By David Nelson
If the world has not been your oyster, go on a shellfish binge. It's easy in San Diego, where the town's pearly restaurant roster offers many options for scooping up scallops and muscling through mussels. And be sure not to clam up before tasting the live urchins at Baci and Gabardine.
From ocean to table and Chula Vista to Carlsbad, enjoy these dozen ways to play the shell game and win.
Market Café (at Loews Coronado Bay Resort)
4000 Loews Coronado Bay Rd., Coronado
Mark Leighton Ching slings a mean scallop. The new executive chef at Loews Coronado Bay Resort notes that, since the hotel is on the ocean, "Why wouldn't we concentrate on seafood?" Ching answers his question with dishes like sizzling and sensational pan-seared scallops. Lightly gilded but creamy-textured, the top-grade shellfish wear jackets of tart-spicy, pineapple-chili ponzu sauce atop sautéed spinach and coconut-accented "forbidden" rice (named for Beijing's Forbidden City). To finish: splashes of passion fruit butter and flying fish roe. Roe, roe, roe your boat over to Loews' Market Cafe.
2760 5th Ave., Bankers Hill
You won't find scallops in the Dead Sea, but you may indeed relish Ave 5's Dead Sea Potatoes: salty, roasted, marble-sized spuds that co-owner Yo Kitazawa calls "the ultimate finger food." Absolutely. And absolutely perfect before chef/co-owner Colin McLaggin's knock-'em-dead barley risotto crowned with a circlet of gilded diver scallops and enriched with grilled shrimp, cherry tomatoes, baby asparagus and smashingly fragrant thyme-brown butter sauce.
4033 Goldfinch St., Mission Hills
Wet your whistle with a Brooklyn (a Manhattan variant that outpours the original), then dive into a big bowl of wood-fired Littleneck clams "Casino" at Brooklyn Girl, Mike and Victoria McGeath's chic new New Yorkery in Mission Hills. Chef Tyler Thrasher crows that his steamy broth has "all the classic ingredients," like pancetta, red bell peppers, oregano, butter, white wine and shallots, in which tender clams simmer only until they open. Hunks of toast soak up the broth.
4698 Convoy St., Kearny Mesa
Tiny cherrystone clams boast enormous flavor at China Max, the attractive Convoy Street eatery decreed San Diego's best Chinese house by Zagat Survey and other sources. Saltwater-fresh, the clams sail in from the wok either adrift in black bean sauce, a bold and sexy prep enlivened with chunks of red and green bell peppers and spicy heat, or more subtly in a simple stir-fry with big bites of ginger (for flavor, not eating) and lots of scallion greens. Both are wonderful.
Saltbox (at Hotel Palomar)
1047 5th Ave., Gaslamp
According to Saltbox sous-chef Neil Ayers, chef Simon Dolinky "was definitely swinging for the fence" with this inspired preparation of hand-selected Carlsbad black mussels steamed in bitter Belgian ale. An amazingly aromatic, full-flavored dish, it features broth infused with fennel and orange zest (they "keep it nice and bright," Ayers says). The mussels nearly melt like butter, and crisp sourdough toast (loaves are baked-on-premises) beats spoons for transporting suave broth to appreciative mouths.
425 Island Ave., Gaslamp
A shellfish pasta not flavored with garlic? BICE Ristorante chef Mario Cassineri accomplishes the trick by infusing spaghetti with a breathy dose of saffron. Garlic wouldn't stand a chance in Cassineri's riveting assembly of sharply seasoned Littleneck clams, Prince Edward Island mussels, cannellini beans and spaghetti boiled in saffron broth. The flavors are so full and rounded-enchanting, really-that we requested the recipe (see column at right). It takes a little time, but is easy to make and won't fail to impress anyone who shares your table.
Spaghetti with clams, mussels and cannellini beans
(Yield: 6 servings)
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped shallots
Sea salt and black pepper
1 pound Littleneck clams, scrubbed
1 pound Prince Edward Island ? (or local black) mussels, scrubbed
1 cup white wine
1 pound spaghetti
¼ cup finely chopped Italian parsley
½ red onion
1 teaspoon saffron threads
3 basil leaves, chopped
1 spring thyme, chopped
For Cannellini Sauce
1 cup dry cannellini beans
12 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, minced
Soak beans in water for 12 hours, then cook in boiling water until soft. Drain beans, then blend with olive oil and rosemary until creamy. Add salt and pepper and keep warm, or refrigerate up to two days and reheat when needed.
1955 W. Morena Blvd., Mission Bay / Bay Bark
It's not widely known that urchins, more commonly encountered as "uni" at sushi bars, are plentiful in San Diego waters. At the long-popular Baci on Morena Blvd., the preparation is the ultimate in simplicity, as is so frequently true of sophisticated Italian cooking. The live "Ricci di Mare" (sea urchins) are simply presented with lemon and hot toast. Since Bace purchases urchins daily, the flavors are briny, clean and sparkling fresh. You could call them "oceany" and not get an argument from anyone.
1005 Rosecrans St., Point Loma
When chef Chad White takes a whirl with urchins at Point Loma's trendy new Gabardine, a whirlwind of flavors results. "Live sea urchin speaks for itself and has a unique briny-ness," says White, adding that touches of lemon and salt "make the dish more approachable." Try urchin this way to see if you agree with White's claim that the "taste and texture make me think of briny ocean butter." Restlessly creative, the chef also churns a sea urchin ice cream that he recommends pairing with a glass of Ballast Point Schooner.
In the Raw (and Nicely Dressed)
Donovan's Prime Seafood
333 5th Ave., Gaslamp
Luxury is the focus at Donovan's Prime Seafood, a fairly new Gaslamp spot that has quickly become a top destination for fine dining. Donovan's new raw bar beckons with rare oyster options like Beausoleils from East New Brunswick. For the ultimate extravagance, the Seafood Tower (it serves four; check your credit balance before ordering) blissfully builds an edifice of Canadian snow crab claws, Alaskan king crab, Australian cold-water lobster and ultra-jumbo shrimp above a deep basin of ice. The shellfish doesn't have to be raw: chef Kemar Durfield's cooks are adept at assembling elegant oysters Rockefeller topped with piquant sauce bearnaise, and steaming delicate Manila clams in savory broth.
Point Loma Seafood
2805 Emerson St., Point Loma
The newly rebuilt Point Loma Seafoods is as parking-challenged and jam-packed as ever, because it's got the goods. Lobsters and Dungeness crabs jump and jive in oversized tanks; local rockfish are bug-eyed in icy repose; and in a case (and class) of their own, a selection of live shellfish begs to be taken home by the pound. Choices run from Carlsbad and Prince Edward Island mussels to greenlips and cockles from New Zealand, Pacific Creek oysters and Littleneck clams. Get out the cookbook and go to town.
Karina's Mexican Seafood
986 Broadway, Chula Vista
If oysters seem passive, bear in mind that they must be pried from tightly-closed shells. They're the big boys of the shellfish clan, highly prized and expensive. You can buy mussels by the bucket, but oysters cost. Plenty. They're worth it. In Chula Vista, Karina's Mexican Seafood creates fabulous shellfish cocktails infused with lime, onion, chili and other flavorings (a little all-American ketchup, too) that create bright, delicious savors.
Six San Diego locations
Woo-hoo! Who knew an oyster could create such a rush? They're not built to come on strong, but with a little imagination, like that shown at the Brigantine's oyster bars, an oyster can shoot off like a rocket. An oyster shooter, that is, built in a shot glass with one freshly opened oyster du jour, a little cocktail sauce and about 3/4-ounce of house-infused pepper vodka.
Knock back one of these bad boys for an instant reaction. Have a few, and somebody else better be driving. Brigantine offers a vodka-free shooter topped with fresh horseradish, and it's zingy, too. Oysters on the half-shell also please with selections like Blue Points, Fanny Bays and Dabob Bays from Washington State.