It’s taken awhile to get here. Something about going to a hotel restaurant…it conjures shuddering thoughts of safe, average food at inflated resort prices served with blase’ service to tourist types who will never be seen again. Even armed with the intellectual knowledge that here, at Tidal, Chef Amy DiBiase’s cuisine alone was probably worth the trip, it took me awhile to conquer my personal prejudices and make my way down to Paradise Point to check things out. My bad.
We had planned a day of Black Friday shopping in San Diego, and had a short list of places we should eat at that we hadn’t yet, so off we went. First impressions – the place is comfortable. Elegant enough for a nice date night or special occasion, but casual enough for shorts and a tee-shirt if you’re a guest at the resort. Service was knowledgeable and friendly while still respectful. The walk up the lighted sidewalk gives the above view of the lighted logo wall – one of the coolest in San Diego, in my opinion.
I found out that one of our favorite drink slingers, Brandt Stenberg, from another regular joint of ours used to tend the bar here. Not sure if he came up with this drink, but it would be right up his alley. This is the “Double Down,” double rye whiskey infused with Tamarind soda and coffee bitters- a nice cocktail that respected the whisky and brought out a depth of flavor with just enough accoutrements to enhance the meal to follow. It was a precursor of the theme of flavors for the night.
Dee remembered reading someplace that the Venus clams on the menu here were one of those “best things ever eaten” dishes. The clams themselves were meaty and juicy. They sat in a chowder like broth that gave the dish a “deconstructed” type of feel – inasmuch as plucking the clam from the shell was the last part of the construction needed to complete the experience. The broth itself was infused completely and precisely, but not overbearingly so, with a rendered pork essence and had small chunks of lean salt pork added for texture and flavor. The pork flavor enhanced the broth and elevated it from common to noble status by adding a deep, rich layer that somehow didn’t diminish the delicate flavor of the clams.
Normally, two bi-valve mollusk dishes in one sitting wouldn’t be the route I would take in ordering a meal. However, I was torn between the clams and mussels initially and then, Lucas, our server, told us this was one of the best dishes on the menu. Sold.
A note about server recommendations – I liked the fact that Lucas was willing to go out on a limb and give us real opinions about some of his favorite dishes. Far too often, servers are either un-knowledgeable about the items on a menu or, worse yet, afraid to give a firm opinion when asked for a recommendation, opting instead for something obsequious like, “Oh, everything on the menu is good”. Just, yuck.
Anyway, back to the mussels. No worries about having ordered two similar type items. Mussels, to me, are like the bread of the sea. They have a distinctive flavor and texture, depending on the species, yet they pair with and absorb just about any flavor or combination of flavors you toss them in. These were nicely done with a white wine based sauce, shaved leeks and fennel for a bit of crunch and light pungency and a dash of Pernod added to the broth. Pernod is one of the oldest French liqueurs, at one time considered an elixir and thought to be a digestive aid, anise based and extremely aromatic. In this broth, though, the liqueur acted very much as bitters might in a cocktail, not overwhelming, but adding a touch of complexity while binding the different notes in the broth to achieve a more cohesive presentation of the flavors.
We didn’t go all surf for the meal- we had some really bad steak about a month ago and sometimes it takes awhile to quell the memory of bad food. The menu has a nice mix of sea, land and air based options – pork cheeks, duck and chicken confit, short ribs, scallops and even a Salmon Wellington – a unique take on a traditional dish that will definitely get a look on a subsequent visit.
Then there was this beauty – a 16oz ribeye covered with a salsa verde and topped with the mother of all grilled onions. By now, we had started to get a handle on the style of food we were being presented and I have to say, I was loving it.
Allow me this rant: Salt is a spice. It is also a nutrient. It is vital to healthy living. It is the most basic flavor enhancer. It is the purest, simplest ingredient in cooking that I can think of. And, yet, it has gotten a bad rap. High blood pressure, gout, hypertension, heart disease, grey hair, Chernobyl – is there any unhealthy condition out there that salt hasn’t gotten the blame for?
What I was noticing about Chef Amy’s food is this: She starts with quality ingredients, fresh as can be, beautifully prepared and cooked to exacting standards. And then, she enhances the natural flavors. This is largely accomplished in the simplest way – fat, salt and pepper type spices of varying degrees. Her dishes are sophisticated and complex without being exaggerated or complicated.
More about the steak – the salsa verde wasn’t full of vinegar and acid as might be the expected norm. Rather, it was more of a chopped chili relish masterfully combined to allow the flavor of the chilies to gently influence the land mass of meat it topped. The charred onion had a slightly enhanced sweetness and pepperiness from the grilling while retaining its natural crunch. The steak itself was cooked at a perfect medium rare temperature from end to end, no doubt due to the very consistent thickness and cut on the meat, then served in a light pool of clarified butter. Far from simple, yet, unpretentious and unassuming, this steak was one of the better we’ve ever had.
There’s not a whole grilled fish on any menu at any restaurant I’ve ever patronized that hasn’t gotten a shot with me. Some have been regretful. This one wasn’t. Damsel bass cooked over a wood fired grill until crispy on the outside and moist and flaky in the middle. I’m inclined to say that at some point in the cooking process, the fish might have been lightly fried, due to its perfect crispiness, but I can’t be sure of that. A dusting of salt and pepper on the skin – enough so that the skin by itself was salty, but when combined with a nice bite of the fish flesh, it became a perfect seasoning accent.
I’ll digress as to Chef Amy’s style of cooking once again, because this dish inspires it. I love that Chef isn’t trying to make her ingredients something other than what they are. Too often today, with the advent of gastronomical manipulation, chefs are disguising and changing the tastes of their main ingredients to the detriment of their customers and their dishes. They are finding substitutes for the basics like salt and pepper. Miso, teriyaki, secret sauces – all great accents. But, when the basic flavors of the food start to become compromised and unrecognizable, to me, that isn’t talent so much as it is aldulteration. In Chef Amy’s case, she is far from shy when it comes to seasoning. Yet, it seems, she recognizes that the seasoning is not the star, but the supporting cast. Bravo.
This fish reminded me of anything we would have eaten back home in South Louisiana. Perfectly cooked, simply seasoned and wonderful. And, for good measure, collard greens were presented slightly al dente (anyone growing up in the south is used to collard greens being boiled all day), retaining a hint of crunch and toothiness with just firm enough a texture to ensure that you know this wasn’t an afterthought. Bacon, garlic and a light sprinkle of chili flakes rounded out the greens – these were a great accompaniment for the fish, adding to the comfort of the dish without pretentiousness.
If I had known the collard greens were going to be so good, we might have foregone the Rapini, more commonly known as broccoli rabe. Once again, a wonderful execution with simple seasoning, shaved parmesan and a hint of spice ruled the day. My only issue, completely my problem, was that the Rapini and Collard greens were both so independent in flavor, full and redolent with their own aromatic overtones and slight taste bud clearing bitterness, that they fought with each other for dominance over my palate. Either, on their own, were a great greens accompaniment to any flavor forward dish. Together, they had my head spinning – I like that one better – no, that one – wait, that one… I was playing taste bud Twister.
Lucas informed us the Apple Almond Tart was a treat not to be missed for dessert. Not my first choice, but he hadn’t steered us wrong, yet, so Yep. The gluten free almond flour had a bit of a density to it. It was hearty, in the realm of a scone, with a weight that made it feel like it would comfortably satisfy a growing farm boy. Yet, it also had a light airiness to it as well, a delicacy that was slightly reminiscent of a brioche. The apple filling, well that was great, too, as was the house made ice cream. But, as is usually the case with great food, it is sometimes one or two components that make the dish memorable, while the other components, vital as they may be, form the basis for our recollection and historical reference.
Here’s the Rundown:
Ambience/Location – The restaurant is freestanding, situated in the back parking lot of Paradise Point resort. When we arrived at dinnertime, the parking lot was full with cars circling. However, people were coming and going, so five minutes was the extent of the parking hassle and the price was a bargain at Free. The restaurant and kitchen are open, clean and chic. The mood is light and casual, but in an upscale dining experience way.
Cost/Value – Expect to spend $50-$70 per person with an appetizer and cocktail before the main course. This is a great value considering the level of cuisine you are receiving.
Cuisine – Straightforward. Complex, but not complicated. When you order fish, it tastes like fish. Same with the meat and everything else we tried. All of the ingredients are enhanced and empowered with excellent technique and confident seasoning, not altered or disguised by supercilious adulteration.
This is a highly recommended dinner location for date nights, friend meetups, an affordable upscale dinner or special occasions. The menu and offerings are approachable and recognizable, and will be equally enjoyed by all from the foodie elitist to the meat and potato eater in the party. Cheers, my friends!
1404 Vacation Rd
San Diego, CA 92109