531 F Street, Downtown San Diego
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
Filipino cuisine has been tabbed by food experts and national magazines as “the next big thing” for several years now. While San Diego does offer a number of restaurants serving traditional dishes such as lumpia, chicken adobo, and sisig, when I spoke to a number of Filipino-American foodies at a pop-up dinner last March, most of them agreed the quality wasn’t enough to inspire them to eat out, saying the the food typically couldn’t compare to the dishes their mothers and grandmothers made.
So I took note of the opening of Ocean Pacific Grille in June. Offering what its website calls “Exquisite, fresh seafood with bold Pacific flavors in a Filipino state of mind,” the upscale eatery brings the en vogue cuisine to the Gaslamp. Well, sort of.
This is more modern fare than traditional — distinctly current plates such as pecan-crusted halibut and braised short ribs run through the filter of Pacific Island cuisines, including the owners’ and chef’s home state, Hawaii.
In fact, neither the menu or restaurant décor play up the Pinoy influence, aside from the occasional reference such as shrimp and pork lumpia, adobe baby back ribs, and a Filipino Tocino Toast, a bacon dish which draws from Spanish colonial influence and features roasted tomatoes and burrata.
Rather, this place delivers a standard contemporary mid- to high-end experience. There’s an open kitchen with chef’s counter dining, neatly dressed tables, and coordinated mixed wood and planters.
Likewise, the presentation of dishes was superb. We started with the Kilawin section of the menu — one of the few to make use of a Filipino term (this refers to raw fish). The Spicy Tuna Tartar ($14) turned out to be the favorite of the night — beautifully arranged spiced ahi sashimi topped by tobiko (flying fish roe) served with fresh-made potato chips. The latter reminding me of barbecue-flavored Lays the first few bites, but once I settled into the nuances of the unusual spice meshing with the fish and roe flavors I looked forward to the main courses.
Not to say the Kare Kare short ribs disappointed. Short ribs turn up on every contemporary menu in town, but this is the first I’ve seen that takes off from a traditional Filipino stew. The flavor was great, yet at the end of the day, 25 dollars spent on a ubiquitous cut of meat didn’t make the most of this restaurant’s ability.
A better bet was the crispy skin sea bass ($27), served with mussels with a tamarind tomato broth. The well-cooked fish would have tasted fine without that broth, but while thin, the zesty red liquid contributed some novel flavors to the meal. I wanted to fully douse each bite with it and probably should have eaten the fish with a spoon to better capitalize.
I spent eight times the amount of money at Ocean Pacific than I did at the last Filipino restaurant I visited in National City, but I had a far better meal. For newbies to this cultural cuisine, I’d suggest asking lots of questions and steering away from familiar dishes to go for something that rings more authentically Filipino. If Filipino cuisine is having its moment, Ocean Pacific Grille may serve as your best introduction to the flavors driving it.