San Diego Spotlight : Top's Grill Tips Hat to Past but Revamps Menu for '90s

Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr. and Don Ameche were among the performers at the old Top's Grill from 1939 through the early '60s, and if you can remember dressing up for an evening at this Pacific Highway landmark, you can rightfully claim to be a long-term San Diegan.

The old Top's Grill took a forthright meat and potatoes stance. On the same site the new one, an update of the former Fat City restaurant, hems and haws cautiously but basically adopts its own brand of "Pacific Rim" cuisine.

Fat City has not vanished; the name endures as an umbrella sheltering the multiplex eatery that houses the new Top's as well as the China Camp restaurant, the Fat City Bar and the summer-only Tropical Patio.

Sacramento's famous, restaurant-pioneering Fat Family operates Top's under the direction of President Tom Fat and general manager Collin Fat. Lina Fat, daughter-in-law to patriarch Frank Fat, wrote the new menu, a list of hybrid dishes based on combinations of Chinese, Asian, Mexican, California and French influences. Nothing is terribly bewildering--the tequila-lime beef wrapped in thin onion pancakes immediately comes across as a Chinese carne asada burrito. But some dishes work better than others, and an American timidity of seasoning sometimes denies the zesty possibilities of Asian and Mexican cooking styles.

Besides tossing out the '80s-trendy Fat City menu, Frank Fat said he "detuned" the decor by discarding much of the neon that won the place architectural raves, along with the famous and funny sculptures composed of tennis and bowling balls. But, although these effects have been toned down, there is still some hot pink neon lighting, an artsy display of billiard balls, and neon-outlined wall sculptures of a sailfish in full flight and a 1958 pink Cadillac.

The service seems to vary according to the individual staff member. An initial visit's top-flight service was followed on the second by an episode in which knives dirtied during the starter course were replaced on the table for continued use. This ungracious chintziness with tableware is one of the San Diego restaurant trade's most widespread bad habits and needs to be addressed.

Lina Fat's new menu acknowledges contemporary realities, which, as Frank Fat pointedly noted in conversation one evening, is something that the now-closed Lubach's across the street failed to do. The list therefore is divided fairly evenly into five compartments that offer "small" plates, soups and salads, pizzas from the wood-burning brick oven, pastas and entrees. The purposeful mixing of styles from some Pacific Rim cuisines unifies the menu.

Among the starters, the grilled chicken skewers with peanut sauce are a familiar rendition of Southeast Asian satay , and the fried calamari with fresh tomato sauce have clear and obvious Italian roots. The cross-cultural cooking is most pronounced in the tequila-beef pancake rolls, generously portioned and boasting tender, hot-from-the-grill chunks of meat.

The advertised ginger, tequila and lime flavors were all quite muted, however, and to no clear purpose, since with more forceful seasoning this could be an exciting dish. A plate of roasted duck sausage, fried breaded cheese rounds, croutons and raspberry sauce was certainly cross-cultural. But the sausage, tasty on its own, had nothing in common with the other items. The almost jam-like raspberry sauce served no discernable purpose, except to seem rather belatedly nouvelle in the post- nouvelle mood of the 1990s.

The chicken soup, purportedly prepared to order with the inclusion of lemon grass and black mushrooms, offered weak, under-flavored broth as moistening for a more-than-generous gathering of chicken chunks and meaty mushrooms. Once again, the chief seasoning had been used far too sparingly; lemon grass can bring a dish to life, and a less timid dose might have had a beneficial effect.

On the other hand, the day's special soup, a shrimp and crab bisque, tasted deeply and wonderfully of good, fresh shellfish in every rich spoonful. Of the basic house salads, the spinach salad with zesty roasted garlic dressing takes the honors over the assorted greens in herbal vinaigrette.

As bizarre as a Peking duck, shiitake mushroom, cheese and hoisin sauce pizza might sound, this pie actually is delightful, the clear and harmonious flavors bedded happily on a fine, thin, crisp crust. Other novel pizzas include one topped with brandied, mesquite-grilled chicken and pine nuts, and a vegetarian offering dressed with Japanese eggplant and artichoke hearts.

A praiseworthy subtlety of seasoning characterizes the advertised house specialty, a rack of lamb marinated in assorted spices. The meat emerges from the process with a wonderfully tender finish and a delicate but noteworthy flavor.

However, despite its marinade of soy sauce, brandy, ginger and garlic, the "drunk steak" comes across as an item that would like to be either full-on Chinese or just a plain old American steak. Either more definite flavoring, or none at all, would be better. Temerity of seasoning again made the mesquite-grilled pork chop in plum demi-glace less than it might have been because the meat was of top quality and had been expertly grilled. The grilled curried chicken breast served with pear chutney, a fine peanut-based sauce and assorted garnishes was a simple, carefully cooked pleasure. The more classic "beggar's hen," here made with a Cornish game hen simmered in stock prefatory to a plunge in deep fat, could have been both more moist and more crisply finished.

The dessert tray, prepared on the premises, borrows some of the favorites from the Fat family's Sacramento restaurants. The tart, sour cream-topped cheesecake is creamy and unusually refreshing for this sort of dessert. According to Tom Fat, the undeniably smooth and self-indulgent banana cream pie holds a special place in the hearts of Sacramento politicians.

TOP'S GRILL

At Fat City, 2137 Pacific Highway, San Diego

232-2334

Dinner nightly; luncheon service to begin in March

Entrees $7.95 to $17.95. Dinner for two, including a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $35 to $75

Credit cards accepted

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