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DAVID NELSON ON RESTAURANTS

Omni Hotel Dining Rooms Serve Inexpensive, Familiar Fare

December 24, 1987|DAVID NELSON

It might strike one as a touch odd--and even a bit surprising--that a major hotel chain should invest heavily in a striking edifice in downtown San Diego without setting a clear direction for its formal dining room.

The new Omni San Diego Hotel, the pink Post Modern wedding cake that with its numerous public rooms provides both a handsome and a useful finish to the northwest corner of Horton Plaza, has vigorously set about capturing a local clientele for its casual Cafe California and its equally casual City Colors discotheque. The briskly marketed draws in both of these rooms are inexpensive, familiar foods, aimed apparently at a nondemanding clientele.

The hotel's formal room, Festival (which a brass plaque at the entrance proclaims to be "a culinary celebration"), looks to be the quintessential, late-1980s hotel restaurant. Airy and softly colored, and utterly lacking in the heavy solemnity that often made the hotel dining rooms of other years seem rather forbidding places, it appears to have been designed as a restful, well-appointed retreat for the deserving business traveler.

Pleasant Decor

But the menu suggests rather strongly that from the beginning, the Omni decided that a pleasant decor was enough. This menu is acceptable, at least to anyone whose palate is utterly unadventurous (let's be honest--it's boring ), and seems not much elevated above what might be found in the roadside chain hotels of many Midwestern and Southern towns.

To what causes might one attribute a formal menu that takes its main shots with dishes like shrimp cocktail, oysters Rockefeller and roast prime rib of beef? Possibly to a lack of sophistication on the part of the management, but more likely to a lack of interest in serving a really good cuisine. As a third theory--and this may be the correct one--it is possible that the Omni felt a formal hotel room downtown would not get the necessary local support. Among evidence in favor of this last is the astounding fact that Festival does not serve lunch. In downtown San Diego as in other major cities, the grander restaurants tend to enjoy a highly profitable lunch trade thanks to the bankers, lawyers, arbitragers, etc., who find a well-set table an impressive stage upon which to make deals. That the Omni makes no effort to attract this clientele is remarkable.

Curious Combination

One might not notice this curious combination of circumstances were the barquette of scampi the sort of dish that leaped off the plate into the mouth, or were the poached salmon in caper and leek sauce a fine rendition of a classic peasant concoction from the lower Loire Valley. Such ain't the case, though; the preparation and presentation, in keeping with the tone of the menu, are utterly and thoroughly middle-brow.

The quality of the preparation is uneven, although by and large the dishes are likely to be acceptable if unexciting. The kitchen rather surprisingly turned in both its best and worst performances in the soup department, doing nicely by the soups du jour while sending out a catastrophic seafood gumbo that was sent back almost as quickly as one could say New Orleans. Listed on the standing menu and billed as "Cajun style," this purported gumbo had the texture (hard to believe, but it's true) of pureed baked beans, and an unidentifiable flavor that only hastened the speed with which it was returned to its makers.

To its credit, the kitchen replaced this concoction with a light, pleasant cream of crab brightened with flecks of minced bell pepper, which along with the hearty, flavorful tomato bisque of another visit proved that the kitchen can make soup when it wishes.

Uneven Dishes

Among other starters, Festival's success rate was equally uneven. A special appetizer of tortellini in a watercress sauce sounded promising, but the tortellini were chewy and tough--not qualities that one anticipates in these stuffed pasta pockets--and the watercress sauce, although fine in itself, seemed rather uneasily paired with the pasta. Much better was the plate of carpaccio (thinly sliced raw beef tenderloin; Festival uses an admirable, lightly smoked version) garnished with aioli , a creamy, garlic-laden mayonnaise to which the kitchen added a lively note of lemon. The salads were well-presented, fresh and crisp, and the simple garden green salad with the house honey-mustard dressing made a pleasing enough introduction to the entrees.

The entree list, like the rest of the menu, seems to have been designed from a primarily utilitarian viewpoint that regarded feeding the troops to be more important than amusing them. The French overtones are just that, overtones, aimed at conveying a Contintental air while costing very little in effort and virtually nothing in imagination.

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