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Osetra Watergrill: Where angels still fly

The name on the marquee was changed, but the angels are still there -- "wine angels," that is.

Osetra The Fishhouse, which has served diners for years at the corner of E Street and Fifth Avenue, has changed its name and operating focus. It is now known as Osetra Watergrill.

"We want to expand the range of our customers," explained general manager Alberto Morreale. "For years, we were known as an excellent, but expensive seafood restaurant. Our restaurant, now upstairs, still features seafood as well as steaks and chicken. But, downstairs, we've opened the E-5 Lounge, with frequent entertainment and a well-priced tapas menu in a casual atmosphere that local residents as well as visitors can enjoy."

Osetra's marketing emphasis now is to build a loyal customer base of local residents, many of who live or work within walking distance. Its "tapas" menu features imaginative and tasty dishes such as Kobe Beef Sliders, mini-burgers with sauteed onions, blue cheese and mustard aioli. Other delicious dishes listed include Tempura Lobster Tacos, Baby Lamb Chops and Seafood Paella.

The E-5 Lounge -- named for being at Fifth Avenue and E Street, not some abstract scientific formula -- is comfortable, with bar and table seating and good entertainment. When I attended, it was hard to tell the Gypsy Kings sound-alike band from the real thing.

The name "Osetra" refers to seafood. It is actually a type of sturgeon, from which a fine caviar comes, with nice, firm eggs, delicious nutty flavor and beautiful shiny look. Naturally, Osetra Watergrill features a good selection of caviars and vodka.

"Our steaks also are excellent," Morealle said. "Our meats are all prime and aged 24 days."

Now also part owner of Osetra, Morreale was once the executive chef whose recipes led to the restaurant's success. He heard the calling to become a chef when he was a very young man in Sicily, where was fascinated by cooking. He got a job as a helper in a local restaurant but his passion for food motivated his boss to mentor him in culinary skills. After a few years, he moved to Northern Italy to master the style of cooking that made that region so well liked.

He later returned to Sicily, but wanted 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. Morreale combined creative sauces with many of his dishes.

The dining room upstairs is on a mezzanine-like landing that winds around the wine tower. Window-side table allow diners a view of the action on the streets below. Settings are elegant and decor is enhanced with attractive paintings on the walls, many by Miro. Service is attentive, as would be expected in a fine-dining setting.

Appetizers include Skirt Steak, drizzled with a Balsamic vinegar reduction, and Trio of Tartare, layers of avocado, crabmeats and sashimi grade tuna, drizzled with wasabi oil. The Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail, served with a mild but zesty sauce, was wonderfully fresh and tasty.

There is an elaborate selection of seafood, covering a range of textures. Maine Lobster, large 3 1/2 lbs, is tempting or one may order Seafood Bouillabaisse, the famous soup which includes a half lobster in the melange of fish, clams and crablegs. Pacific Escolar, a mild fish, is pan seared and served with a caramelized onion sauce.

Chilean Sea Bass, one of the signature dishes, was wonderfully glazed and flaked easily. The grilled polenta strips that accompanied the fish were crisp on the surface and flavorful. Sole was baked, stuffed with blue crab meat and served as a roll over ratatouille mashed potato -- an excellent dish.

The wine list is extensive and well worth reviewing. Servers can assist with selections. The Vouvray from the Loire Valley, followed by a California Pinot Noir, were excellent recommendations.

Desserts, always the best way to end a delightful meal, include classic Tiramisu and Cappuccino Creme Brulee, with berries. The Lemon Tower, a sponge cake with lemon cream, also is adorned with berries.

Speaking of towers, the "wine angels" still fly. One of Osetra's 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, or "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. Osetra brought it to San Diego.

Osetra Watergrill is located at 904 Fifth Ave. Prices in the upstairs restaurant are consistent with fine dining, and the tapas in the E-5 Lounge downstairs are consistent with more casual dining. Entertaiment is offered mid-week. 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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