Osetra the Fishhouse
By David Nelson
SO WHAT PLAYS IN VEGAS stays in Vegas? That’s what they’d like you to think. It plays just fine in San Diego, too. Restaurateur Alex Minutella and his partners are the savvy Sicilians who came to the Gaslamp Quarter in the early days and gave the neig hborhood a boost by opening Osteria Panevino. They later created the more upscale Greystone the Steakhouse, then ventured to Las Vegas, where their eateries—now sold—included a Panevino clone. Since what goes around comes around, they bought a building at the corner of Fifth and E, hired a big-time Vegas designer to create a big-time look, borrowed a few ideas from hip Strip joints and debuted Osetra the Fishhouse (their spelling, not mine), which is arguably the most expensive restaurant in San Diego and has done a booming business since opening in early summer.
It’s the conventions, get it? Among patrons of events at the San Diego Convention Center are firms that routinely entertain large groups with open-handed extravagance. Lavish? Oh, yes. Some firms’ policies dictate spending not less than $150 per person. This explains why Osetra, with more than 200 seats on two floors, declined to take reservations one Sunday night in mid- September. “We were bought out for a private party,” explained the hostess. By sunset, a couple of fancy “palm trees” confected from white ostrich feathers flanked the doorway like Vegas showgirls advertising the good times inside.
On the sturgeon caviar scale, osetra ranks second, with beluga the most select and sevruga in third place. At Osetra, 1-ounce servings ($150 for the beluga, $90 for the others) are accompanied by crisp crostini as well as the traditional garnishes of blini, capers, crème fraîche and minced egg and red onion. Purists take caviar straight, often with iced vodka.
The opening pages of the menu may inspire some guests to check the wallet to make sure they brought the platinum credit card. Except for a trio of salads at $10, most starters cost $15 (admittedly, Osetra asks only $14 for clams steamed in Thai-style red curry broth). The choice offerings begin with just-opened Malpeque, Fanny Bay and Hama Hama oysters. They go on to a seafood “Napoleon” that layers rice with lump crab, salmon, spicy tuna and avocado, and then to the huge, expertly cooked Chugo shrimp, which, after soaking in a spiced marinade, take a quick tour of the sauté pan, bed themselves on tender tatsoi greens and bathe in a curry-flavored coconut cream sauce.
The portion satisfies nicely, and while Osetra’s prices impress, the restaurant gives value for the dollar. Luxurious rather than creative, but unquestionably satisfying, the shellfish platter for two ($34) offers a sizable bounty of top-grade king crab legs, Maine lobster, Mexican white shrimp, oysters and clams, with a selection of sauces that includes a respectable red and a very good shallot-vinegar dip. Otherwise, open with a fennel-infused “white” chowder of clams, bacon and vegetables ($14), or with a ritzy lobster salad ($18) dressed up with chive remoulade.
THE SCENE MAKES OSETRA. Manager Nick Tomasello, often the only guy in the place wearing suit and tie, scurries through the premises with a walkie-talkie embedded in his ear, directing hostesses where to seat the next group of conventioneers. Locals are there, too, and the knowledgeable ones have booked upstairs, where a flotilla of flying fish (hanging glass lamps, actually) constantly change shades from clear to green, yellow and hot pink, as if to disguise themselves from the well-heeled predators who jam the room.
Big windows overlook the Gaslamp, but this isn’t the view that counts. Some years ago, the terrific Aureole restaurant at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas introduced a show-stopping “wine tower” that servers scale to retrieve fine vintages. What Aureole did well, Osetra replicated better. The several-story edifice of steel and glass—tiny bubbles stream upward through water-filled columns on the corners —is the restaurant’s focus, and its ability to lubricate expense accounts probably has no peer in San Diego. She flies through the air with the greatest of ease, the daring young sommelier on her electric winch. As she gathers bottles like a 1999 La Tiche from Domaine la Romanee- Conti ($1,500; there are also sweet finds like a $40 King Estate 2001 Pinot Noir), the men chilling cocktails on the solid-ice bar down below talk football—but gaze heavenward.
Since Osetra is “the fishhouse,” check the seafood pages of the menu first. The Maine lobster-stuffed “wonton” ($29), pasta packages served in a tasty, vegetablegarnished mushroom broth, are flavorful and fun, and the macadamia-crusted scallops with seared foie gras and a creamy vanilla bean-walnut-tangerine sauce offer an exceptional range of flavors ($35). The market-price lobster dish named for the restaurant was $85 one night, so who knows, but the tempura-fried tail served with a lobster roll and drizzles of sauces sounds pretty good.
The titles don’t always match the preparations: Dover sole ($38) is listed as “Belle Meuniere” but is breaded and includes capers and mushrooms in the sauce. This may be excellent, but it’s more complicated than true sole à la meuniere, a method devised to let this fine fish do all the talking.
Another French classic, bouillabaisse ($42), featured all the right flavors but lacked the rouille (garlic-and-cayenneaccented mayonnaise) that the menu promised alongside. Served on a vast square plate, it was a construction of fish and shellfish in a tomato and saffron-enhanced rich broth. A head-on prawn topped the dogpile of clams, plump mussels, lobster and assorted mild fish (salmon may be included, which is out of place in bouillabaisse, so tell the server to delete it if you object). The presentation also lacked a shellfish fork and a side plate for the shells. These were brought when requested, and their omission, along with that of the rouille, was lamented by a talented server who otherwise made the dinner a very pleasurable experience.
Alternatives to seafood include a bargain- priced, stuffed chicken breast in white-wine sauce ($25), along with heavy hitters like a 1-pound veal chop nicely finished with brown sauce and Gorgonzola cheese ($38), and a boneless, 22- ounce ribeye steak dusted with herbs and crumbs, grilled and sided with cottage fries and green beans ($35). The insistence on giving each meat its very own garnish—such as the grilled white asparagus and Madeira sauce assigned to the market-price Kobe beef filet mignon— is a good indication Osetra intends to employ more than flying sommeliers to keep the customers coming back.
Osetra serves dinner nightly in the Gaslamp Quarter at 904 Fifth Avenue in San Diego. Reservations are strongly advised; call 619-239-1800.
Osetra the Fishhouse
location: 904 Fifth Avenue, downtown
chef: José Trinidad