By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
The annual Maine “lobster festival” at King’s Fish House had sadly ended by the time I could no longer endure seeing yet another unrelated television commercial showing beads of fresh lemon juice bouncing off shellfish in captivating slow motion.
So instead of succumbing to those compelling ads for Red Lobster, which for value reasons often disappoint, I steered my appetite to King’s for its current celebration of wild salmon from Alaska.
This long-established family-owned seafood house taps into nearly every hedonistic pleasure the oceans have to offer. With nearly a dozen locations scattered mostly throughout Southern California, including Mission Valley and Carlsbad, the regular menu offers everything from sashimi and sushi rolls to assorted oysters, South African lobster tails and red rockfish from the Pacific Northwest.
There are also steaks, chicken and burgers. And many of the side dishes such as grilled zucchini and corn cut fresh from the cob prove to be more than just boring footnotes on the plate.
King’s Mission Valley in the Westfield shopping plaza is contained within a free-standing brick structure that looks invitingly antiquated. Take away the urban density surrounding it, and you might envision the rocky coast of Maine as the backdrop.
The atmosphere is casual; perhaps a touch corporate in its template, but there is ample seating that extends comfortably to a large bar lounge and spacious patio.
Visiting as a twosome for a weekday dinner, the vibe was low-key and quiet enough to converse effortlessly despite a soundtrack of soft rock playing at medium volume. We were seated in a roomy booth, close to a tank of live East Coast lobsters, though now in shorter supply and with fewer weight choices compared to when they were in peak season over the past three months.
A large Castroville artichoke, grilled and quartered, was a luxurious primer to our meal, considering few restaurants bother serving them. The meaty leaves were drizzled in basil vinaigrette, providing enough twang as to skip over the pesto-mayo dipping sauce altogether. Right down to the joyous tender heart, it was a well-trimmed beauty cooked perfectly.
Lump crab cocktail is presented with a generous slick of classic cocktail sauce on top. The chilled crab was sweet and reasonably abundant, but in relation to the deep well of diced celery and cucumbers underneath, it might give the impression you’ve been shortchanged.
As an interlude we slurped down a couple of fresh Kumamoto oysters, my favorite variety because of their buttery, oceanic flavor. Perched on ice alongside mignonette sauce and shaved horseradish, we could have easily consumed two dozen in the absence of everything else we ate, which included an overload of complimentary house-baked sourdough bread served warm with every table delivery.
The seasonal Coho salmon, trolled from St. Nicholas Channel in southeast Alaska, is available for the time being in four different ways — pan seared, in cake form, in “summer salad” or roasted with Creole dry spice. I chose the latter with some concern that the dry rub might overwhelm the fish.
It didn’t. The spice was like a gentle kiss to the fish, imparting a sweet and piquant essence but without violating its wild pureness. Of the two sides I chose, the elongated slices of grilled zucchini reinforced the fact that charred squash tastes better than steamed. The mac ‘n’ cheese, however, quickly lost precious moisture halfway into eating it.
My companion became love-struck over his walnut-crusted white sea bass. And for good reason. Coated also in panko crumbs and Parmesan, the exterior offered the crunch of a thin potato chip and the flavor of toasted cheese. The texture of the fish was wonderfully firm, and the lemon sauce dressing on it gave rise to everything else on the plate — creamy mashed potatoes and buttery corn straight off the cob.
We ended with a sizable slice of high-calorie key lime pie made in-house. I’m guessing a payload of condensed milk was incorporated into the curd. Accented with an equally rich graham cracker crust, we weren’t complaining.
The booze offerings at King’s include a decent wine list featuring selections from respectable labels such as Stag’s Leap, Justin and Seghisio. There are also craft and domestic beers, plus plenty of signature cocktails to satisfy most urban hipsters.
Happy hour is held in the bar area from 3 — 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. The deals apply to various drinks and food items listed within four price categories: $4, $5, $7 and $9. Lobster and salmon dishes aren’t among them, but you can indulge in California rolls, burgers, oyster shooters or crispy calamari for a fraction of the price, and with a select glass of wine or cocktail to boot.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.