Chains are a very useful part of the restaurant ecosystem. They take a pretty successful meal ritual and repeat it the same way every time—no matter if you’re in San Diego or Des Moines. They calibrate our expectations, and then develop a system of meeting those expectations in bulk volume.
That’s why I tend to avoid them. With any experience, “specialness” gets weaker every time it’s repeated. Chains are the equivalent of middle-aged white men in funny wigs singing KC and the Sunshine Band. A widely acceptable, standardized dose of fun. Even if it wasn’t my job, I’d prefer to take my chances with restaurant free jazz.
I also tend to avoid heavy tourist areas. I don’t dislike strangers. It’s just that most tourists have unrealistic expectations of a city’s ability to delight them. They view locals as magical bridge trolls who—if asked enough of the right questions—will divulge the location of San Diego’s secret pleasure nozzle. No matter the quality or specificity of our answers, they will never satisfy their need for out-of-body leisure. Peyote has a better chance.
So the prospect of a wine-pairing dinner at Top of the Market, while by no means torture, didn’t seem like a voyage into the vanguard.
TOM only has two locations (San Mateo’s opened in 1982, San Diego in 1989), so it’s far from cookie-cutter restaurant imperialism. It’s the fine dining offshoot of The Fish Market (six locations), started by a sports fisherman in 1967. They’ve got their own seafood company, Farallon Fisheries. They’ve got two boats pulling fish from the water for their restaurants. It’s a vertically integrated seafood enterprise.
We show up on a Tuesday night before sunset. The place is jammed, and it’s not all tourists (tans among the sunburns). Someone’s making money here. We walk through the Fish Market. It smells like fish. We climb the stairs to TOM, and man there’s a lot of teak in here. Not an Edison bulb in sight. No hip slabs of raw building materials.
Chef Ivan Flowers now helms TOM, which overlooks the San Diego Bay, staring at the mighty steel clavicle of USS Midway. And Flowers is cooking beyond the usually safe, predictable, buerre blancishness of a “view” seafood restaurant.
Over a shot glass of lobster bisque, he serves a Blue Point oyster with cayenne-topped Champagne sorbet and a pinch of truffle-scented caviar. That dish’ll give you an inflated sense of self-importance, maybe even inspire you to wainscot a wall when you get home. Somehow, the truffle caviar doesn’t clobber the faint sea-floor charms of the Blue Point. Flowers’ deep water Maine black bass with grilled king trumpet mushrooms, roasted cipollinis and porcini aioli will also solve any lingering serotonin shortages. Wine director Anne Estrada smartly puts the heavy roasted flavors with a stronger 2009 LaRochelle Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands. His roasted lamb rack in an herb-Sherry vinegar demi glace is another winner (it gets a deep, dark, fruity Napa Petit Syrah—the 2011 Robert Biale “Royal Punishers“).
We don’t love the curry and lime-poached colossal shrimp (a tad too much meat for the flavor to penetrate)—although served over jaundice-yellow curry ice and the sheer Andre the Giantism of the crustacean, the dish would rake in the LIKES on Instagram.
Truth be told, in a six-course tasting, it just might have been the blue-collarest of dishes that floored us. Flowers’ “faux calamari” is simply roasted trumpet mushrooms, lightly fried next to crispy kalettes (a hybrid of kale and Brussels sprouts) and tossed in garlic, lemon, Parmesan and herbs. I could sit with a plate of those with TOM’s private-label German Riesling (2009), stare at the water and snicker at all the gross to-do-list neglect.
Maybe my chain phobia is a little too totalitarian and precious. Just because it doesn’t have a hip, new interior with fashionable raw materials jutting this way and that doesn’t mean it’s not a pretty great place to have a meal. After all, the gleaming ocean I’m looking at hasn’t undergone a redesign in a few million years, and it’s still relatively charming.
I head home to my water view-less apartment, reminded yet again it’s nice to be a tourist in your own hometown.