The Red Kettle’s Food Not as Good as Its Ale

<i> David Nelson regularly reviews restaurants for The Times in San Diego. His column also appears in Calendar on Fridays. </i>

It seems distinctly presumptuous for a quite new restaurant to label itself or its offerings “famous” or “renowned,” or, as in the case of The Red Kettle in Encinitas, open not much beyond one month, “legendary.”

The word is used in the self-advertising phrase “legendary seafood” printed boldly on the front of the menu, and, at least at present, it seems somewhat self-delusional, since the dishes sampled on a recent meal were not the stuff upon which legends are built--at least, not the sort of legends a management with longevity in mind would care to inspire.

The premises, behind a small shopping arcade that fronts on First Street in Encinitas’ attractive, low-rise downtown, are a handsome remodel of quarters that have housed several restaurants over the years.


The wooden floors and eclectic assortment of chairs--the collection looks to have been assembled from a number of elderly dining room sets--hint vaguely at New England, a reasonable source of motif for a seafoodery; the newly exposed air conditioning ducts in the ceiling are derivative from the nouvelle architecture of a decade or more ago.

The most attractive features, the enormous brewing vats positioned behind the bar, serve a fine function as well: The Red Kettle offers a trio of ales, and these, at least for fanciers of superior brews, make the place worth a visit.

A beer-and-wine list describes the ales at length and makes it clear that attention and affection go into the brewing; the result includes a product named Harbor Light, brewed from pale barley malts, caramel malts and two select varieties of hops, that has a definite gold color and a rich, full, but restrained flavor.

The menu reads as well as the beer list, but is cooked with less devotion. As you read it--and later, as dishes arrive--the impression builds that the menu takes an unannounced “healthy eating” approach that, upon reflection, seems a little dictatorial and unwelcome. A first, strong hint is the mention that such appetizers as the Little Neck clam strips and calamari rings are fried in canola oil. Later, you notice that dishes are sauced with such markable and deliberate restraint that the sauce seems but a courtesy gesture.

A complaint about the mere dab of supposed rosemary sauce on the swordfish brought a response from a cook “that’s how they (evidently, the management) want it,” but this most

definitely was not how the table wanted it--especially since this thin fish steak, supposedly marinated in lime zest and olive oil with “herbs and spices” (usually a meaningless buzz phrase) was overcooked and dry.

The crab cakes, served as an appetizer, did have a crisp, attractive finish, and the strong, definite flavor of the darkish meat taken from stone crabs was most agreeable. The supposed sauce of homemade mayonnaise and stone-ground mustard might have added flavor had it been present as more than a sort of finger-painted smear on a corner of the plate.

The restaurant offers a great many appetizers, soups and salads, including baked cherrystone clams; pizza with “chicken Italian sausage” (another hint at the “healthy” aspect of the cuisine); red and white chowders; flash grilled ahi salad, and Caesar salads, plain or with seafood. The white, New England-style clam chowder, distressingly served in a coffee mug, included a goodly number of carrots, some clams, a decent texture and very, very little flavor.

Freshly baked, foot-long bread sticks arrive as needed through the meal, and are good with the basil-garlic flavored olive oil offered on the side.

In addition to the “Buddy burger,” a chicken breast sandwich, lasagna layered with chicken-duck sausage and roasted peppers, and linguine with steamed cockles, The Red Kettle offers such entrees as grilled halibut with the house tartar sauce (piquant and likeable), Atlantic salmon baked over red oak, sea bass with an orange-red onion-avocado garnish and grilled chicken marinated in spiced molasses. Skewered scallops brushed with a molasses barbecue sauce were, on the whole, rather sweet and strong. The garnish of linguine in “Alfredo sauce” was a gooey, mushy mess that was best ignored.

The dessert list includes a “chocolate chocolate” cake made with ale that, when sampled, was notable more for a dry texture than any special chocolate flavor.

The Red Kettle

1010 First St., Encinitas

Calls: 944-1333

Hours: Lunch and dinner daily

Cost: The same menu offered at lunch and dinner, with a difference of $2 to $5 between entrees at noon and night. Sandwiches and entrees from $6.95 to $16.95