1404 Vacation Road,
Chicken liver mousse
Baja stone crab pasta
Resorts often name themselves something like Bliss Bluff or Rapture Range. Then you arrive to find weeds in the swimming pool and the restaurant’s concept to be apathy. As a native, Paradise Point in Mission Bay lives up to what I feel is San Diego’s unique brand of nirvana.
The 44-acre resort was built in 1962 by Hollywood producer Jack Skirball. He wanted to make it into a South Seas movie set of sorts. An 18-hole, real-grass miniature golf course lines the entrance. There’s all kinds of tropical foliage. Domesticated beggar ducks (and turtles) swim in a man-made lagoon, jonesing for crumbs. Vacationing families swarm the area on rental bikes. The rooms are made of cinder blocks and the lobby smells like old wood. If the professor from Gilligan’s Island stopped failing and finally invented something that turned him into a very wealthy man, he’d probably create an island getaway like this.
But the charm, especially, is that it doesn’t put on airs. San Diego has newer resorts. Even after Paradise Point’s recent $20 million renovation, there are much glitzier ones. But the San Diego I love is not a too-manicured, upper-crust, don’t-touch temple of expensive décor (see Laguna Niguel). It’s laid-back. It’s unstarched. It may or may not have brushed its hair.
That is what I love about Paradise Point. It’s beautiful, in a funky, approachable, open-toed way. And that’s exactly how it feels sitting on the patio of its newly renovated restaurant, Tidal, watching the sun dip into the vacation rentals lining Mission Bay. There’s a man with a nice watch and a $100 haircut. There’s also a man with a tank-top, tattoo, and garage band that’s thinking of firing him.
The restaurant—formerly Skirball’s private residence—got a big overhaul, too. I’d visited during its last incarnation (Baleen), and the lacquered woods and tropical wallpaper had a distinct Magnum, P.I. feel, minus his cool. The redo is a modern, rust-pearl-and-blue interior. It’s a drastically improved, raw, cleaner treatment. I would’ve loved to have seen them make it a completely indoor-outdoor space (on a blistering summer night, they kept the patio doors closed), but everyone has wants.
Despite the nice improvement, this is a tale of two restaurants. The main attraction is the patio, with one of the best waterside sunset views in the city. If you’re not sitting outside at Tidal during the summer, you’re doing it wrong (request it when making a reservation). The interior room, while very nice, is simply upstaged.
The story of Tidal’s rebirth is intimately tied to the reemergence of a talented San Diego chef, Amy DiBiase (pronounced “bias”). It was in this same room a few years back that a diner hired her away to open his new Point Loma bistro, Roseville. Despite rave reviews, Roseville eventually closed and DiBiase took a few gigs (Glass Door, Cosmopolitan, The Shores) that really didn’t highlight her talent. Now she’s back, and she’s the headliner.
A proper meal at Tidal should always begin at the bar. San Diego’s Snake Oil Cocktails designed the menu, and it’s one of the best I’ve come across. The Paducah Punch (Larceny bourbon, Pimm’s, maple lemonade, ice smoked with cherry wood, peach-mango tea foam) is a career-making drink. The foam is a highly pleasurable experience in and of itself. Down in the bourbon, the melting ice releases its smoke, altering the experience. If well-loafered and angling for a boat drink, get the tropical Monkey See, Monkey Do, with Cana Brava rum, smashed banana, cilantro, dandelion and burdock bitters, orange and honey soda. Tastes like a piña colada minus the morning-after regret.
TO THE POINT: Con Pane sourdough epi plate
TO THE POINT: Con Pane sourdough epi plate
For DiBiase’s menu, start with the bread. It’s not free, but it’s phenomenal. Con Pane sourdough epi (the classic French picnic baguette) is served with olive oil, beet hummus, and blood orange-fennel butter. I would spend days on a park bench eating nothing but this hummus, butter, and bread until nutritional apocalypse knocked me dead. Further exposing herself as a Francophile, the chef has a selection of 10 world-class cheeses (Humboldt Fog Grand, the pungent Red Hawk, etc.).
Not a known disciple of restraint, I order the chicken liver mousse with aged balsamic and strawberry-black pepper jam. Liver mousse is hard not to like, but DiBiase’s is bruleed for sheer pleasure overload—and that spicy-sweet jam is excellent. We find her bay scallop and shrimp cocktail a touch too sweet with both passion fruit and taro. But her Venus clams are all that is right in the world, a lighter, West Coast riff on chowder with a puree of salsify (a root veg with an artichoke-oyster flavor), green chile oil, and lardons lurking everywhere. DiBiase’s panzanella (bread salad) shows her appreciation for the stand-alone power of SoCal produce, with a real light touch of the basil pistou over cucumber, grapes, and delicious mozzarella bocconcini.
Smoking salmon belly is a risk. Belly is so flavorful because it’s the fattiest cut. Fat absorbs flavor. So it’d be easy to make her dish taste like a campfire. And yet this appetizer has just the right whiff of smoke, with the juice from roasted red beets bleeding into a nice horseradish cream and generous scattered mounds of roe.
Open up: Venus clams
Open up: Venus clams
We have mixed results with our entrees. During one visit earlier this year, our ricotta gnudi with braised lamb was an unqualified winner. But the current version suffered from a poor-quality lobster that the dish couldn’t compensate for, even with a very good English pea puree and a deftly executed gnudi (with ricotta-Parmesan-marscapone). I’d rather have the Baja stone crab pasta with chive, cracked black pepper, and Meyer lemon butter—a lesson in well-executed simplicity. The first bite of the pork cheeks is phenomenal, with perfectly tender meat sweetened just right in apricot-lavender glaze and—oh, no. Without question, someone flubbed the measurement on the lavender. The perfume is oppressive, grandmotherly. It’s too bad, because the meat is delicate pink and the apricot flavor of the glaze is spot on.
TOUTE SWEET: Strawberry rhubarb tart
Service both nights is perfectly gracious, but not perfect. Unneeded dirty silverware is left lingering, orders for more water are forgotten, and the small kitchen doesn’t move at breakneck speed. But they’re nothing but welcoming, and there’s not a snob in the bunch.
Dessert here is a must. Everything about the strawberry-rhubarb tart is right, especially with fragments of mint in each bite setting off both the sweet berry and the vanilla gelato. I admit to not loving chocolate desserts, but DiBiase’s chocolate stout whoopie pie with hazelnut made me nostalgic for the small Massachusetts town I didn’t grow up in.
Even with the occasional misstep, DiBiase and her staff are cooking at a level most restaurants would be very lucky to reach. When she nails a dish, it’s in an elite class. And dinner on her patio is one of my favorite, uniquely San Diego things.
Photography by Sam Wells