Nov. 21 2011 07:41 PM

Fish burgers and beet salads highlight San Diego's local bounty

Sea Rocket Bistro's all about the fish.
Photo by Jenny Montgomery

In the three years since Sea Rocket Bistro opened its doors, it's settled into a cozy little groove. The glowing dining room has the effortless warmth of your favorite TV neighborhood eatery.

I love the jolly line cooks, visible when you first walk into the space, shouting a welcoming “Hello!” or a “Thanks for coming!” as you leave. I'll admit to being easily bewitched by stylish details like the fish-shaped bottles of still water that keep you hydrated while eating. But there's a playfulness to Sea Rocket that's not overly self-conscious about style and trends. Food is the focus, specifically local seafood. Sea Rocket has become one of the key players in San Diego when it comes to knowing where your fish-as-food comes from.

Since chef Chad White joined the Sea Rocket crew earlier this year, they've expanded their dining options to include a zany-sounding brunch with unexpected options like fish cakes with a crudo gravlax. I still like eating fish for dinner, so I dragged the whole fam damily with me to take another look at what's going on in the North Park dining room.

Since the focus is on wild or sustainably caught seafood, the menu's going to have whatever is freshest. The swordfish looked great the night we showed up, but it's on the list of “things pregnant ladies are banned from enjoying.” The four other people in my party made lots of hearty nods and “mmmm” sounds while eating it, and I enjoyed the soft, sweet squash and brown-butter cream sauce in which the fish lay.

I really dug the fish burger, though the presentation demands a bit of maneuvering. The hefty piece of yellowtail is actually a long, skin-still-on steak that looks and tastes beautiful, but if you're not into fish skin, you'll have to do some peeling, followed by strategic cutting to make the whole thing fit onto your bun. That wee bit of effort may be frustrating for some diners. The burger is lovely, however, with a sweet tomato confit and a “sauce gribiche,” which is a fun way to say “aioli,” which is a fun way to say “mayonnaise-like garlic spread.”

The appetizers on the menu are, of course, dominated by ocean options, but you'll also find well-curated cheese boards and seasonal salads highlighting the best of San Diego's local produce. Look for the beet salad: a deep, bloody-purple cylinder of still al dente cubes of beet, garnished with fresh orange segments and a horseradish sour cream. The plate was colorful, seasonal and downright zingy on the tongue.

The sautéed bay scallops are a beautiful pile of tender nubbins of the sea, paired with fatty chunks of bacon and a huge smear of whole-grain mustard. After a few minutes digging into this plate, the juice from the scallops mixes with the cream of the mustard and the salt of the bacon and turns into something rich and decadent.

“Rich and decadent” could also apply to the dessert I tried, though the menu is mostly limited to Pub Cakes (tasty treats in their own right). After an evening of briny entrées, cleansing my palate with a double-caramel bread pudding seemed like the right thing to do. Although, Monday evening or no, it did seem like a bummer to the other patrons that by 6:30 p.m., I was told I got the last one. Sorry, suckers.

Sea Rocket Bistro is no Peach Pit, but it does feel like the sort of warm, neighborhood place where people will quickly grow to know your name.

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