The small, locally owned Dini's chain, which long ran the historic McDini's on Market Street, has moved up-country and upscale by opening the new Dini's By-The-Sea in Carlsbad.
The old McDini's, founded in 1890, was San Diego's oldest bar, and generations of former patrons recall its corned beef sandwiches with wistful affection. While the new place has none of the funky charm of the old McDini's, and none of the lived-in feel of Dini's flagship eatery in Del Mar, it nicely projects its own personality, which comes from its laid-back clientele and location across from the sand and surf.
The restaurant occupies airy, brightly decorated quarters in a newly constructed time-share resort, and the service, interestingly enough, is relatively more attentive and less given to cloying bonhomie than at places on the sandier side of the coastal highway.
A Pleasant View
The view is pleasant but not overwhelming, which means the management has to pay more attention to what goes on the plate than do those beachside restaurants that basically rent tables by the hour. This attention seems somewhat distracted, however, by a lively bar scene, and, as a result, some dishes make the cut and others don't.
Rather like the script of a 1960s beach party movie that has been updated and re-shot for an '80s audience, the menu is a pretty familiar compendium of California's indigenous and unique beach cuisine, with new twists (such as fish available in "Cajun" and Szechuan adaptations) added as a tip of the cap to a slightly hipper generation.
An example of the old style would be the light brown rice pilaf that can garnish any entree and is ubiquitous at beach restaurants from Point Loma to Monterey. No matter where it is served, it always tastes the same--as though it were originally concocted by someone who had no immense affection for rice. Examples of new classics (a beguiling oxymoron ever applicable in the restaurant biz) would be the calamari fingers and sashimi plate offered as appetizers.
The appetizer list includes many things that would go down just as easily at the bar as at the table, such as oyster shooters, ceviche and potato skins. The Cajun shrimp, derived from the phony new school of purported Louisiana cooking that is virtually without virtue, were not a steal at $6.95. Basted with a rather sad mixture of oil and cayenne pepper, these large, plump prawns (in themselves first-rate and worthier of better treatment) were somewhat burned on the grill and had a decidedly unpleasant taste. Used with other seasonings, cayenne can act as a catalyst and make flavors blossom; by itself, it is merely a source of heat.
The situation improves with the soup-or-salad course included in the price of entrees. Salad plates brim with a generous selection of honest greens and vegetables, garnished with croutons made from rolls left over from the tasty assortments served in the bread baskets. For a particularly tasty do-it-yourself dressing, ask for crumbled blue cheese and cruets of oil and vinegar.
The soups tend to be of the thick, creamy variety common in beach cookery, and run to such interesting varieties as velvety Cheddar cheese garnished with florets of broccoli and cauliflower. (Were the proportions of soup to vegetables reversed, this soup would become a perfectly acceptable version of vegetables in cheese sauce.)
Daily Roster of Fresh Fish
The entree list is at its most impressive with the daily roster of fresh fish, which usually offers about eight or nine chosen from a revolving list of 15. Recent choices include salmon, baby coho salmon (which can be very nice indeed), sea bass, ahi, ono, shark, halibut and swordfish. At the guest's command, any of them will be baked or broiled or finished in Cajun or Szechuan styles. The Cajun was not attempted for reasons already stated, nor was the Szechuan, because Chinese food rarely is successful outside Chinese kitchens.
A broiled swordfish steak was a happy experience, however, because it was cut to just the right thickness and finished with a crisp crust and juicy interior. As a surprise addition, it was dressed with a beurre blanc (French butter sauce) that the kitchen handled relatively gracefully. It used to be that beach restaurants served a beach version of sauce bearnaise, usually spelled bernaise and usually about as Gallic as Camp Pendleton; the lighter cooking style recently introduced by top French restaurants largely has replaced the heavier bearnaise with various beurre blancs , and it is most interesting to find a beach place following suit.
The seafood list continues in an ambitious mood with various shellfish sautes, such as shrimp in a garlicky cream sauce, and a blend of lobster, crab and shrimp finished with wine, saffron, garlic and tomato, the whole poured over a bed of pasta.
Meat choices run from the eternal prime rib (an extra-large cut sailed by the table one evening and did look rather impressive) to the equally eternal Hawaiian chicken (marinated in teriyaki sauce and topped with pineapple rings--an essential element of beach cuisine). A large, handsome New York steak can be had charcoal-broiled or in a more complicated pepper steak version that would be quite successful were the kitchen to omit the cayenne that overheats the coating of green and black peppercorns.
The steak was ordered very rare but was served more on the medium side, a situation that recurred when a rack of lamb that had been requested "pink" turned up done well beyond that stage. The menu makes much of this offering, describing it as a "renowned" carry-over from Dini's Del Mar that is "now available with mint sauce and an ocean view." Both sauce and view were pleasing, but the lamb itself lacked flavor to a marked degree. At $18.95, this is the most expensive entree, and it is one of the least interesting.
The kitchen usually offers a daily special or two; one recent choice was a nicely cooked, generously portioned serving of pork tenderloin bathed in a port and mushroom sauce. The sauce, actually a thick brown gravy, would have served the juicy meat better had it contained a less exuberant amount of wine.
The dessert selection includes cheesecake and a "Heath Bar" chocolate cake catered from off-premises. The homemade white chocolate mousse, spruced up with fresh strawberries and a splash of Grand Marnier, is a pretty interesting concoction, the flavor quite rich and the texture gooey in an inexplicably pleasing manner. This dessert makes a happy ending.
3290 Carlsbad Blvd., Carlsbad
Lunch and dinner daily.
Credit cards accepted.
Dinner for two, including a modest bottle of wine, tax and tip, $40 to $80.