Life is full of journeys, some small some not so small, whether it be a complex journey through life or a simple journey through a new dining experience. Regarding the latter, I recently had the honor of visiting a gem nestled right next to the Midway Museum at the Embarcadero. Since 1976, Top of the Market has been one of the best when it comes to fresh seafood. The likely partnership of a fisherman and a boat captain led to the audacious idea of bringing the freshest seafood possible to diner’s tables. Decades before the very popular (and I believe overused) phrase of farm-to-table even came to life, Top of the Market embodied an ocean-to-table philosophy that focused on quality. The Fish Market has now grown to six restaurants in San Diego, with two upscale versions of their concept, one located in San Mateo.
The first thing I can honestly say about Top of the Market in San Diego is that it offers one of the best views in the city, period. Rivaling the view from Il Fornaio in Coronado and C Level on Harbor Island, Top of the Market offers you more than just downtown views, it offers the massive colossus that is the Midway and then nothing but blue ocean. Our maître d quickly received us with a charming and joyful smile as if he had been expecting us for quite some time. Though the restaurant was more than ¾ full, he proudly asked if were from L’CHAIM Magazine. Maybe it was the stack of magazines I carried that gave me away but it was still a nice gesture, and made me feel like I was going over to a friend’s house for dinner.
Our group was seated in a stunning table right next to the window overlooking the bay and aircraft carrier. The one thing that upscale dining will always hit you with its first impression is their attention to detail. The table was set up exquisitely with every utensil, plate and cloth napkin formed with military (or should I say Navy) like precision. We were quickly introduced to our server, Shawna (who has served eight years with Top of The Market) who confidently welcomed us to the tasting. And so we sat, with the sun slowly setting to the west, anxiously awaiting the journey to come.
Chef Ivan Flowers walked out to our table and presented himself. Confident and proud, he gave us a quick rundown on how the night would progress, starting with an amuse bouche and then followed by three courses with a cocktail/wine pairing for each. To end the night we would have a dessert of choice.
Lobster bisque with porcini infusion topped with an Island Creek Oyster with Meyer lemon and a Vietnamese chili droplet.
Cocktail Pairing: Mai Tai and Sangria Blanco
Disclaimer: It’s obvious that the tasting would not be “kosher” in a literal sense. The Chef joked with us that growing up in New York in a secular Jewish home made it easier for him to experience the wonders of every ingredient, regardless of it being kosher or not.
The bisque was velvety and smooth. The buttery aftertaste was not overshadowed by the hit of wondrous lobster and second it stayed in my mouth. The unique plating of having the bisque in a shot glass allowed me to take tiny sips of the bisque, much like a tequila tasting, which allowed me to taste every ingredient included. On top, a succulent oyster was a perfect way to start this journey.
Togarashi seared yellowfin, Hiramasa crudo and Kurabuto confit pork belly brulee. Sweet soy wasabi and limoncello vinaigrette arabesque. Black garlic tempura.
Wine Pairing: Top of the Market Riesling
Chef Flowers presented us with a first course filled with large morels of food; two if by sea and … well, you get the rest. True to their name, the freshness of their fish could only be appreciated in raw form. And we were lucky to have two varieties in the first course. For people who don’t feel like fish, the beef was the star of the dish. The tenderness of this dish literally (and yes please, let’s just start a drinking game for overused food phrases) melted in my mouth. And to end the course with an extremely playful item in the bruleed pork belly was masterful. Texturally out of the box with its crunchy top and smooth bottom, it was he perfect start to this meal. I am an outspoken fan of red wine and not the biggest fan of white, but the house Riesling was also to die for: dry and light, it made a perfect pair for the dish.
Tip: One of our diners was pregnant and couldn’t indulge in the paired libations, so the bartenders paired her dishes with AMAZING (and yes I did write that in caps because I literally yelled it) mocktails. Our server Shawna also informed us those mocktails are available with alcohol, should you wish to create your own delicious drink.
Crispy Skin Striped Bass. Asparagus Fritti, Black Truffle Caviar, Lobster Rose Sauce.
Wine Pairing: Domaine Barat “Premier Cru” Chablis, Vaillons France
As we started our second course, Chef Flowers did something that won my admiration even more. Chef Flowers pulled Ulises, the server’s assistant over to our table and introduced him to us. Chef Flowers stated that he works just as hard as anyone for this tasting and it would be a disservice not to allow him to have his moment in the sun. Ulises bashfully smiled (probably looking for an escape plan as he more than likely did not like the spot light) and cleaned the breadcrumbs off the table and went about his job. We dug into our second course with ferocity, cutting down on a crispy skin partnered with just-as-al dente tempura fried asparagus. The dollop of salty caviar on top of the bass was a perfect pairing making the course heaven on a plate.
Pan Roasted Deep Water Alaskan Halibut. Baby Heirloom Carrots, Confit Tomatoes and Marinated Arugula. Smokey Coriander Piquillo Pepper Sauce.
Wine Pairing: Trione Russian River Pinot Noir
Our bellies had started to get full, but we continued, beckoning our inner cow and creating more space in my stomach. I could not resist my personal favorite fish, halibut. This one was cooked to perfection; flakey, white and sublime. On top was a peppery mix of arugula, which made a perfect match with the delicate fish and vegetables it sat on. The baby heirloom carrots were a sweet addition to the lightness of the fish, and brought the whole plate together nicely. Plus, they look so cute!
Tip: Make sure you bring your quarters if you’re not valet parking. Parking meters are enforced until 8 p.m. Just forget the meters and enjoy yourself, splurge on the very reasonable $10 valet.
We allowed our server Shawna to choose our two desserts. She smiled, explaining that the restaurant had its own executive pastry chef known for their deserts, and returned with tiramisu and vanilla bean crème brulee. I’ll be honest, I was a tad thrown askew, as these were not the unique desserts I was hoping for, but they were really the best way to end this culinary journey.
Fresh vanilla bean and a perfect crust on the brulee made this the best brulee I have ever tasted anywhere. Again, the attention to detail on the kitchen’s part was obvious at first bite. The tiramisu also did not disappoint; as the faint taste of liquor dissipated and made way for the delicate sweetness of mascarpone and ladyfingers in the perfectly layered dessert. I’d come back just for either of these items; they were that good.
Editor’s Note: The Fish Market and Top of the Market suffered a major fire at their San Diego location on May 27. Though the restaurant is closed now for repairs and renovations, we thought the food and service during our visit was so excellent that it deserved the planned mention in this month’s issue. As soon as the doors reopen, we will definitely be back to enjoy a meal and support the wonderful people at Top of the Market.
From the restaurant: “Gratefully, all employees, managers and guests were safely evacuated. We thank the community for all their support and we will be reopening soon. Thanks again, The Fish Market Restaurants”