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DAVID NELSON ON RESTAURANTS : Cafe's Menu Dominated by Healthy Serving of Hype : THE WATERFRONT CAFE & CLUB : 1960 Harbor Island Drive, San Diego : 293-3581 : Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily : Credit cards accepted : Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, $20 to $50

November 23, 1990|DAVID NELSON

Some of us grow nervous upon opening a menu and finding a heading that reads "appe-teasers."

When the eyes flick edgily to the listing of "pasta-bilities," the palms of the hands turn indisputably clammy, and one's mood cannot grow less darksome upon encountering a sandwich section titled "breadside manners." There's something about cutesiness on a menu that gives the stomach a case of the willies.

The menu in question belongs to the Waterfront Cafe & Club, the new restaurant at the Travelodge hotel on Harbor Island. It's a most attractive, extravagantly decorated place, with tables arranged on stepped-up levels so that all have a view of the adjacent boat moorings.

The thing about the Waterfront is that, like so many cute restaurants, it expends its energies attempting to persuade guests that they are having a good time, rather than simply giving them one. It attempts in every way except the ones that count--namely cooking and service--to create a mood of excitement, but form without substance almost always fails, as it does most signally here.

Much of that excitement, if the term really applies, derives from the karaoke sing-along machine in the adjacent cocktail lounge. (A karaoke machine plays music while simultaneously displaying the lyrics of the chosen song on a television screen.) This device was rarely unemployed during the course of a recent dinner, and singers good and bad (very good and very, very bad, in truth) alternated with such songs as "Earth Angel," "Folsom Prison Blues" and "You've Lost That Loving Feeling."

The menu's cover imitates a nautical newspaper, and, in a world in which little is unique, the front page is at least one-of-a-kind in San Diego. It consists of three columns, one devoted to extravagant praise of "concept technician" Federico Falco, who is quoted as saying that he has developed "a unique restaurant experience" with the Waterfront, a claim that would be difficult to dispute. (A restaurateur might be better equipped to cater to our needs.)

The second column lavishes equal praise on chef Brian Devine, whose not very innovative menu includes such offerings as fried squid, linguine in clam sauce, a Philadelphia steak sandwich and veal in lemon sauce.

The third and most startling column describes the happy and fruitful relationship between the restaurant and its public relations firm. Just what this has to do with ordering an enjoyable meal is difficult to understand, but since the intent of the Waterfront seems to be marketing rather than sincere food service, this may be quite appropriate.

The appetizer list, such as it is, offers such items as "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," which means fried baby squid, and "Neptune's Nuptials," described as "A marriage at sea between pristine clams and mussels. What a steamy affair."

If "Fishy, Boston Chowder" sounds too daunting a starter, there is the "Garden of Eaten,"' which translates as a salad bar of modest proportions. This was stocked with a minimum of greenery on a recent occasion, and, although it included an adequate array of vegetables and garnishes, it was nothing like the salad bars that California made famous.

This menu rolls merrily along with Caesar, spinach and tuna salads--the fajitas salad is less in the common vein--and fettuccine Alfredo, spaghetti carbonara , pasta quattro formaggi (to give these dishes their proper names, which the menu does not) and a pair of pizzas. Among the sandwiches are prime rib on a roll, a club and a steak sandwich that was sampled and found forgettable. The cutest item in this general department, although it appears under its own heading, is the hamburger. This creation costs just $5.95, but the menu promises to serve burgers for two with champagne for $45.00. The romance of this could provoke goose bumps on a sultry day.

Among the entrees, the lamb cutlets stuffed with Mozzarella, prosciutto, mushrooms and onions actually does sound rather novel. There are also a fish of the day, a salmon of the day, a stir fry of beef, chicken or seafood with vegetables, a chicken breast with artichoke hearts in cream, and prime rib. The "Star Shrimps Enterprise" is described as "deep fried shrimp scampi," which seems indeed a mission that could be achieved only by the Star Trek crew. Shrimp scampi consists of shrimp sauteed with a good bit of garlic and usually a little white wine. It can't very well be deep-fried. What the Waterfront serves are batter-coated shrimp, not bad for their kind but not exceptional, either.

The menu lists several desserts, which are not made on the premises. But if one needs something sugary, one can always slouch over to the lounge, warm up the karaoke and treat the gang to "New York, New York." It's a sure crowd-pleaser.

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