By David Nelson
Photos by Kate and Michael Auda
Manipulating a restaurant setting so that it appears to float on Mission Bay takes some wizardry, although hotelier Bill Evans, Jr. and chef Steven Riemer claim it's all in a day's work. Still, you have to wonder if Evans stashes a magician's pointed hat somewhere in his family's Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa.
Showing off eye-catching details of the new Oceana Coastal Kitchen, slated to open in early February, the graduate of Cornell University 's School of Hotel Administration explains how he sculpted the vast eatery to feel as though it extends into one of Southern California's most compelling views.
"We have the best location in San Diego, facing south over the bay," says Evans, whose father, the late William J. Evans, Sr., opened the palm-shaded Pacific Beach landmark on his son's "due date" in October 1959. "We have a wonderful, active skyline and an active foreground."
Evans points to downtown skyscrapers back-dropped by mountains in Mexico, and the always-busy beachside pavement that skates between the contours of Mission Bay and the hotel. Decorative clouds floating above the glistening bay, cyclists, board- riders, volleyballers, boaters and myriad others participate in scenery that Evans wove into his Scheme of Things when guiding Oceana from concept to reality.
His backup tour guide, chef Riemer, says, "Squint your eyes and you're looking at the South of France." The Orange County native enjoys a similar view from his home across the bay in Crown Point.
He bikes to work and likens Oceana to "an everyday, local restaurant for my neighbors.".
Of many San Diego restaurants, Evans says, "I think the chefs are running the show. It's like Picasso's Blue Period: excellent, but too much blue. To have a great restaurant, you need balanced food and service. You can have good food and have it completely screwed by bad service. We're like the Marine Corps when we train servers. They don't do it their way; they do it our way."
What a setting they do it in. "You have one chance to get everything right, and a whole lot of chances to get things wrong," Evans says. "I want Oceana to be a 360-degree experience."
To this end, he devoted half the 8,200- square-foot space to a sheltered outdoor room under a high trellis designed as "a frame for the skyline of San Diego."
Windows outlined with Honduran mahogany draw the outdoors into the stylish indoor room, and, as Evans intended, seats at the chic koa wood tables place diners at the precise level that creates a sense of being on the water. A ceiling-high, thousand-gallon glass tank centers the room and houses a jovial school of jellyfish. Since they demand an exceptional environment, the immensely complicated water-delivery system that Evans calls his "nerdy" delight brought the tank's cost to $100,000.
"San Diego has yet to make its mark on the culinary landscape of this country," adds Evans. "I think Oceana may help us do this."
Chef Riemer, described by The Lodge at Torrey Pines' uber-chef Jeff Jackson as "the best-trained chef he's ever worked with," is up for the challenge.
"When I laid out the menu, I called it 'California Comfort,'" Riemer says. "The cuisine focuses on seafood from the Pacific, local ingredients and cooking techniques that coax the best from everything. We're devoted to the 'fresh-and-rapid' style of cooking."
At the "Cold Bar," a shellfish-and-sushi destination inset with sparkling sea glass, a master sushi chef designed the Oceana Roll as an extravaganza bursting with eel, tempura shrimp and crab. Riemer suggests local white sea bass spiced with ancho chile as a wonderfully sea-born entrée, to be followed by cooked-to-order doughnuts filled with chocolate cream that he says rock his sweet tooth.
"It all has to do with composition and proportion," Riemer says of his bill of fare. "When you're at Oceana, you'll know you're in San Diego, no matter where you come from."
Oceana Coastal Kitchen
The Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa
3999 Mission Blvd., Pacific Beach