Saturday, August 16, 2008

Sea Rocket Sputters

I was a fervent fan of The Linkery until they moved into their new, much larger space and decided to do ass-hat things like charge for ice tea refills (I think the charge for Kara's ice tea alone was $15 on our last visit!) while providing much slower service than at their old location. But, I'm still willing to give Jay the benefit of the doubt and I do plan to go back again in a few months, well after the growing pains have eased and they're more comfortable with their new size.

Unfortunately, I can't say the same for Sea Rocket Bistro, the restaurant that took over The Linkery's old location at the corner of 30th and Upas. I love seafood. I could eat seafood every single day and never get tired of it. So, naturally, I was ecstatic that a new seafood place with the same values that The Linkery espouses was moving in as soon as The Linkery moved up the street. And, it was natural that Kara and I tried the place during the first week it was open. My impression at the time was that the food was quite good, but the service was unbearably slow. I chalked this up to both the restaurant being brand new and this also being the restaurateurs' first restaurant. We left that first meal convinced that the place had real potential and that we would return after it had been open a few months to allow the owners some time to work out the kinks.

Sea Rocket opened their doors in June, had their "Grand Opening" in July and then had two favorable reviews last week in both the San Diego Reader and San Diego City Beat. So, I figured, now was the time to go back and try again. We tried again last night and we have no plans to return ever again.

First, I was disappointed they were out of the seafood paella, which looks quite good. But, I can understand that when you use only local sources and you're running a small restaurant, you will sometimes run out of stuff. After scouring the menu, Kara and I both decided to order small: we both ordered the Green salad, mine with the scallop topper and Kara's with the sardine starter, all served at the same time. I ordered a lemonade and Kara ordered an ice tea and we had a carafe of water to drink as well.

The water and the lemonade were both brought to the table in a timely manner, but the ice tea took much longer to come. (Perhaps they had to brew the tea, I don't know.) Then, the waiting began and we had to wait a very long time for our dinner to show up. I could excuse this if the place was busy or if they were short-staffed, but they were only half-full and looked to have 4 servers for 6 tables. I mean, seriously, how long does it take to make a salad, saute scallops on the rare side and grill up some sardines? The longest time might have been to prepare the sardines... but that could not have been the case (more in a second on this). I think we waited at least 30 minutes for the food, during which time I almost finished my lemonade and we drank most of the water.

The food did come, finally, and while the salad and the scallops were delicious, something seemed wrong about the salad. I quickly remembered how the salad was lovingly described as containing fresh figs from a North Park garden and, since I love figs, I was really looking forward to the salad. Hell, I decided to order the salad based on the figs. But, there were no figs in this salad and, instead, the salad had dried cherries, the kind you might buy in a sealed plastic bag from Ralphs. I summoned our server and asked about the figs and she said something like, "oh, they must have forgotten to put the figs in the salad, I'll go check in the kitchen". Seriously, WTF? How do you forget the main ingredient and worse, substitute with a vastly inferior product? The server did return shortly with a small bowl with a sliced whole fig, which was as delicious as I expected it to be, but it just seemed an incredibly careless mistake to make. Putting that aside for a moment, let me return to the sardines.

Kara is not the fish lover that I am. She likes fish, though and she wanted to be adventurous, so she selected the sardines. Now, I had read raving reviews of the sardines and I expected that they would be at least as great as the grilled green bean in ginger soy sauce (yum!) at The Linkery. I also understood that they were whole sardines on a skewer, but neither Kara nor I had much experience with whole fish. No big deal, I stopped one of the employees that was walking nearby (I think it was one of the owners) for some help. I explained that this was the first time we had ordered the sardines and we asked her the best way to "eat" the sardines. I can't believe no one has ever asked this question (hell, I think I read in one of the reviews last week that the reviewer asked the same question), and she seemed mostly bothered by the question, although she did offer some help, suggesting that we slip a knife or fork down the side to remove the fillet from the bones. Not the best attitude, but it was an informative answer and Kara and I had one each of the three sardines. I liked it well enough, Kara less so, but neither of us could understand what any of the raves were about. It was a messy proposition with little flavor and little meat once you took off the skin and bones. I liked it more than Kara, so she offered the third sardine to me. I took it, ate a little bit of the meat and immediately sensed that I had eaten the "bad" part of the fish. It tasted soft and bitter, so I slid the whole thing open and quickly realized that half the fish was still bloody and uncooked!

I had gotten the impression that the place had two signature dishes, one was the sea urchin (which I don't much care for) and the other was the sardines. So, how the frak do you mess up your signature dish by not cooking it, especially after it took half an hour to get it to the table in the first place? Once I realized that the fish was uncooked, I also realized that there was a small puddle of fish blood on the plate. We stopped our server, pointed out the problem and they offered to either replace the dish or take it off the bill. Since Kara had lost her appetite at the sight of the uncooked fish and fish blood, I asked that they remove it from the bill.

I should also mention that the sardine dish is described as being "on a bed of greens and lima bean salad". I'm sorry, but a single 1 1/2"-diameter piece of lettuce does not a bed of greens make.

By now, we were both discouraged and ready to leave. We had also been out of water for about 10 minutes and, even though we had stopped servers three times for problems with our meals, none of them had noticed that our water was empty and we were too distracted to notice until we were already thirsty and waiting for the check. I could say that we skipped dessert (which we did) and left quickly, except nothing quick happens here. The various servers passed the bill and my credit card sitting on my table a few times before noticing it was there and picking it up.

As I said at the beginning of this review, we will not be returning to Sea Rocket Bistro and I can't recommend it to anyone. Some of the food (the salad ingredients and the scallops) might have been really good, but the food preparation and wait staff are both severely lacking and have only gotten worse since they opened, not better.

1 comment:

  1. Ray,

    Sorry about your experience at our restaurant. Just a few comments on the issues to help you understand them and let you know we hear your feedback loud and clear.

    We generally serve the salad with dried figs and cherries, but one of our regular customer dropped off some figs from her garden and we decided to put them on the menu that same night. That probably didn't get communicated to everyone in the kitchen since the change happened so fast. This has been a big challenge for us when bringing in various local ingredients and rapidly incorporating them in to our menu.

    The sardines should have been cooked more, and we've also had a lot of feedback (as well as when I eat them myself), that the guts are too bitter even when they are cooked more. In Portugal, they leave the guts in, but I started to prefer them without the guts, and comments from customer have been the same, so we've been considering removing the guts and also adding an acidic or salty lemon zest sauce to them. Removing the guts would solve the cooking problem since they would be thinner and be cooked in the middle before being burnt on the outside. We've been doing the sardines with the guts in for awhile, but it's only been recently that we've had enough comments to think that removing them is probably a good idea.


    I'm not sure why no one refilled your water or didn't pick up your check right away. Better table service and service times have been a huge focus for us in the past weeks after comments that we got early on. The only thing I can think of that would contribute to all these errors is that your ticket could have not been processed correctly from the beginning, the kitchen rushed through your order to get it out fast when they realized this (didn't cook the sardines enough and forgot the new fig addition to the salad because they were rushing), then the server got thrown off when he or she found out about the problems with the food and it just spiraled downhill from there. Obviously this shouldn't happen, but it did and I'll work on improving the system and training at the restaurant so that the chances of it happening go down.

    We (and most restaurants) rarely bat a perfect game over the course of an evening, and it sounds like we did a really bad job for you on Friday. We put comment cards on the tables and got a lot of positive comments on Friday, so I don't think it's systemic, but it obviously it needs more work.


    Thanks for your comments and we'll continue working on this to make this restaurant a fun and enjoyable experience for you and the community.

    --Dennis
    dennis@searocketbistro.com

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