In San Diego, the man-made peninsula called Harbor Island is a bit of an anomaly. The small strip of land is located in the heart of San Diego; minutes from San Diego International Airport, Liberty Station, Shelter Island, and the Marine Corps Depot, and just across the San Diego Bay from Downtown, Coronado, and Seaport Village. However, even with Harbor Island's proximity to so many iconic San Diego landmarks, it maintains a beautiful serenity due to the few businesses placed there; including some of the most scenic restaurants in town. San Diego foodies probably already know about one of those dining establishments: Island Prime, from acclaimed San Diego Chef Deborah Scott. However, most people might not know about her newest culinary venture, located right next door: Coasterra.
While Coasterra and Island Prime share an Executive Chef, I begin to spot the differences between the restaurants as soon as I pull up to the valet, despite the sun just having set. When observed side-by-side, Coasterra is substantially more chic and modern than its older sister. The front of the building is framed in accents of steel and concrete, as well as stripped wood paneling that's reminiscent of an old, battered frigate's hull. The exterior also sports a bright neon sign bearing the restaurant's name, its blue light invoking memories of the sea on its horizon. The sign softly pierces through the evening dusk; as does the long fire pit at the center of Coasterra's outdoor patio in front of the restaurant. Beyond the patio is the front door: A broad pane of glass stretching from floor to ceiling, with simply a polished metal rod for a handle.
Upon entering, I am greeted by the busy and courteous staff, stationed just to the right of the front door. The lighting is kept somewhat dim, to establish a calm and warm atmosphere. As I'm led to my table on the patio, I take in the posh and eye-catching spaces. To the left of the front door lies the large, square bar rimmed with surprisingly comfortable bar chairs. Above it sits a menagerie of spherical lamps of all shapes and sizes, casting sporadic light over the bar and waiting areas. Behind the bar -- on the white marble wall shared with the kitchen -- are mounted dozens of candles, their flames flickering and dancing against the dimly lit wall. The effect is beautiful, and later I'm embarrassed to find that the flames are simply the most elaborately realistic, motorized electric flames I've ever seen. I can't help but take notice of a small, ornate table and plush upholstered chairs in the corner that stands out from the rest of the décor. It was just the first of many more personal spaces inside and outside of Coasterra that cater to those craving more intimate surroundings.
Beyond the bar area is the indoor dining room. The room has a vintage feel, with the walls, carpet, and seats decorated in 70s art patterns. There are both booths and tables in the room, both appearing extremely plush and relaxed. Separating the dining room from the patio are floor-to-ceiling windows framed in bare steel beams. That means that, even from the comfort of inside, diners can still enjoy the breathtaking views of the San Diego Bay that overwhelm me as soon as I step outside. The patio is the largest continuous dining area in the restaurant, surrounding over half of the circumference of the building. The wide patio area is then surrounded by a walkway below it, at sea level, so that customers can take a stroll and enjoy the sights after their meal.
As soon as I'm seated, I'm compelled to sit and admire the scenery stretched out before me. I have an unobstructed view of the magnificently lit Downtown San Diego skyline, the cacophony of lights painting the night sky and reflecting in the expanse of serene water before me. I can not only see the silhouette of the USS Midway to the east, but also a training ship from Halsey Field that wandered nearby. The railing of the patio is flanked by glass, meaning even more of an unobstructed view of the bay. Holding the glass together are steel stantions that double as umbrella holders, which ensure that guests are kicking heavy umbrella bases underneath their table. There's even a manmade break built in the water just outside the patio, meaning no risk of getting splashed during inclement weather. And speaking of inclement weather, the patio comes complete with heaters and fans powered by solar panels – that also double as the patio's awnings.
I'm enjoying this dazzling nighttime view from the comfort of a pleasantly padded and wide wicker patio chair; a step up from typical restaurant patio furniture. Further down the patio, I can see more lounge style seating, with a bevy of couches and small coffee tables. Adjacent to that is the lavish indoor conference room, which showed signs of recently hosting a function. I later learn that the patio, conference room, and an additional bar can be rented out in a variety of formations for private events. Suddenly, a bowl of freshly made salsa and a basket tortilla chips arrive no more than a minute after I sit down, and I can't help but eat one after the other. Soon, my server Corey arrives to take my drink order.
While I had assumed the most popular of Coasterra's already popular cocktails would be the House Margarita, Corey informs me that Deb's Coconut Margarita has become the star of the Happy Hour menu. The margarita is visually appealing: a white, semi-frothy margarita, on the rock, with a white coconut salt rim. The drink's frothy appearance comes from the coconut cream, which adds just the right amount of coconut to cover the taste of the Olmeca Altos Reposado Tequila, without an overwhelming taste of coconut.
When Corey inquires about my appetizer request, I can't help but ask about Coasterra's Tableside Guacamole. At $14, I wondered what could possibly make this Mexican food mainstay that delicious. This was until the mobile guacamole cart rolls up to my table, loaded with fresh ingredients and many, many avocados. The tableside chef has everything he needs to make guacamole customized to individual tastes and preference of spiciness: tomatoes, red onions, lime, cilantro, Chile de árbol, chopped serrano pepper, and habanero sauce.
Not wanting to scorch my palette before such a large meal, I tell the chef about my dislike for too much cilantro, and my desire for a medium hot guacamole. He takes his time, deftly mashing the avocados in a large, stone molcajete bowl with its pistol, and mixing in a careful measure of ingredients. The result of his labor is a creamy dip bursting with well-balanced individual flavors that complement each other tremendously. The guacamole has just the right amount of habanero heat that I was hoping for, and the serrano peppers add a robust flavor that is immediately welcomed onto my palette.
I'm still scooping my through the large stone bowl when my second course arrives: a Cóctel de Camarón. The shrimp cocktail is served creatively: whole, white Mexican shrimp are placed around the rim of a glass with guajillo chile salt, which in turn sits lightly in the mix of house made Mexican sangrita, avocados, bits of crispy romaine, and chopped shimp that lies inside the glass. The appetizer is also served with a small side of tortilla chips; perfect for dipping into the shrimp/sangrita mix.
Sampling the first shrimp dangling from the glass, I'm struck by the spicy and robust flavor the guajillo chile salt provides, and how well it plays with the subtle hint of lime mixed with it. I can taste just a hint of the sangrita, and its tangy taste highlights the natural flavor of the white shrimp. The shrimp itself is crisp and juicy, snapping slightly as I bite into it. After eating a few more of the full pieces of shrim, I turn my attention to the contents of the glass. The chopped shrimp in the glass is marinated in the sangrita and bursts with flavor with the first bite. The avocado adds a touch of saltiness that counters the sangrita, while bits of chopped romaine add a crunchy texture that's in delightful contrast to the supple shrimp.
By the time the cocktail is finished, I notice a thin layer of fog creeping across the bottom of the Downtown skyline, framing the picturesque view like an ethereal painting. With the fog came the chill of the sea air, making my next dish a welcome treat. The Crema de Elote may look like a simple soup by the appearance of its simple black bowl, but one peek inside reveals culinary work of art. Atop a rich and creamy sea of creamed white corn and roasted poblano crema sits carefully placed, crispy leeks adorned with intricate drizzles of bold red Morita chile oil and subtle chive oil.
As I admire the soup's presentation, the intoxicating aroma of the soup beckons my spoon. Steam rises from my spoon as I take my first bite. Immediately, the taste of creamy, flavorful white corn complemented by the robust poblano crema envelops my taste buds. I quickly realize that the addition of crispy leeks was a masterstroke; their salty, herby flavor accentuating the corn base. While the chive oil is very subtle, the Morita chile oil provides a welcome kick that not only spices up the soup, but also heightens the warmth of the soup in my stomach. Even before my bowl is finished, I confidently declare that the Crema de Elote is one of the finest soups I've ever tasted.
The next dish to arrive is one of Coasterra's most popular salads: the Seafood Ensalada. It is served in a freshly made, crispy tortilla bowl. At first glance, one might not know that the dish is indeed a salad by the mountain of fresh seafood on top: local mussels, lightly browned tilapia, and Mexican white shrimp. Eager to honor any dietary restrictions, Corey has placed the salad's seasoned bay scallops on the side to accommodate my dining companions food allergies. As I dig further into the dish, I notice that -- in addition to a mélange of delicious seafood -- the salad also features superb collection of vegetables: red cabbage, shredded carrot, strips of red bell pepper, diced cucumber, field greens, tomato, and avocado.
While tucking in to the salad is a little daunting, my first bite removes all hesitation. The tilapia is cooked deftly: tender, flakey, buttery, and with an outer layer seared almost to the point of being crispy. The diced white shrimp is tender and juicy, losing none of its quality from when it was used in the Cóctel de Camarón. The mussels have an uncharacteristically smoky taste, with hints of cumin and white wine. They've been cooked discerningly, not even a smidge overdone. However, for me, it's the scallops that steal the show. Very lightly sautéed in olive oil and a mix of herbs, the scallops are supple and tender. I experience just a slight resistance as I bite into the flavorful morsel. The cilantro-lemon vinaigrette only coats the vegetables in the salad, but goes terrifically with the seafood when eaten together; adding a much-appreciated zing of flavor to the already naturally flavorful seafood.
My final dish on this beautifully moonlit night showcases the diversity of Coasterra's primarily sea-inspired menu: Mar y Tierra. The sophisticated take on surf ‘n' turf features a crispy cake of lobster risotto, topped with tender short ribs and a dark poblano mole. Placed on top of this decadent stack is a single lobster claw, removed from its shell. Upon first bite, I'm immediately struck by the rich flavor of the mole. Many other moles I've had have been bland, or just too spicy; Coasterra's is neither. The poblano provides robust flavor to the sauce, which also has just hints of spiciness and tanginess. These flavors play with the succulent pork on my palette, and create a symphony of flavor.
The lobster risotto provides a crunchy texture that balances the softness of the pork, and the claw lends a dash of saltiness to the overall flavor of the dish. Even as I dip a bite of the lobster claw into the mole, the two flavors blend harmoniously; the shellfish just as tender and succulent as the short ribs. While the ribs and lobster are clearly the focus of the Mar y Tierra, I can't help but be impressed by the portion of lobster risotto. Normally creamy, Coasterra makes their risotto a little crispier on the outside while still maintaining a warm, velvety center. The rice simply melts in my mouth, while the flavor of the lobster provides a pleasant touch of flavor to the normally simply flavored risotto. It's a filling dish; perfect for splitting, but also a filling meal for more ambitious diners.
My meal over, I decide to take a solitary walk around Coastera's waterfront walkway to ease some of the fullness from my outstanding meal. The moon still illuminating the waterfront in an iridescent glow, I think about how much Coasterra has achieved in its short time of operation, and how far it will go to be not only one of Debra Scott's crowning achievements; not only how it's likely to become Cohn's new, prized jewel; but also how it's on-course to become one of San Diego's top dining destinations.