I love the month of October -- the time of year when daylight savings keeps the sun shining into the dinner hour, but the tourists have largely gone home. Now I don't have to wait as long for a table at some of my favorite restaurants, particularly World Famous, which offers dramatic ocean vistas along with some of the best food this side of New York.
Situated right at the water's edge, this restaurant serves amazing cuisine in a casual setting, where T-shirts and shorts don't make the maitre d' turn pale.
When I dined there, the sea and sky were two merging shades of grey, creating a view that looked like an old black-and-white photo. From my corner booth, surrounded by clear glass panes, I could watch the sun fall into the ocean. The bar stools across the room held small groups of friends sharing conversation and drinks while our vice presidential candidates debated in the background.
Culinary genius emerges when the sun goes down. World Famous is owned by Dieter May, who hired Executive Chef Chris Bates to run the "back of the house." Bates has a team of assistants who have all worked with him for years. In fact, he trained many of them. "Cooking is a team effort," Bates said. "We all work together on the line. In fact, I'm always amused to see how my line chefs try to do things exactly the way I do when I taught them how to prepare my recipes."
Bates added that his relationships with purveyors are very important to him. "We want the best and the freshest of ingredients, regardless of the price. We shop locally and we insist on quality."
A self-taught chef who learned his craft by working under a number of well-known other chefs, Bates is not constrained in his imaginative creations. His style is based on French ideas with Pacific Rim overtones, but his sauces are light and piquant. Many of his dishes come with distinctive sauces to amplify flavors.
"I like to combine flavors in my foods. So, I'll add honey for a touch of sweetness where the overlying flavor might be tart. I'll use jalapeno to create a sense of spice along with other tastes," Bates added.
The effect is to generate discovery. The first taste of the palate of a particular dish may quickly combine or even be replaced by a new sensation. Additional tastes emerge with each bite. Bates' culinary creations are designed to be enjoyed slowly, reflectively, even savored.
The menu is printed daily and includes seafood, steaks and even a sirloin hamburger. Lighter fare such as Kona coast shrimp salad or seared fillet of beef salad can satisfy hunger without distorting a bathing suit. The Kona coast shrimp salad blends jumbo prawns over baby mixed greens with wonton skins topped by a miso vinaigrette, spiced up with local peppers. But, best advice: Just come to enjoy the unique blends of spices and sauces that has given Bates such an outstanding reputation.
For starters, pan seared scallops are an absolute must. The large scallops, picked for freshness and taste, are served over potato pancakes.
The nut crusted brie is a melted slice of this wonderful cheese, topped by crunchy walnuts and served with grilled ciabatta bread triangles that hold and increase the cheese flavor.
Bates loves seafood. He grew up in Baltimore and got early exposure, particularly to crab and shellfish. His lobster bisque is rich and hearty in taste, full of butter and cream, but -- for all that -- has a light consistency that doesn't fill one up before the next course arrives. The menu when I went offered halibut, salmon, sea bass and shark. The cioppino combined many of these ingredients in an herb lobster broth to create a stew with an aroma exceeded only by its taste. The salmon was wrapped in prosciutto (note the differing tastes and textures -- a Bates trademark), served over a five-bean ragout.
Skirts of Fire arrives on a sizzling platter, a marinated flat iron steak, grilled and garnished with smoked jalapeno butter. The prime rib was absolutely outstanding, full of flavor and remarkably tender. To make the prime rib, a large slab of aged meat is sliced for the insertion of spices into its interior. The outside is quickly seared. Then it is slowly roasted for 15 hours. The end result is moist, succulent and wonderful.
A number of combination dishes mix the best of the steak and seafood options. The wine list (printed on the back of the large menu) has a wide range of choices at fair prices, with many available by the glass.
As I came in I saw a display of desserts by the entrance and couldn't get them out of my mind. The lemon tart was fabulous, a combination of meringue and custard layers surrounded by fresh blueberries and raspberries.
Despite its location and marvelous cuisine, prices at World Famous are moderate. Monday nights are particularly good because specials are featured at 50 percent off.
The restaurant is located at 711 Pacific Beach Drive. Valet parking is offered. Call (858) 272-3100 for assistance.
Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine and member of the California Restaurant Writers Association.