Admit it: San Diegans are a pretty lucky bunch. Not only are we perpetually spoiled by beautiful weather and beaches galore, but we also have the freshest food around, much of which is literally grown in our backyards. In a city that boasts year-round farmer’s markets and a countywide appreciation for the seasonal and sustainable, there’s really no excuse to not eat fresh… and what’s more fresh than raw food? Untainted, uncooked and as natural and wholesome as the land/sea intended, the raw treatment highlights delicate flavors with minimal ingredients and artful preparation. So in that regard, we scoured Downtown to Del Mar, tasting countless ceviches, sashimis, tatakis, tartares and dozens and dozens of oysters just to get you the scoop on the freshest fare. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. Below are our picks for San Diego’s Top 9 Tartare & Raw Bars.
In a quaint, cute cottage with a little blue sign is some of the best Peruvian food in San Diego, maybe even Southern California. Owner/Chef Bratzo Basagoitia is serving up Peruvian mainstays like aji de gallina, lomo saltado, empanadas, and alfajores, bringing us border-dwellers even farther south to the often overlooked and underrepresented food of South America, whose influences are an interesting mix of Spanish, Italian, Cantonese and even Japanese. Bratzo and his wife Daniella bought the café in 2009 and slowly, subtly introduced Peruvian dishes to the menu and to Del Mar…four years later and they’re a full-service restaurant with a loyal following, a number of accolades (voted “Best Ceviche”), and a sister market called Secret Pantry down the street.
The big secret behind this place is the warm, intimate atmosphere and the 100 percent authentic cuisine. All the salsas, aiolis and ceviches are made from scratch and nothing comes from a can. Fresh fish is brought in daily, and most everything is made in the traditional way, albeit any minor adjustments made for those who are gluten-free or spicy-averse; the kitchen is completely accommodating. “I just wanted to share the flavors of my childhood memories, ” said Bratzo, with passion and heart.
Chef prepared a number of their famous ceviches for us, from the Tiradito— a delicate dish of sea bass in a light passion fruit sauce with scallions and sesame seeds—to the Pulpito, which consisted of octopus dressed with truffle oil, olive tapenade and walnuts. However, Bratzo’s (and my own) personal favorite was the Mixto ceviche, a colorful cornucopia of everything under the sea: sea bass, halibut, shrimp, scallops, mussels and octopus, served with plenty of cilantro, onions, aji (chili peppers), and choclos (Peruvian corn). We also had the shrimp causa, a spicy Peruvian potato stack layered with shrimp and avocado and topped with langoustine, and washed it all down a refreshing chicha morada, or sweet, sangria-like purple corn drink. Delicioso!
Brian Malarkey may be taking over the culinary universe, but there is no doubt that the reigning eatery in his textile-themed empire is Searsucker. Quirky and playful is the overall approach, both in food and décor; animal art like an Americana bull sculpture and taxidermy surround reclaimed wood and rope fixtures while vintage letters spell “EAT” over the bar. This location is also a bit more family-friendly than the original Gaslamp location with its distinctly separate dining areas—the bar is separated from the main dining room, and there is an additional outdoor patio and private dining room. But the food still has the same tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that made Searsucker and the like so beloved. Example? The tuna poke, which is plated in the curving and fluid shape of a fish.
First we had the beef tartare with quail yolk, pickled salted radishes and rustic potato chips. Then, the aforementioned poke, which had fatty, sumptuous pieces of ahi tuna with macadamia nuts and pomegranate seeds and swimming in Sriracha ponzu vinaigrette. Topped with shaved radish and a side of taro chips, this dish was an amazing mix of spicy, sweet, nutty and umami. Another beef dish, the Kobe beef Carpaccio with truffle oil and shaved Parmesan, was prepared by rolling up the beef, seasoning with Sichuan peppercorns, freezing, lightly searing on the outside, and then slicing paper-thin. And the final fare was a bit lighter: a shrimp ceviche and a colorful Hamachi salad with watermelon radish, cucumber and tamari sesame oil.
On the upper level of the Del Mar Plaza is Pacifica Del Mar, a seafood restaurant with a long history and gorgeous ocean views. Pacifica doesn’t mess with success: its classical approach is tried and true. “We try to remain true to our kind of food and not fall victim to trends or being en vogue, ” Executive Chef Stephanie O’Mary-Berwald said, who has been the executive chef for a little over a year after working at a number of high-profile restaurants. “Food trends come and go and so do restaurants, but Pacifica’s been around for 25 years.” Seasonal, sustainable, and fresh as can be, along with outstanding service, is surely the reason behind its longevity.
An open-air, ocean-facing patio is the perfect frame for Pacifica’s menu of “globally inspired food with a focus on local seafood.” The three dishes Chef prepared for us were an exercise in simplicity and a light but thoughtful touch: a Hamachi Carpaccio was mostly left on its own but brightened up with small slivers of avocado and grapefruit and dressed with a little fresh wasabi and house made ponzu. The tuna tartare had a variety of textures, but again, highlighted the tuna in the most beautiful way, with just a few pine nuts for crunch and avocado wasabi mousse for smoothness. And the oysters on the half shell boasted three types, from large to small. The smallest, the Kusshi oyster, was the sweetest and least briny; the biggest oyster, the Blue Point from New York, was the most briny and oceanic-tasting; and the medium-sized Malpeque was, of course, right in the middle. All three were served with the definitive oyster accompaniments—mirin mignonette, wasabi cocktail sauce, Tabasco and lemon. Clean, simple and delicious.
We think it’s safe to say that Island Prime/C Level Lounge has the best views in town, bar none. Perched on Harbor Island Drive, this Deborah Scott-run restaurant is right on the waterfront and has an encircling glass wall revealing the entire panorama of San Diego bay. With downtown to the left and Point Loma to the right, the ocean view is breathtaking, and the food, almost as much. Sous Chefs Alex Valdez and Andy Churchill describe it as “Rustic Americana.” Not quite fusion, but not quite classic, the fare here melds the traditional with the modern with a large emphasis on seafood. Guests have the option of dressing up (Island Prime) or dressing down (C Level Lounge). Either way, there’s no bad seat in the house (although we do hear there is a best seat: Table #26. Plan accordingly.).
Valdez, who has worked in kitchens all over San Diego, and Churchill, whose previous stints include cooking on a Norwegian cruise line, prepared three, beautifully presented dishes for us: a ceviche, tuna stack and oysters (of course). The ceviche of marinated tilapia circled around a tortilla-encrusted avocado, while the oysters—Californian Grassy Bar oysters and the archetypal Fanny Bay oyster—were huge. But it was the tuna stack, a triple layered tower of guacamole, ahi tuna tartare and crab salad topped with a mango papaya salad and micro arugula that was the true winner in this trio. The complex and colorful dish looked like a party on a plate with its house made taro and plantain chips and smatterings of tobiko (flying fish roe), sweet chili sauce and chive oil garnish.
At first visit, Blue Point Coastal Cuisine might evoke the buttoned-up vibe of ‘50s supper clubs, and that wouldn’t be far off. It is the type of sophisticated, white tablecloth establishment where couples get engaged and people celebrate big milestones. And yet, it is equally as modern with a menu that changes quarterly to reflect what’s freshest and most sustainable. The only constants on the menu are the oysters, of course, and the high levels of quality and service. “We try to be fine dining and refined without being pretentious, ” General Manager Brian Olson said—classy yet approachable. Blue Point doesn’t follow trends, because it is the trendsetter, having been Gaslamp’s first seafood restaurant and raw oyster bar. They once tried to go the route of high-end with a celebrity chef but it “didn’t fit our mission, ” a mission that is instead achieved with the highest quality ingredients and a total transparency about where these ingredients come from. This transparency came about because of rampant “fish fraud” within the industry, where mislabeled fish cheats consumers into thinking they’re eating (and paying for) one thing, when it’s usually another. Blue Point, in an effort to curb this, recently put QR codes at the bottom of each menu that, once scanned with a mobile device, will direct diners to information on their seafood sources. It’s a step in the right direction for true sustainability, and one that every restaurant should follow suit in.
In regards to the food…well, of course we had to try the oysters! Olson is an oyster-eating fiend who won last year’s annual Shuck ‘N’ Swallow Oyster Eating Competition by devouring 153 of the plump mollusks with the help of his Blue Point oyster shuckers, so he showed us the proper way to eat an oyster (Thumb, facing mouth, unlodges oyster out of shell. Slurp and consume.) Three different mignonettes accompanied the oysters: red wine vinegar, ginger sake and chipotle. Chef Joseph Jackson also prepared a few other decadent dishes that really illustrated the elegant comfort of their menu. Albacore sashimi was served with a wakame seaweed salad, while the albacore tatami shined with hints of Meyer lemon and sumo citrus tangerine to bring out the fish’s flavors. The scallop tartare, however, was unlike anything I’ve ever tasted; topped with ikura, or salmon roe, and drizzled with a little extra virgin olive oil, which was all it needed to illicit “oohs” and “ahhs.” And the rich, buttery salmon tartare used salmon from the Faroe Islands, where extremely cold waters yield some of the highest-fat-content salmon in the world. Topped with fried parsley, lemon aioli and a side of parsnip chips, their food is always on point.
Still bemoaning the closing of the beloved Kensington Grill? Well, have no fear, for Fish Public is here! Fish Public, the new venture from the Urban Kitchen Group that spawned Cucina Urbana, is a fish joint headed by Executive Chef Jordan Davis. This new kid on the block is like your laidback, Sperry Top-Sider-wearing younger brother; servers wear chambray shirts while maneuvering around an airy space that looks like a Nantucket beach cottage. Seaside colors, fishing net fixtures, whitewashed walls, and cute vintage touches like fishing lures and shells all serve to accentuate the New England theme.
The food is just as easygoing as the atmosphere. Sous Chef Cesar Sarmiento prepared a yellowtail poke marinated in soy and honey, and was served with house made kimchi, dry nori powder and soy-toasted Rice Krispies! The salmon tartare was topped with an Asian pear and charred radicchio salad and served with a side of crostini crisps. Next, the Beau-Soleil oysters were served on a bed of rock salt and nothing else, kept naked to taste the delicate brininess of this particular variety of Canadian oysters. But it was the little, unexpected surprises like the Rice Krispies, or the lime and chili popcorn that was served with the Ceviche del Dia (made of rockfish, Serrano chilies and red onion over an avocado mousse) that made the fare almost seem like elevated street food: unpretentious and totally fun.
With cheeky rolls like the “Bomb James Bomb” and the “Miso Harney, ” Harney Sushi in Old Town is as cool and hip as sushi places get. They have everything: classic nigiri for the traditionalists; deep-fried, sauce-smothered rolls for the adventurous; and entrees (categorized as either Ice, Fire or Graze) for the sushi-phobic. “Sometimes purists complain about Americanized rolls…but if we’re going to Americanize, we’re going to make it sustainable and delicious, ” said Co-Owner Kirk Harrison, who runs the front of the house. His buddy, Co-Owner Dustin Somerville runs the back, with Executive Chef Robert Ruiz at the helm, and together, they created one of the only sustainable sushi restaurants in the country (and San Diego’s very first) with strong community ties and a history of philanthropic partnerships—just ask for the stories behind the Nami, Pirate and Hope rolls, all of which were created to promote and benefit community causes. In fact, Harney hosts a roll contest every year for their chefs to compete for their place on the menu and a $500 prize. Getting people involved is important to the Harney crew, whose menu includes a number of items either inspired by or named after staff members or regular customers. Harrison himself is a veritable seafood encyclopedia who remembers where every piece of their fish is sourced. Makes sense, considering Harney’s most intriguing program: edible QR codes. In collaboration with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), pieces of printed rice paper adorn dishes like a dollop of eco-conscious caviar. Each little scan links guests to the NOAA website, where they can learn more about fish fraud.
After taking Harrison’s crash course on sustainability, we decided to taste the results of properly fished seafood. We ate the “Happy Kampachi, ” made from premium sashimi-grade yellowtail raised in the pristine Kona Kampachi farm of Hawaii, and the “Unwritten Lawbacore” (named after local band Unwritten Law), consisting of big slices of albacore tuna with a hot roasted garlic and green onion sauce. The Sustainable Sushi Sampler introduced me to two types of fish that I had never even heard of before: black cod, Harney’s environmentally-friendly substitution for unagi since eel is one of the least sustainable species; and cobia, also known as the “pork chop of the sea.” The “Rolls Royce” is stuffed with shrimp tempera and asparagus, topped with tuna sashimi and drizzled in a garlic ponzu “money sauce.” The “Orange Crush” is like a hyped up Philadelphia roll, filled with cream cheese, shrimp tempura, and spicy tuna and topped with salmon, lemon and their infamous faux-nagi sauce.
The Asian lounge on Prospect St. is known for its unbeatable happy hour (half-priced tapas!) and trendy ambiance. Named after Japan’s Roppongi district, it imitates the stylish, funky vibes of the colorful Tokyo neighborhood known for its nightlife. And just like the décor, the food is equally exotic, a fusion of Old World European and Pacific Rim that will satisfy any palette. Shareable plates with large portions make it easy for the indecisive, and a concentrated focus on the seasonal by Executive Chef Michael McDonald ensure that the menu stays up-to-date. And of course, there’s sushi and an extensive wine and sake list to beat.
Chef Alfred prepared a few of their tapas, and these dishes packed strong, assertive flavors. The ahi tuna poke was a traditional, slightly spicy poke in a classic Asian marinade of sesame oil, sesame seeds, soy sauce and green onions. It went perfectly with the crispy wantons and pea shoots. The seared ahi tuna was crusted with Zahar, a traditional Middle Eastern spice blend made from thyme, sesame seeds and sumac, and was served on a bed of wakame seaweed, Persian cucumbers and a miso vinaigrette, the coolness and freshness of which counteracted the spicy and salty tuna. Finally, the Hamachi Tacos, a crowd favorite, embodied the fusion concept to its core. A crispy corn taco shell cradled the Hamachi, which was mixed with Sriracha and sesame oil sauce, along with an avocado puree, diced mangos and micro cilantro. Enjoy these by the outdoor fire pit with a nice sake, and your evening’s on a roll.
Even if you’re not a fish fan (although we sincerely hope you are, because you don’t know what you’re missing), you’ve probably heard of The Oceanaire. Considered not only one of San Diego’s best seafood restaurants, but one of the country’s best seafood restaurants, the Seafood Room is a true establishment with a reputation for VIP-worthy fare. It continues to deliver seafood and service set to the highest standards. At the Oceanaire, it’s not just about the food; it’s about the experience as a whole. Our city boasts the only West Coast location in The Oceanaire family…but we like to think we have the best location of them all.
Chef Brian Bonney served us the Skuna Bay Salmon and Avocado Tartare, with fresh chives, thyme, shallots and fried capers. His second dish, the Big Eye Tuna Poke, was a little less conventional but equally refined, with a wasabi emulsion, seaweed salad, wonton chips and green onions. The ahi poke itself was tender and fresh, and mixed with a combination of togarashi (Japanese Seven Spice powder), soy sauce, sesame oil and Sriracha. If sleek and sophisticated is your game, this is the place to go.