The grunion were running the other night on the sand across from the new The Boathouse restaurant in Pacific Beach.
As the silvery fish frantically belly-flopped across the beach, they seemed oblivious to everything but nature's firm decree that they be fruitful and multiply. But an observer looking down from the restaurant's terrace could not help but wonder if the grunion, split, breaded and sauteed, might not have been superior to one of The Boathouse's $19.95 orders of breaded abalone.
This new Boathouse, the fourth in a local chain, replaces the landmark Halligan's, which for years occupied one of the premier restaurant sites in the county. Little has been done to alter the decor, but little was required; the place is most attractive, and its view of the Pacific is almost unrivaled. This asset is almost enough to ensure the restaurant success, and it seems to have had that effect, because same-day reservations are difficult to obtain even on such traditionally slow days as Monday.
The Boathouse chain, like Piret's a member of the Vicorp specialty restaurants company, has grown rapidly in the last year, expanding from its base on Harbor Island to include outlets in Encinitas, Grossmont Center and now Pacific Beach. The new Encinitas outpost was reviewed in this column in August and was found wanting, especially because the servers there had been trained to perform rather than to serve; they delivered excruciatingly long monologues about the food, which rarely was able to live up to their loving but painfully exaggerated descriptions.
The waiters mercifully talk less at the Pacific Beach outlet, but from the restaurant's point of view it probably would be best if they were to keep their mouths shut at all times. In this case, there would be less room for gaffes--such as the waiter calling the salad dressing a "Caesar-style honey lemon" simply because it contained raw egg--and less opportunity for the waiters to deliver information that the restaurant might prefer that the guests not know.
On one occasion, a guest attempted to order the clams casino appetizer, which the menu describes as being prepared with "fresh shucked little-neck clams," but was denied this dish on the grounds that clams were unavailable that day. He then ordered the seafood fettuccine as an entree, and was astonished to find it garnished with clams cooked in their shells. When asked how a restaurant that was out of clams could find a few with which to garnish a plate of pasta, the waiter let slip the startling information that The Boathouse does not use clams for its clams casino, but rather New Zealand cockles, and cockles simply were not to be had that day!
"A lot of people don't like the sound of the word 'cockles,' so we call them clams," said the waiter, adding most ingenuously that calling cockles clams is not "an out-and-out lie, but just a mis-truth."
A lie indeed it is, and one that seriously calls into question this restaurant's overall sincerity about its cooking. If The Boathouse wishes to serve cockles casino, let it be honest about this dish.
Let the waiters be more honest about the dishes they recommend, too. On two recent occasions, the waiters accompanied the presentation of the specials cards with spiels about dishes they recommended, ending their speeches both times with the information that the abalone was "the finest dish on the menu." They instead should have said that it was the most expensive dish, a fact not susceptible to dispute. But the finest? Only if one likes a paper-thin disc of abalone wedged between such heavy layerings of breading that the shellfish virtually disappears.
The Boathouse specializes in seafood, but offers plenty of meat dishes as well. Since the three of this chain's outlets that sit near the water primarily specialize in peddling the view, the seafood emphasis seems merely an act of form following proximity, and there appears to be no wish to alienate those tourists to whom finned creatures seem best left in aquariums. The simple steaks, prime rib and such were left unsampled, and may or may not make the grade, but the veal Oscar special certainly left much to be desired. This classic dish calls for sauteed veal scallops to be garnished with crab, asparagus and sauce bearnaise. The thin slices of meat (the waiter carefully described them as being cut from "Wisconsin milk-fed veal") were rather tough, the sauce Bearnaise was amateurish, and the asparagus spears were crunchy and raw-tasting. The crab certainly was apportioned generously, but to score only one point out of a possible four is no great achievement.
A broiled breast of chicken marinated in teriyaki sauce came off well, as did a pan-broiled slab of Hawaiian ono, and a similarly cooked piece of swordfish.
The Boathouse, like almost every eatery in town these days, makes quite a fuss over its rendition of blackened redfish (it uses bass, which doesn't quite fill the bill), and does indeed serve up a dark, highly spiced chunk of fish.