Restaurant Review: Sea180
Getting lost in the shuffle at a nice waterside restaurant
800 Seacoast Drive, Imperial Beach
Huli Huli Chicken
Grilled King Salmon
Imaginary hot potatoes have it rough. No one wants to handle them, so they’re avoided and shuffled about. On two nights at Imperial Beach’s pretty seaside dinner spot, Sea180, we’re the hot potato.
Sea180 in the Pier South Resort was a big deal when it opened late last year. Imperial Beach hasn’t had a notable restaurant opening in—well, I’m not quite sure when the last one was. Even the deep mine of history has an end. This isn’t a slag on the beach community that once played physical and spiritual home to the quasi-spiritual, quasi-druggie HBO series John From Cincinnati. It’s a compliment. I.B. locals I know are proud to occupy the unincorporated fringe. Erect your shiny newness elsewhere. Keep I.B. weird. It’s like Austin, Texas, minus all the smoldering steer.
So commercial development in I.B. is a delicate art. Even if an architect designed a giant three-dimensional tattoo you could dine in, I.B. locals would say they tried too hard. Fringe funk is earned over time, not built. Marriott made the right decision casting the resort as a minimalist, sandstone-and-white, LEED-certified entity. They invited San Diego’s well-respected and massive Cohn Restaurant Group to run their signature restaurant, which is perched over the boardwalk. What Sea180 gives South Bay locals is an upscale place to soak in their ocean view. It’s the Tower 23 of I.B.
And for the last year people have told me pretty much the same thing: “What a great place. You need to go.”
Green Flash martini
Our first night, we’re politely shown to a patio table. What a view. The I.B. pier on the left, the Coronado Bridge far off to the south. The sun dipping into the Pacific.
We are left for 10 minutes to behold this view without a hello or water. Finally, we flag a server down and ask for a little help. The nice young man offers to take our drink order while he figures out who’s responsible for us. We’re confused about the nightly drink specials; he is equally confused. Still, we manage to order two drinks.
A few minutes later, he brings over the server who’s assigned to us.
“Shift change,” he says to explain the bumpy start to our night.
That’s fine, shifts change. (Though, in an ocean-view restaurant, is it wise to change them directly after sunset?) Another five or so minutes go by with no drinks. We finally ask our new server if our old server placed that order. He leaves for a few minutes, returns to inform us nope. We order again. It’s now almost 20 minutes into our night.
The second night, our party is asked to take a seat near the bar while we wait for one of those beautiful patio tables. We sit in a high-traffic area. Each server nearly brushes arms with us on their way to the patio. Again, we sit thirsty, foodless, and completely ignored for 10 minutes, at least five of which we have that pleading look people get when forgotten or unloved. When the answer to “How long can it possibly take?” seems to be “Longer than you’d think,” we flag another server.
We ask if maybe we misunderstood and should be ordering at the bar. No, she says, a bartender should come over. She flags one down. He doesn’t really look us in the eye as he drops a few menus. No perfunctory apology for leaving us high and dry. No raving about his favorite drinks. He drops menus and walks off. We hope he comes back.
On a busy night, or an understaffed night, service this jumbled makes you feel empathy for the team. But both nights there seem to be more employees than patrons. There are two hostesses. Two bartenders joke with each other at a relatively unpacked bar, doing side work. No fewer than six servers are bunched by the kitchen door, conversing. They seem to have populated the room with bodies, but not given them much of a script. Which is surprising, since the Cohn Group excels at systems. With thousands of employees, they must.
There’s also something curious about Sea180’s setup of its greatest asset—the oceanfront patio. Tables are luxuriously spread apart. Each gets its own acreage, it seems. Which sounds nice until you’re told there are no available tables on the patio at sunset—when clearly there is room for 20 more tables. I’m sure there’s a practical reason for it. I ask our server. He thinks it odd, too, but has no explanation. Couldn’t they at least put out chaise longues or deck chairs with drink service for the sunset hour?
On our first night the food is, sadly, right on par with the service. The East-West crab cakes (Baja stone crab and Chesapeake blue) have a relatively decent flavor with jicama salad and cilantro-lime aioli. But the texture is mush, which usually means someone handled the cakes a little too energetically (like a stress ball). Our lamb sliders with toasted cumin aioli, harissa marmalade, and house-cured tomatillo pickles show up overcooked and disconcertingly dry. We open the bun to discover the issue: someone forgot the aioli. The Korean BBQ pulled pork flatbread with hoisin sauce and house-made kimchi? Sounds great. Only there’s a tar pit of hoisin (soy-sugar-vinegar) sauce, making it taste more like a vinegary Nutella dessert with meat on it. And that’s not even the bad part. The housemade kimchi has such a strong, floral ginger flavor that it tastes like something a sophisticated older woman might spritz on her neck rather than eat. It’s so off-putting that we nearly fight over the shrimp and faro “risotto” because it’s the least offensive of the bunch, with nicely crisped shallots and loads of cheese.
Executive chef Ken Irvine is well-respected for his years of work at his own restaurants like Bleu Bohème and Chez Loma. I have to believe we’ve come on a night when he’s not in the house. Or deep in paperwork. Because if he tasted our food, there’s no way it would’ve made it past the kitchen door.
A manager asks how we like the flatbread, and we tell her honestly. She immediately offers to take it off the bill and removes it to the kitchen. Very nice and professional. But when the bill comes, it’s still on there; we have to ask to have it taken off. This is a pure systems problem. On a busy night, there will be chaos and anger-tears.
Lamb osso bucco with creamy rajas peppers
Night One is a near perfect disaster. I really start to root for them on Night Two.
And, despite the inattentive opening, our Night Two server is very friendly and knowledgeable. And the food is drastically better. The pineapple-teriyaki sauce on the Huli Huli chicken sounds like it might be overwhelmingly sweet, but it’s not. Chicken thighs offer a much more flavorful, juicier bite than breasts, and the steamed bamboo rice is excellent. One of our party is a devout salmon lover, and the grilled king salmon is cooked very well in roasted chile-lime butter and watermelon salsa. The seven-hour lamb osso bucco is juicy, tender in its red wine sauce. The inclusion of rajas peppers—a creamy Baja treatment of peppers—is a tad overkill, making it a sauce atop a sauce. But just the lamb with parsnip crisps is very good.
Quite honestly, it tastes like Irvine is in the kitchen.
In the end, Sea180 is a very nice place to watch the sun go down. If they know you’re there.