My wife and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary in mid-May when we went out to San Diego for our first ever visit there. We knew we wanted to do something nice for a meal that evening, even asking the concierge at the hotel we were staying at to give us suggestions. He gave us a couple three ideas, but during a walk around the historic Gaslamp Quarter in downtown San Diego, we came upon a restaurant that had its menu posted outside - Osetra. It was a combination Italian seafood/steakhouse/sushi restaurant with some pasta dishes, as well. We talked with a young lady who was standing out front about the restaurant and immediately made reservations for two later on for 7:30 p.m.
Since the summer of 2006, Osetra (named after one of the most sought after caviars in the world) has been serving patrons in their chic and contemporary setting at the corner of E Street and 5th Ave. in downtown San Diego. (see map) Restauranteur Alex Minutella and his partners were one of the first groups to open upscale restaurants in the Gaslamp Quarter, restaurants that included Osteria Panevino and Greystone Steakhouse. The group moved on to Las Vegas to open more restaurants including one of my favorites - Panevino (click here to see my entry on Panevino).
The young man who Minutella and his partners put in charge of the kitchen at Panevino in Las Vegas was Alberto Morreale, a native of Sicily who moved to Northern Italy to study culinary arts in Milan. Moving to the U.S. in 1995, he started as the sous chef at the Panevino in San Diego, as well as overseeing the kitchen staff at the former Trattoria Portobello restaurant in San Diego before moving to Las Vegas to open that Panavino location.
When the group sold their Las Vegas interests, Morreale moved back to San Diego to become the head chef at Osetra. He eventually became the General Manager and co-owner of Osetra, as well as becoming involved in other restaurants such as the Fig Tree Cafe in the greater San Diego area.
One of the things that Minutella and Morealle brought back with them from Las Vegas was the flair of theatrics - the concept of Wine Angels from Aureole at Mandalay Bay. These "angels" literally fly (via a wire harness) up to the top of a three-story "wine tower" storage unit in the center of the E-5 Lounge on the main floor of Osetra. We didn't see any wine angels flying at Osetra the night we were there.
We went back to the hotel to freshen up and change into something a little nicer than shorts for dinner and got to Osetra just before 7:30. We were greeted by a hostess who took us through the chic and contemporary lounge area and up a long set of stairs to the second floor of the restaurant. As we were going up the stairs, the hostess asked us if there was any special occasion as to why were dining with them that evening. We told her it was our 20th anniversary and she said, "Oh, that's great! Congratulations!" And that was that, or so we thought.
We were seated at a table next to a large window that looked out onto the Gaslamp Quarter. (The window tables on the second floor, I found out later, are prime real estate for patrons of Osetra.) Not long after dropping off menus for us, our server for the evening - a pleasant middle-aged man by the name of Andrea who had a thick Bronx accent - came over to greet us. He explained a few things about the menu and said he'd come back to let us know about the specials that evening in a bit.
I was looking through the wine list and I had to say that they were pretty proud - price-wise - of the bottles of wine they served at Osetra. We had decided on getting a dry white wine since we were leaning toward going with seafood. I ordered up a bottle of the Ferrari Carano Fume Blanc which was still rather overpriced (in my opinion), but better than some of the prices of other Fume Blanc wines they had. (Someone's gotta pay for those wine angels.)
And they're pretty proud of their entrees at Osetra - price-wise - as well. When they opened nine years ago, they were billed as the most expensive restaurant in San Diego. I don't know if that is still the case, but their prices were making a strong case that if it still wasn't the most expensive restaurant in San Diego, it was damned close. An 8 ounce filet steak was $46 bucks. A bowl of cioppino was $38 dollars. An order of jumbo sea scallops clocked in at a cool $40 bucks. I would have hated to find out the market price of the Alaskan king crab legs or the live Maine lobster they featured on the menu. But, hey! It was our 20th anniversary so we were going to live it up for the night.
I pretty much knew what I was going to get even before Andrea tried to tempt with a seafood and a pasta special that evening. I ended up getting the blackened ahi tuna for my main entree. Cindy ended up getting the sea bass on risotto. But before we got our entrees, we had a couple of things as a warm up for our meals.
Cindy got a bowl of Osetra's lobster bisque. The rich butter and cream broth had a hint of a spiciness to it thanks to the paprika with chunks of lobster coming up with every spoonful. For a garnish in the center of the bisque was a dollop of Tabiko caviar with some sour cream. After Cindy made a significant dent in the bisque, I had a couple bites and it was some of the best lobster bisque I've tasted. But it was very filling and Cindy was worried that if she ate the whole bowl, she wouldn't be hungry for her sea bass entree.
I got the wedge salad topped with crumbled Maytag blue cheese dressing. Of course, I had to tell Andrea that I grew up in the town where Maytag blue cheese is made and that the process of making the cheese smells ungodly. He wanted to know if it was the same people that made the washing machines. "Same family, not the same company," I told him. The salad wasn't large, but that was fine. There were copious amounts of the crumbled Maytag blue cheese on the salad with fresh chunks of tomato and real bacon bits. It was a nice start to the meal.
Our entrees came out and Cindy was amazed at the size of the chunk of sea bass lying on the risotto on her plate. The sea bass was covered with fennel and came with a side of grilled asparagus. The risotto was drenched in a pomegranate reduction sauce. The sea bass broke off into large flakey chunks and Cindy declared it to be absolutely delicious.
For a side, I got the wild roasted mushrooms mixed with truffle oil. I like mushrooms a lot - Cindy has detested mushrooms for years but has gotten to a point where she tolerates them, especially if they're fresh and not canned mushrooms. (She actually does like the morel mushrooms that grow in the Midwest each spring.) These mushrooms were thick cut and very tasty in the rich truffle oil sauce. Even Cindy liked them.
There was a problem with my ahi tuna, however. I had the impression that the tuna was going to have a blackened crust outer shell - at least that's what I was led to believe from the description in the menu. Earlier, I'd heard a lady at a table near us say to her server that she didn't think there was any blackening on her fish that she'd ordered. I began to sort of think the same way with my ahi tuna.
I had taken a couple three bites of the tuna and was sort of turning it around with my fork and knife. Cindy asked what was wrong and I told her that I couldn't detect any blackening seasonings on the tuna, either by sight or by taste. I sort of shrugged my shoulders and kept eating the chunk of fish because it was still very good and very fresh. When Andrea came over to check on us, I told him that I thought the chef had forgotten to put blackening seasoning on my tuna. "Not that it's a deal breaker," I said. "This is still an excellent piece of fish."
Andrea said, "That's strange. I'll have to go check with the chef on that." (I didn't want to tell him that I overheard a lady a couple tables over say the same thing.)
Now, I don't know exactly where the kitchen was in the restaurant, but I could hear Andrea and the chef directly below us over the railing talking about my ahi tuna. "I swear I put the seasoning on it," said a voice I assumed belonged to the chef. "This is the second person who says they didn't get any seasoning on theirs tonight." I just sort of chuckled when I heard that. Obviously there was a difference of opinion between the chef and his customers as to what constituted blackening seasoning.
Andrea came back to report and I didn't want to say, "Yeah, I heard." He said that the chef swore there was blackening seasoning on the ahi tuna. I said, "Look, that's fine. Like I said, this isn't a deal breaker. The tuna (I'd finished it by now) was excellent. I can't get a cut of tuna like this that is this fresh and tasty back home in the Midwest."
Cindy was having trouble finishing her sea bass. "My god, this is a lot of fish," she exclaimed as she sat her fork down with a small bit of the fish left on top of the bed of risotto. "I haven't hardly had any of the risotto or the asparagus because I've been concentrating on finishing the sea bass."
We'd both thrown in the towel - I couldn't even finish half the mushrooms even with Cindy taking a couple of bites. The wasabi mashed potatoes didn't quite have the forward wasabi taste that I thought they should have, but that didn't quite matter. I was more interested in the ahi tuna and the wild roasted mushrooms.
After Andrea cleared the tables and we were finishing up the last of the bottle of wine, a younger lady came to our table and identified herself as the manager. She said, "I understand that your meal was not to your liking..."
I cut her off and said, "Oh, god, no. It was fabulous. I was just under the impression that a crust of blackened seasoning was just that. Like I told Andrea, it was far from a deal breaker."
The hostess who sat us obviously told her that we were there for our anniversary and the manager said, "Well, I understand that it's your 20th wedding anniversary. Congratulations! We'd like to make it up to you for not only your dinner but because of your special day." She proposed free desserts for us and we just sort of groaned. We were both so full from our meals that we couldn't possibly eat any more.
Then the manager started to go through the list of desserts that she had. When she said that she had creme brûlée I sort of jumped. "You like creme brûlée, I take it," she said to me. I said that I did, but there was no way that I could eat creme brûlée in the state of overeating discomfort that I was in. Then she mentioned they had tiramisu and Cindy's automatic question at any restaurant where they serve tiramisu - is it homemade tiramisu? "Yes, it is," the manager replied. "We make it fresh here every day." I sort of shook my head knowing this would be a big mistake. The manager said, "Let me get you a piece of our tiramisu to try, on the house."
Well, when Andrea came out he not only had a piece of the tiramisu with a small candle sticking out of the middle of it, but he also had a bowl of the creme brûlée. He said, "We decided to give you both. Congratulations on your anniversary. Enjoy!"
The tiramisu was rich and fabulous, as was the creme brûlée. Cindy's a big fan of strawberries and the slices on top of the creme brûlée and surrounding the tiramisu were very fresh. It didn't cost them much out of pocket for the free desserts, but the gesture was deeply appreciated.
There was no way we could finish either one of the desserts, but we enough of a dent in them to figure out that both were very good. Our whole experience for dinner was one that was very memorable - not only for the fact that it was our 20th wedding anniversary but because everything was very good. The food, the service, and the atmosphere were all superb. Even the scene below as we gazed out the large windows after the sun set and the lights took over the streets was riveting. It was pricey - yes. But even with the question about the blackening seasoning, everything was great. Osetra was a great find and one we'll remember for a long time.