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Osetra The Fishhouse: Flying angels and frying fish

"Look! That girl is hanging in mid-air!" my dinner companion exclaimed, after taking a bite of her food. "She's a wine angel. She's getting a bottle of wine out of storage for a diner," I explained.

We were having dinner at Osetra The Fishhouse, a stylish restaurant on Fifth Avenue, a few short blocks from an entrance to Horton Plaza. The restaurant looks chic and modern. One of its key features is a "wine tower," a large cube that rises three stories to the top of the building. The tower holds part of the extensive wine collection for which the restaurant has won well-deserved accolades. Pretty girls, "wine angels," are hoisted up into the air to get the bottles that are ordered. This exciting feature was first introduced at a popular restaurant in New York and was later duplicated at a major eatery in Las Vegas. Now, San Diego has two restaurants with this attraction -- Galileo 101 with a slightly smaller version and Osetra with a taller version.

Osetra's wine tower and extensive wine list has won the restaurant a strong following among young business people and professionals in the downtown core. But much of its success is also due to the culinary skills of its executive chef, Alberto Morreale.

Morreale heard the calling to become a chef when he was a young man in Sicily. He got a job as a helper in a local restaurant but his passion for food motivated his boss to mentor him in culinary arts. His skills grew but, after a few years, he moved to northern Italy to master the style of cooking that made that region so well liked. He returned to Sicily after several years but felt the desire to work in the "world's most competitive restaurant market" -- the United States. As luck would have it, his cousin, who owned another important Gaslamp restaurant, offered him a job. He came to San Diego and, because of his skills, he quickly rose to the position of executive chef at Osetra. Morreale combines creative sauces with his dishes.

True to its name Osetra The Fishhouse serves lots of fish, all kinds of fish. "I must spend half my day shopping for the freshest product," Morreale confided. "Unless it is absolutely the best, I send it back."

There are only a few places that serve caviar. Osetra has it -- Caspian and Sevruga. It is pricey but the sensation of little bubbles of pleasure popping in your mouth is priceless. Taken together with a sip of ice-cold vodka, the flavor is simply decadent. The eating of caviar can be part of a ceremony and the setup that comes with the order -- crostini, blini, egg yolk, red onions and more -- makes it possible to enjoy caviar with full honors.

Oysters are another popular delight served in the large bar. They are fresh daily and served with a selection of sauces. Sitting at the bar watching TV on the huge set and relishing oysters is a great way to spend a happy hour.

A small dining room is set beside the bar, in what feels like an alcove. The rest of the restaurant seating, and the private function rooms, are located at the top of a broad, sweeping staircase. (An elevator is available for the faint of heart.) The dÈcor upstairs continues the chic, trendy downstairs look, offering nice views of the lower area to tables at the railing. The restaurant has a warm, welcoming feel, accentuated by the attentive service provided by the staff.

Appetizers come either hot or cold. The chilled Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail has a tangy sauce and great "crunch." A delicious Smoked Trout is served over warm potato. On the warm side, Fried Calamari is light and tasty with a spicy marinara sauce. The Lobster Bisque was excellent, with lots of lobster chunks floating in it. My favorite salad was Seafood Hearts Of Romaine, a Cesar-type mixing romaine with shrimp and scallops.

The select seafood entrees include a monster size Maine lobster -- 3 1/2 pounds -- stuffed with crabmeat. Alaska king crab, salmon, swordfish and dover sole are among the dishes available, including a bouillabaisse that combines them all. Mahi Mahi had a subtle cilantro crust that tantalized the palate with recurrent bursts of robust flavor. Several meat dishes are on the menu, including a mammoth bone-in rib eye. Another dish gaining a following is ostrich, pan-seared and served with bok choy and mashed potato. The sauce is a lovely Madera wine and fig reduction.

Be sure to leave room for dessert. Traditional favorites like crËme brulee and chocolate concoctions can bring a great meal to a resounding close.

Don't leave your wallet at home. Osetra The Fishhouse is expensive. But the ambiance and the quality of cuisine and service make it a worthwhile experience, particularly over the holiday season. Osetra The Fishhouse is located at 904 Fifth Ave. Call (619) 239-1800 for information and reservations.


Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine and member of the California Restaurant Writers Association. Send comments to the editor@sddt.com. All letters are forwarded to the author and may be used as Letters to the Editor.

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