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Restaurants & Bars 5

808 in San Diego, a quick snapshot

Jim Strain | Apr 21, 200301:59 PM

Well, we went to dinner Friday evening at 808. As it happened, my employer closed down a little early to let everyone get an early start on coloring eggs, so I called and made an early reservation for 6:30. No problem. Valet parking is mandatory at night, and costs $4 *with* validation (plus a tip for the retrieving driver). I had noted the parking fee a few weeks ago when we ate at another restaurant in the Aventine complex, so I was expecting it. If I'd been caught by surprise, though, I think I might've been annoyed.

As we entered 808, the first thing I noticed was the battalion-strength staff, many of whom seemed to be trying to look busy. There were only a couple of people at the bar, and there may have been two occupied tables. Even as early as we were, I would have expected to see a few more diners. I was told that the place has been open for about six weeks, but I haven't seen any reviews yet, so it may be that there isn't much buzz yet to attract a bigger clientele. This space, tucked between Aquarella and Fleming's Steak House, has passed through multiple incarnations and redecorations since I had last visited here, so it was all brand new to me.

It wasn't until last week that I realized that the place is named after the telephone area code for Hawaii, but don't look for any grass skirts or aloha shirts. The feel of the place is much more reminiscent of Osaka than of Oahu. With the understated decor, conservative brown and black upholstery and dark wood accents, I felt like I was entering a very upscale restaurant in Japan.

We had scarcely sat down when the maitre d' brought each of us a welcoming lagniappe -- a dumpling stuffed with a pureed mushroom/eggplant mixture that was so beautiful in its presentation, I thought Iron Chef Sakai must have been working in the kitchen. But besides being pretty, it was absolutely delicious. Just two small bites and a perfect way to start our dinner.

For openers, we ordered a bottle of Callaway Viognier ($32) from the shortish wine list, and a "Dim Sum sampler" ($14.25). The appetizer was presented on three plates tiered on a metal rack that reminded me of the way take-out restaurant dishes were delivered in Japan when I visited there long ago. The 808 version was visually interesting, but initially presented the recipient with a dilemma as to how to handle it. The top-tier dish was a "Prawn Shumai" that was liberally decorated with what appeared to be some large roe that looked like little eyeballs. The predominant taste was a strong ocean (fishy) flavor, which might have been okay, but if you're expecting prawn, it's definitely off-putting. It was the one dish of the night that was less than a success. Next on the dim sum "tree" was shrimp and scallop gyoza. This one was a winner with a subtle flavor that blended the two named ingredients into something entirely new and much more subtle than I would have expected. Finally, the bottom dish on the tree was lobster ravioli -- a small, but savory bite. This appetizer was perfectly adequate for the two of us to share, and in fact, I later noticed someone at a neighboring table eating it as her main dish. It would have made a good light supper for one person.

There were two soups on the menu, and we ordered a bowl of each ($6.50 ea). The Thai lobster soup was made with coconut milk and had several bite-size pieces of lobster adrift in the center of the bowl. This is a HOT soup, more than worthy of its Thai inspiration. It was also delicious. I don't know how they did it, but somehow the taste of the lobster was intact and completely unaffected by the chile-infused broth. The Jerusalem artichoke soup was a bit thicker, but still quite light. It included (drum roll) truffles -- there were actually a couple of razor-thin fragments of the black things -- a first for me. I don't know if the truffles supplied the dominant flavor of the soup, but it was different than anything I'd had before, and in a word -- yumbola.

808 bills itself as a seafood restaurant, and the menu included a nice cross section of Pacific fish, from Opah, to Mahi-Mahi, to Pacific Red Snapper, to something called "Hawaiian Butter Fish." There was also a seafood risotto that, from its description on the menu, looked really sumptuous. I think the highest-priced main dish was $27.00 and the least expensive was 18-something. On the strength of the waitress' recommendation, I ordered the grilled Mahi-Mahi with fried onion garnish and a cream sauce ($24.50), and Di ordered the Monkfish ($23.50). Both main dishes were top quality and very well prepared. The Monkfish, however, came with some roasted potatoes, and grilled scallions and haricots verts. I don't want to convey the wrong idea (everything was good), but those string beans were *fantastic*. They were dressed with some sort of vinegar (rice wine?) that also incorporated some harmonious Asian flavors. They were the unlikely supplier of the "Wow factor" of the main course. I could have eaten a plate full of them.

The dessert menu is short, and while not boring, all of the selections were familiar fare. If we'd managed to resist the soup and appetizer, we probably would have tried the liquid-center chocolate cake or the bread pudding, but we were both too full to consider it.

808 isn't cheap. Our dinner check, exclusive of tip, was $115.56, but we were both very impressed with the skillfully done food and the friendly, attentive service. By the time we left, the place was doing a bit more business, but not nearly as full as a restaurant of this quality should have been on a Friday night. Overall, I felt that we'd only scratched the surface of a menu rich in potential. We'll surely be back to continue exploring -- as soon as I can save up for it. ;-)
. . jim strain in san diego (La Mesa, actually)

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