Kemo Sabe

3958 5th Avenue, San Diego CA 92103
$$ Pacific Rim Recommended Editor's Pick Special Offer

Executive Chef and Partner Deborah Scott’s faithful friend is Kemo Sabe Restaurant, in Hillcrest. The Pacific Rim-inspired décor and cuisine reflects an appreciation for unique cultural perspectives, and melds textures, colors, and flavors into artful culinary masterpieces. Diners may not only feast on the exquisite tastes of each dish, but their imaginations will be fueled by the visual intricacies Chef Scott arranges on the plate. The flash-fried Whole Tilapia is simply statuesque, and the desserts are scandalously seductive. Each element on the menu strives to be a faithful friend to the taste buds, and keep you coming back for more.

Artful Cuisine You're Encouraged to Touch

Review by

Once you turn your back on the buzz of Hillcrest’s eclectic 5th Avenue Kemo Sabe’s dining room foreshadows the meal you’re about to enjoy. The walls of the large, rectangular space are bathed in sun-kissed tones of beige and brown with striking splashes of turquoise that hint at a Southwest theme refreshingly devoid of cliché elements. Native American symbols meld with an Australian Aboriginal aesthetic in the large, iron art piece that separates the space without imposing barriers. The light provided by frosted fixtures in the four corners of the room underscores each plate on the table while illuminating everything else in a gentle glow. Even more impressive than what you see in Kemo Sabe’s décor is precisely what you don’t: the high ceiling yields surprising acoustics, enabling our party of three to effortlessly converse in the midst of the hustle and bustle.

Rarely does one have the opportunity to savor a three-course meal hand-picked by the chef; rarer still, and infinitely more memorable, is the experience of being personally guided through each dish by a chef who has transformed the process of serving a meal into an artful unveiling. Executive Chef Deborah Scott was a truly gracious host and lent a sense of enthusiasm to the experience that left us not only full, but inspired.

Before we embarked on our eating-spree, our attentive server recommended we wet our palates. The wine list was anchored around a California-centric selection that offered an impressive array of sparkling wines, sakes, and plum wines, in addition to more standard whites and reds. I chose the Artesa Chardonnay: brilliantly fruity with hints of lemon blossom, green apple, pineapple, and delicate notes of vanilla and toasted oak, to complement the intricacies of Chef Scott’s dishes.

The Roasted Nut-Crusted Fried Brie was the first of the three appetizers we devoured. The impressively large slice of soft brie was cleverly hidden beneath a crisp layer of roasted nuts. It shared a platter with grilled squaw bread, chili-rubbed tortilla, a salad of finely sliced beets and carrots, and a roasted whole head of garlic. We hardly had time to gawk at the colorful compilation before Chef Scott arrived to illustrate the preparation of the perfect bite. She scooped a knife into the steaming head of garlic and slathered it on the squaw bread, spread a large bit of the brie’s gooey goodness over the garlic, and then scooped some jalapeño jelly, encircling the dish, over the cheese. The result was an amazingly seductive bite – the warm silkiness of the brie cut the intense heat and sweetness of the jelly, while the amplified aromatics of the garlic provided a smoky baseline. Like the brie, all of Chef Scott’s dishes would prove to possess exquisite visual presentations, finely choreographed flavors, and unpretentious serving and eating methods.

The New Zealand Black and Green Mussels, sautéed in a garlic and chipotle cream sauce, were presented next. A heaping bowl of large and petite mussels were dressed in a thick sauce that accentuated the mussel meat without masking it. The savory-sweet, smoke-charred intensity of the chipotle spice was subdued by the creaminess of the sauce, and the ginger peaked out to tickle the nose. The mussel meat itself was tender, smooth, and delightfully reminiscent of the sea. We were enticed by the complexity of flavors and simplicity of execution, and we felt right at home while pulling the meat from the shells and sopping up the sauce with anything we could – spoons and scraps of squaw bread worked equally well.

The Charbroiled Mexican White Prawns were then delivered. Three giant prawns, wrapped in bacon, sat triumphantly on pillars of piped goat cheese and herbs. The initial bite more than made up for the hesitation we felt cutting into the visual masterpiece: we were rewarded with a surprising insinuation of wasabi that presented itself more as a feeling than a flavor. The bacon was crispy and played well against the texture of the shrimp; its slightly salty and sweet flavor added another dimension to the subtle goat cheese. The intriguing play of flavors, textures, and visual components, were the manifestation of Chef Scott’s thoughtful objective to have “crunchy, salty, and sweet,” build on each other.  “Like a composition, you want everything to mesh, work together, and make sense.”

We were a touch sad to see the rummaged appetizer plates whisked away, but only until they were replaced by the entrées. The first entrée was the truly breathe-catching Whole Tilapia: flash fried and perched upright as if frozen mid-swim, it defied gravity and our expectations. Lemon grass spouted from its mouth, adding “water” to this edible sculpture. The tilapia’s tail was nestled in a cool seaweed salad beside a bed of undressed udon noodles and three dipping sauces of varying spice. The moistness and natural aroma of the fish was captured beneath the crisp fried skin yielded by its flash frying, sparing the meat from greasiness or toughness. The belly of the tilapia was stuffed with Thai basil and lemon grass, which produced a charred smoky flavor highlighted by licorice notes that perked the senses. The udon side offered a cool relief from the spicy intensity of the dipping sauces and the fish’s bold flavors. The finished product directly reflected Chef Scott’s goal that Kemo Sabe’s food “isn’t something you can easily duplicate at home.”

Our server had our full attention as he set the Blackened Satay Chicken Breast Stack before us. Three large cuts of chicken were separated by grilled slices of pineapple, and were surrounded by pressed chili corn cakes, a coarse-cut melon salsa, and a thick slice of grilled plantain banana. The juice and flavor of the meat was locked in by the jerk-marinade that married a refreshing fruitiness with a spicy intensity. The juice of the grilled pineapple was cool, syrupy, and cleansed the palate. Breaking through each layer with a fork, one appreciated the presence of the corn cakes’ slightly yeasty texture, which absorbed a degree of heat without diluting flavor. The grilled plantain’s dense texture and savory essence complimented the sweet melon, and anchored the lighter notes of the marinade. After pausing over a few well-proportioned bites, I was reminded of a tropical sea breeze and a simple sense of wellbeing.

Chef Scott chose a fan-favorite for our last entrée: the Skirts on Fire. A massive charbroiled skirt steak was accompanied by black beans and a grilled quesadilla. A mandarin-serrano relish bestowed a contrasting splash of color to the dish, and flattered the steak’s Thai chili rub. Spicy mustard sauce was an intriguing addition to the black beans, and immediately proved a natural fit. While the expertly seasoned and cooked meat and understated side dishes encouraged us to use our hands to tear the quesadilla and scoop up the beans, we never mistook the dish for anything less than a tour de force.

Our dining excursion was winding down, and we found ourselves sighing aloud with gluttonous contentment. Yet how could we refuse the White Chocolate Cheesecake Tower and the Chocolate Hazelnut Napoleon? The White Chocolate Cheesecake Tower resembled no other cheesecake I’ve ever seen. Crisp praline cookies provided the stability for each level of the tower, and tasted of honey, nuts, and caramelized sugar. Unlike traditionally creamy fillings, this cheesecake boasted a thick and textured mixture that was only lightly sweetened. Its rich flavor and weight was evocative of cannoli filling and played off the honey-nut sweetness of the cookie to offer an intriguing balance. The Oregon blueberries provided a splash of color and sweet finish to the plate.

The Chocolate Hazelnut Napoleon was similarly inventive and delightful. Large scoops of kahlua ice cream separated flaky sheets of hazelnut puff pastry, with dollops of dark chocolate mousse dotting the dish. The light and crunchy pastry accentuated the slightly coffee-flavored ice cream and in conjunction with the slight bitterness of the dark chocolate mousse subdued the sweetness. The lusciously smooth texture of the mousse added a seductive note.

From beginning to end, Chef Scott’s enthusiasm, sincerity, and vision, manifested in each stage of our meal. Chef Scott concluded the evening with the hope that her patrons leave saying that “they had a truly unique experience – that the flavors were powerful, and that nothing was dull or boring.” The success of Kemo Sabe is largely the result of Chef Scott’s skill at expressing multiple cultural perspectives through cohesive productions of flavor, texture, and visual cues seldom found elsewhere – and her dishes are certainly never dull or boring.

Copyright ©


Business Info

  • Address: 3958 5th Avenue, San Diego CA 92103
  • Cross Street: University Avenue
  • Location: Hillcrest & Uptown | Hillcrest
  • Cuisine: Pacific Rim |
  • Cost: | Inexpensive
  • Category: Fine Dining
  • Star Rating:
  • Reservations: Recommended
  • Dress Code: Casual
  • Meals Served: Dinner |
  • Parking: Street | Valet Parking |
  • Payment Options: VISA | Amex | MasterCard | Discover | Diners Club |
  • Corkage Fee: 15.00 | Per Each Bottle
  • Staff: Deborah Scott | Executive Chef
  • Phone: (619) 220-6802
  • Features: Full Bar, Late Dining, Catering Services, Famous Chef, Outdoor Seating, Smoking Area, Wheelchair Access, Valet Parking,
  • Occasion: Romantic Dining, Dining Alone, Business Dining, Meet for a Drink, People Watching, Quiet Conversation, Special Occasion, Trendy / Hip,


Kemo Sabe - Black & White Sesame Salmon
Kemo Sabe - Kemo Sabe Kemo Sabe - Kemo Sabe Kemo Sabe - Roasted nut crusted fried brie Kemo Sabe - Dim sun & then sum Kemo Sabe - Ice Cream Brownie Kemo Sabe - New Mexican chile filet Kemo Sabe - Chef Deborah Scott

Business Hours

Reservations Available
Dinner - Main Dining Room 5:30 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Happy Hours - Main Dining Room 5:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.
Dinner - Main Dining Room 5:30 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Happy Hours - Main Dining Room 5:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.
Dinner - Main Dining Room 5:30 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Happy Hours - Main Dining Room 5:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.
Dinner - Main Dining Room 5:30 p.m. - 10 p.m.
Happy Hours - Main Dining Room 5:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.
Dinner - Main Dining Room 5:30 p.m. - 10 p.m.
Dinner - Main Dining Room 5:30 p.m. - 9 p.m.


Frequently Asked Questions
Kemo Sabe is open from Tuesday through Sunday for dinner, and they are closed on Mondays.
Kemo Sabe Happy Hour is available Tuesday-Friday from 5:30pm to 6:30pm at the bar only.
Yes, you are welcome to dine with your dog on the patio.
Kemo Sabe offers a Pacific Rim-inspired menu.
Kemo Sabe is located in the Hillcrest neighborhood.
Yes, the restaurant is fully accessible.
<QuerySet [{'id': 2001, 'name': 'Happy Hour', 'description': 'Available Tuesday-Friday from 5:30pm to 6:30pm at the bar only.', 'fixprice': False, 'menuprice': Decimal('0.00'), 'displayorder': 1}, {'id': 65, 'name': 'Dinner Menu', 'description': '', 'fixprice': False, 'menuprice': Decimal('0.00'), 'displayorder': 3}]>


Customer Reviews & Ratings

4.5 out of 5 stars based on 1 votes