To the Lighthouse

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

  • 2 stars
  • (Good)

2150 Harbor Island Drive, Point Loma, 619-291-9110,

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).

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Oh Naomi, how I miss dining with you. Reading your column on a regular basis keeps my 'Naomi fix' sated.

Sorry to hear your appetites weren't at Lighthouse.

Hope you're well. -Steve

Two stars. How generous. That restaurant has survived on its view for decades. Tourists in San Diego are often from areas where "gourmet" means charbroiled steak and onion rings. That operation can get them drunk on mai-tais and the view of the bay, to hell with the food. I must confess I haven't been there in over twenty years, and I'm mildly incredulous that it still is there, same name and all.

But on those few occasions that I remember in the 70's and the 80's the food was at best pedestrian, and terribly uninspired. But hey, with a view like that one, who needed a chef or even a kitchen? Local dining tourist traps live!

Darn it, Saint Steve! I was just thinking of you but when I looked at the time (yesterday, a writing night) I realized you'd be long since snoring away out there in snowy Denver. And of course I'm so used to email I keep forgetting I've got a phone. Miss you too, something awful. We shouldn't be verbally canoodling like this in public. Maybe I'll actually phone you -- or you could email me on my "private line," I know you know how.

As for the other 500,000 of you reading that -- was it sexy enough, huh?

Not nearly sexy enough, Naomi. However, since you consistently deliver with stuff like this:

"...poured a shot of sherry into the dense coral broth, which gulped it up like a Victorian girl’s school headmistress."

I think the 500,000 rest of us out here can let it slide for once. ;)

I haven't seen food this sexy since 9 1/2 weeks. ;-D

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