Where the Surf Meets the Savory
By David Nelson
On a good day, the waves boom like muted cannon each time a rolling swell hurls itself against the massive boulders. Sometimes the deflected spray dashes straight for your face, only to splat abruptly against the intervening glass pane that stretches from table height to ceiling. No matter—the spray that goes away will be caught up and tossed back by the very next breaker. And in an era bereft of floor shows, this high-kicking revue, put on by the blue Pacific with relatively few intermissions, is much appreciated.
A meal at a window table at Charlie’s by the Sea in Cardiff by the Sea is a quick reminder of the raison d’être behind the vast migrations filling San Diego County: A seascape lifts human spirits in ways that are more easily felt than expressed. Dining by the sea is a luxury we all want to enjoy from time to time, but for all our miles of coastline, it is one not that easily realized, since restrictions on coastal building have resulted in a paucity of eateries within spray’s reach. And at times, those few beachside places we do have served a brand of cuisine that has ranged from the indifferent to the execrable.
In former incarnations, Charlie’s sometimes belonged to the category of restaurant that specialized in sizzling sunsets and lukewarm fare. But with the kitchen under the direction of chef Derek Ridgway, Charlie’s by the Sea now ranks as the sort of place where the contents of the plate usually are as engaging as the action beyond the windows. A San Diego native, Ridgway first gained attention in 1986 when he opened Silas St. John, a restaurant that may have been a day ahead of its time and, in its Kensington location, evidently seemed inaccessible to more than a few locals.
For Charlie’s by the Sea, Ridgway has written a menu that features primarily contemporary cuisine, with enough longstanding beach favorites (creamy New England–style clam chowder and a version of rice pilaf every bit as gooey and ghastly as beach tradition dictates) thrown in to satisfy die-hards. And based on several visits, the fare fares better when Ridgway is in the kitchen. For example, an appetizer of crab cakes ($6.50) decorated with both a mild beurre blanc–type sauce and a spicy, reddish, ancho chili sauce was perfectly enjoyable on an occasion when Ridgway was on duty. Alternate dips into the two sauces brought mild and sharp accents to the crisp, briny-sweet cakes. But in Ridgway’s absence, the kitchen sent out a pair of hockey pucks, with the sauces swirled together so that the resulting mess tasted like buttery ketchup.
Ridgway tempers his contemporary impulses with a bow to tradition, which explains why the straightforward and most enjoyable prawn cocktail ($6.95) is paired with a standard cocktail sauce as well as a chipotle aioli, which is to say a garlic mayonnaise heated with chiles. Such sauces are very, very trendy, and with good reason, since they present explosive flavors in a creamy, tongue-soothing context. The calamari appetizer ($6.50) is sautéed rather than deep-fried and is served with an engagingly pungent beurre blanc sharpened with lemon and capers. A mustard vinaigrette adds a certain panache to the luxurious grill of prosciutto-wrapped prawns ($7.95), and the mussels ($6.95), steadily gaining popularity in these parts, appear steamed in a brightly flavored, somewhat spicy tomato-pepper sauce.
Among salads, the toss of butter lettuce and hearts of palm ($4.25) is given a good, novel flavor by the addition of toasted walnuts and a basil-flavored blue cheese dressing. Perhaps accidentally, more than the usual amount of lemon juice went into the creamy, well-dressed Caesar ($3.50), with the result that this popular—but often mishandled —dish had a really sharp, crisp, wonderful flavor.
The menu nicely balances seafood and meat dishes, and includes a couple of pastas simply because in the 1990s the restaurant that ignores pasta does so at its own peril. One of Ridgway’s innovations that comes off well (although the menu description suggests a dish that could be a roll of the dice) is the sautéed scallops crusted in chopped macadamias ($16). Topped with toasted coconut and a mango-flavored beurre blanc, the dish is on the sweet side, but it offers rewarding flavors and that tender-crisp play of textures that is so valued in seafood preparations. This is served with the house rice pilaf, a valiant effort that surpasses some but remains a sticky mess; be plebeian and ask for French-fried potatoes instead, since these are a vast improvement over the rice. (Only canned spinach would not be an improvement over the rice.)
Ridgway’s mixed grill ($19) is a mixed bag, a contemporary surf ’n’ turf ’n’ chicken-coop trio starring a lamb chop that has yielded its innocence to a strangely flavored, theoretically Hunan-style glaze. Joining it on the plate are a ginger-marinated chicken breast with a somewhat different Asian inspiration and a somewhat better flavor, and very pleasant shrimp dressed with tarragon butter. The roasted, herb-coated lamb chops ($18) seem a better idea altogether, as do the oak-smoked prime rib with horseradish mashed potatoes ($14 and $18, depending on the size of the cut) and the grilled New York sirloin ($18) with shiitake mushrooms and a chile-fired Zinfandel sauce.
For pasta, the menu presents porcini-stuffed ravioli in a delicious, sharply flavored cream sauce ($10) and fresh linguine topped with "blackened" prawns in a tangy blend of tomatoes, capers and garlic ($15). Rice pilaf returns as a side for the Maine lobster tails ($29) finished with a tarragon-shallot butter; this dish seems intended primarily for those diners who must eat lobster when at the seashore. Quite preferable in the seafood department are the grilled salmon fillet with artichoke hearts, fennel and roasted peppers ($17) and the meaty, nearly raw tempura of Hawaiian ahi ($19) with a delightful ginger-wasabi sauce.
The dessert list quite removes any lingering resentment that might have been caused by a brush with the rice pilaf. Among the stars here are a clever bread pudding doused with a blueberry-maple syrup sauce ($3.95) and a juicy lemon tart packed with pulp and flavor ($4.95). As a tribute to traditional beach dining, the dessert bill of fare continues to include a rich, high-rising ice-cream pie ($3.95), a dish that has been a house specialty since well before Derek Ridgway had his first glimpse of the Charlie’s kitchen.
It was while enjoying one of these sweets that I suddenly realized my many years as a restaurant critic in San Diego County have inured me somewhat to the smiling, pleasant, truly awful service that has become standard at eateries plain and fancy. At Charlie’s by the Sea, this realization dawned when I noticed that the waiter had brought the desserts without troubling to remove the bread basket, the dirty bread plates, the empty wineglasses and other detritus that should have been whisked away before the dessert order was taken. This is standard practice hereabouts, and I didn’t blame the waiter, since, like most of his brethren in the local trade, he simply did not know better.
People who have not been trained in the basics of good service (and cleaning the table properly is very much a basic) cannot be blamed for their ignorance, no matter how regrettable it may be. The fault lies directly with managers and proprietors, whose responsibility it is to see their employees properly trained—and who mostly exhibit an utter lack of interest in the subject.
Perhaps it is time for San Diego diners to establish a summer camp for managers, at which they can be drilled in the methods of training their staffs. Until then, look forward to more sincerely friendly but shabby service.
Charlie’s by the Sea serves lunch and dinner daily and Sunday brunch at 2526 South Highway 101 in Cardiff; 942-1300. Reservations are advised.