawthorn Street. If trudging the waterfront leaves you with tired tootsies and a longing for a sit-down seafood dinner, Harbor House is a short pedicab ride or a brisk walk from the south end of the festivities. In business since Seaport Village's beginnings in 1980, this imposing two-story building is off Kettner, smack-center of the Village's southern edge.
You can eat in two distinct venues. Each has its own entrance and kitchen, but both are supervised by aptly named executive chef Ken Cooke. Wherever you sit, you can order food and beverages from either menu -- although when we tried to order an "upstairs" fish downstairs, our waiter was unaware of this possibility.
The wooden stairway on the Village side of the building takes you to the oyster bar and pub, a vast, informal dining room that includes a bar (for oysters, hooch, whatever). The decor is nautical, with pillars made of faux pilings, brick-façade walls, and wood floors -- it looks like a renovated 200-year-old building. The peaked ceiling shows off a complex pattern of sound baffles, which lowers the noise level, even if squalling babes and squealing tots are nearby. Three sides of wraparound windows overlook water vistas and greenery. If you arrive early enough (before 6:15 p.m.), you should score a window table, as we did. (Arrive near 7:00, without reservations, and expect a minimum half-hour wait.) Watching a sailboat glide along the bay, my partner sighed happily. "I'm already glad we came here," he said. "I needed a break from the city."
An "oyster sampler" should include more than one species, but our half-dozen bivalves were all from Fanny Bay, farm-raised in a warmish-water inlet in Vancouver. They were mild-flavored and a little mushy, as you'd expect from the sheltered upbringing. The made-from-scratch cocktail sauce was tastier than supermarket versions. Fried clams consisted of thick cornmeal batter (resembling strung-out hushpuppies) around tough, skinny clam strips. You're buying the batter -- plus that cocktail sauce and a clean-tasting house-made tartar sauce.
The hefty clam chowder was enjoyable, with diced potato, minuscule corn kernels, tender clam meats, and near-imperceptible bits of bacon. A dozen oyster crackers were already afloat in the liquid, not served in the package, so we couldn't dole them out gradually to keep a few crisp ones on top. They mushed out in moments.
The oyster bar menu centers on simple, popular American seafood dishes. Current fresh fish and their various preparations are detailed on a two-sided menu card. "Be sure to read both sides," the waiter reminded us. Lightly smoked Alaskan King salmon fillet, finished by broiling, proved a fine piece of fish, if cooked to an Arizonan dryness -- parched at the edges, slightly moist at the center, like a Yuman who's spent too much time in the sun. The plate included a ramekin of vinegary remoulade sauce to moisten the fish. A chewy, undercooked Sysco-style veggie medley (broc, zuke, carrot, one mushroom cap) rode along, unredeemed by a sprinkling of minced fresh herbs. The highlight of the plate was a skin-on red potato sprinkled with chopped fresh rosemary -- a taste of home.
The menu features several seafood showpieces, including paella and cioppino. Looking around at our fellow diners, we decided that simpler might be better. We settled on "the Nantucket Bucket," offering New Zealand "cockles" (clams) and Atlantic blue mussels in a broth of white wine, olive oil, butter, and herbs. The mussels were all open (no stiffs in the group), sweet, and cooked just tender. But the clams may have been sleeping off jet lag, since their juices failed to bring the broth to life. An accompanying slab of garlic bread was compromised by a glaze of burned tomato sauce.
A page of the oyster bar's menu is devoted to margaritas and martinis. After recently suffering lousy margaritas at three successive Old Town restaurants (two of which also flunked Dinner 101), I was delighted to find the house version here honest and tasty, with Sauza, Cointreau, lemon juice, and little (if any) sweet-and-sour filler. The beer list not only features microbreweries on draft but also boasts three-beer tasting "flights." An abbreviated version of the multipage downstairs wine list is printed on the back of the menu. Up or downstairs, you're sure to find something you like at the price you're prepared to pay. (For me, at our downstairs meal, that was a crisp Karly Sauvignon Blanc from Amador County for $30.)
Both the main dining room and the oyster bar offer dessert carts. I later learned that the fruit tarts and profiteroles are made in-house; other choices come from a small local dessert company. The carts' contents differ between the two venues, but many items are common to both. A New York cheesecake drizzled with Chambord raspberry liqueur was tall, dense, and velvety over a graham cracker crust, so rich that I doled out the leftovers for my next three breakfasts. A key lime pie had an alluring graham crust amended with crunchy minced almonds. Its filling was standard, but the topping tasted like nondairy whipped chemicals (e.g., Cool Whip), which is to whipped cream as Nucoa is to Plugra.
Next evening, still looking forward to the Festival of Sails, we moseyed over to the downstairs main dining room, which has its entrance on the south side, facing Embarcadero Marine Park North. Strolling all the way around the building is a treat, with park views, bay views, and a "secret" lagoon with a small waterfall and a wooden footbridge. The dining room is plusher than the oyster bar, with thick carpeting, ecru-clothed tables, and napkins swirled inside the wine glasses -- not wrapped around the silverware. The ceiling is low, however, and the view is, too, eye level with the upper halves of joggers in the park. The crowd here is no more formal than in the oyster bar: The same board shorts and T-shirts prevail upstairs, downstairs, and outside.
A much larger kitchen allows for a more ambitious menu. Many dishes are embellished by classic butter-based French emulsion sauces: beurre blanc, Hollandaise, Béarnaise. In the Eisenhower era, these sauces were icons of upscale cuisine, the province of fancy French restaurants and ambitious Junior League hostesses (or their maids). If you've ever cooked them at home, you know that their textures are as trembly as the arms of the breathless amateur who's just whipped in the butter. Today, restaurant kitchens use foolproof shortcuts and ingredients with neither the flavor nor the mouth-feel of the perilous, precious emulsions of old. The mixtures are thicker, often stabilized (e.g., with cornstarch), and if egg yolk is involved (e.g., in Hollandaise), it's likely to be a grainy, pasteurized commercial product that eliminates the danger of salmonella. You may not be thinking about germs; restaurant owners have to.
Oysters Rockefeller and lobster bisque are drawn from the haute cuisine of the ancien regime. The oysters were nicely done, tender and just warmed through, but they were interred under heaps of mushy Pernod-spiked spinach and (at bottom, jointly occupying shell space with the oyster meats) bacon bits. On top were solidified fluffs of pasteurized-egg Hollandaise, browned on the surface -- more like soft-baked egg than a sauce. The lobster bisque won our attention with tender morsels of lobster afloat in the liquid, but the sheer weight of tomato and reduced cream in the soup finally wore us out.
An interlude of Californian trendiness brought a mixed green salad with candied walnuts, poached pear, and "baked" goat cheese in a balsamic vinaigrette. Hunks of grainy-textured chevre were encased in thick batter, like frozen fish sticks. If you throw the cheese to the pigs, what remains is a charming (if ordinary) combination that's perfect for a summer's day.
Harbor House's Shrimp La Costa is the original of this now-ubiquitous local favorite of stuffed, bacon-wrapped shrimp, a dish invented in the mid-'80s by then-chef John Borg. It's on the downstairs menu only. The crabmeat stuffing, flecked with scalliion and carrot, hinted at Louisiana flavors, and the shrimp was reasonably tender. I liked it very much, but the Béarnaise sauce on top proved so weighty, "yolky," and salty, it nearly spoiled the joy. The accompanying garlic gratin potatoes rode the line between delightful and distasteful -- the spuds are cooked ahead and chilled, imparting a kugel-like flavor of the fridge. The veggie medley had the same contents as in our previous meal; it was better cooked but less herbal than the upstairs rendition.
For our fish du jour, we chose grilled local white sea bass. A giant slab was again cooked dry all the way through, for the tastes of people who live far from the sea and would blanch to find an opalescent blush on the flakes. We liked the accompaniments of moist, fluffy couscous, firm asparagus, and a luscious (if suspiciously thick) ginger beurre blanc.
They say the country has fragmented into "red" and "blue" political states, but there's at least one more line of fragmentation. According to the slick cooking magazines, gourmets in Oxford, Mississippi, and Bozeman, Montana, can now pick up Thai chile sauce or Niçoise olives at their local Piggly Wiggly (I should be so lucky in Golden Hill), but there remains a division between "blue" and "red" states of food preference -- places where, for instance, fish are enjoyed medium-rare, versus those whose motto is "I don't want it wiggling on my plate." San Diego is a mixture of the two. Harbor House mainly feeds visitors from the culinary red zone, although many locals also prefer that style.
"Unfortunately, we're a tourist spot," says chef Cooke, a CIA grad who worked in several fine French restaurants in New York City before deciding to move west with his family. "It's good for our business, because if the hotels are full, we're full. But most of our steak is ordered medium or medium-well. Our fish -- if we undercook it, it gets sent back. When the Holiday Bowl was in town a few years ago and Nebraska was playing, we had a whole dining room full of people wearing red sweatshirts. All of our pasta dishes kept coming back, because they were cooked al dente. People said they're from the Midwest, they need pasta well-done! The fact that we're a tourist spot does affect our cooking methods, our presentation, and our prices, too, since people on vacation are willing to spend more...But if you ask for your fish medium-rare, we can accommodate you. We get a lot of special requests, and we try to accommodate everyone."
I like the upstairs of Harbor House for its view, its architecture, its drinks; I'd come back to chill with a cold seafood platter and an icy margarita. Downstairs, I like the Shrimp La Costa. If Aunt Mabel were coming to town, I might well take her to this restaurant -- but I'm not from a state where girls are named Mabel.