Friday, December 3, 2010

Dockside Grill at John Wayne Marina

Why, because we live in a small town, do we accept mediocre food and service when we dine out?  Should we?  Should there be a sliding scale of expectations as one travels away from San Francisco or New York?  NO!  Not unless there is an equivalent diminution of price.  But since we pay as much (or shockingly, more), out here, lets hold restaurants to the same standard, shall we?

We have been anticipating our visit to the Dockside for some time.  A good friend suggested we go together, and we made arrangements to do so.  Good friends alway make a good meal better- brighter, over too soon, shared enjoyment; and a bad meal worse- uncomfortable, embarrassing, slow.

This review is a bit longish, I want to cover this little place well, since we have less than a handful of similar establishments out here.  It is appropriate to get into some detail about them.  Unfortunately, it also lacks pictures, so I substituted a couple of links.  You will have to read the review to find them.

The John Wayne Marina is out of town, and there is almost no advertising for this little place in town or on the highway going past the marina road.  The Dockside Grill is part of the marina, so its survival and prosperity depend solely on word of mouth.  The restaurant is located in the building with the harbormaster, what was the chandler's store, the public restrooms and showers.  So is it worth a drive on dark winding roads to get there?

As we walked in, the exterior is not inviting- there really is no sign, no signature entrance.  In fact you have to kinda know where you are going to find the door in the dark.  On the sidewalk leading to the Dockside you pass the vent for the hood fan blowing out of the side of the building, kind of a warm breeze at face level.  The aroma was good, if overpowering.  It announced that we were getting closer to our destination.  But it was a bit unfortunate to be hit with what you imagine is a greasy wind!  Open the door, and the aroma changes to a smell.  Musty, sewery.  Reminded me of Hong Kong, not pleasantly.

The floor is carpeted with a brown industrial carpet.  Effective at noise abatement, inexpensive, but could that be the source of the smell?  Working to ignore what my nose was sensing, I looked around.  The decor is tastefully warm- brown and lightly nautical, as it should be.  Big banquet chairs, and nice sized granite tables.  I am favorable impressed by the dining surface being a statement like that.  Wine is prominently displayed, but in what would be kindly called an eclectic collection of make shift wine racks.  Lighting is effective, not bad, not dramatic.  Music is just the right volume, nice acoustic guitar vibes.

The servers are dressed in black pressed shirts and slacks.  Just like in the city.  None are obese, no facial piercings or tats, so I am encouraged.  After all, my expectations, if not my standards, have been lowered by life in the sticks.  On approaching, I am also impressed by our waitress' ability to speak clearly and in real good english.  Sentences.  No "umms".  What is the point of being able to speak well if you have nothing to say?  Our server had plenty to tell us about- specials of all kinds, apps, entrees, fish, meat, all kinds of good things.  She does it perfectly, helping us understand the off menu items, and listening to our questions.

The menu is broad and interesting, and lunch is not a downsized dinner, it requires its own visit to evaluate.  The offerings are imaginative and if the off menu specials weren't so compelling, I would dive into this menu.

Bread is served warm, from a very nice local bakery, with a very good olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  I would prefer if the vinegar were left out of the oil, but I know most people like the mix.  The Martinis were served quickly, cold and correctly.  We chose two starters, clams and mussels, both locally sourced from our great Pac Nor fisheries. The clams are prepared in a traditional way, butter and white wine.  There is perhaps more sauce than there should be, and the garlic and herbs could be dialed back a bit to let the clams come through more- they are beautiful little morsels.  I had a bit of sand in the couple I had, maybe this is unavoidable.  The mussels are in a coconut milk curry flavored sauce.  Again, they are tender, perfectly cooked mussel morsels.  The sauce was replete with fresh garlic.  May have been better toasted to remove the bite, but really that is cutting it a bit fine.  Both apps were delicious ways to start.  As an afterthought, we added some oysters harvested a few mile away.  They were well shucked, cold and clean.  Delicious!  The accompanying three sauces were a bit of a puzzle though.  A cocktail sauce, unimaginative but typical; a kind of aioli-like ranch dressing; and what was called, but did not resemble a mignonette.   We enjoyed them straight out of the shell.

Our main courses consisted of New Zealand venison, and locally caught steelhead.  I wondered why the venison had to be imported, but then recalled that there has been a great deal of pressure to close game farms here due to diseases getting out of the captive stock and into the wild.  The steelhead season is just getting started, so I was looking for some inspiration to get out on the rivers and extend the fishing season.  It was also topped with Dungeness crab, that I fancied had been brought into the marina earlier in the day (as we drove in, the commercial buyer had just pulled out).  This is the epicenter of the Dungy Kingdom.  Along with the entrees we had several choices of sides- soups, starches and vegetables.  These were, happily, difficult choices.  They all sounded delicious.

The steelhead first.  When ordering fish, the first thing I check is for cooking.  Ours was perfect.  Just past the translucent stage.  Its flavor was delicate and fresh.  Nothing added to detract from the fish.  I couldn't get a handle on the butter cream sauce, that was broken, but do appreciate it stayed out of the way.  The topping of crab was abundant, almost an entree in itself!  It was delicious, and complimented the fish with its sweetness.  Adding crab to a center plate protein is something done more often than it should be.  With the steelhead, it was a good idea.  The sides were uneven.  The bean soup was very well flavored, but very salty.  The polenta was quite nice, with good flavor from the red bell peppers and cooked well, it was just too thick, if you want to split hairs.

The venison was a real surprise.  We were eating with people raised on venison, and this they rated up with the best.  It was tender, perfectly cooked (rare), and the flavor was deep with its grassiness coming as a hint at the end. The demi-glace was spot on, and enhanced with dried plums and apricots.  Really fine, traditional cooking.  The soup served with it was french onion, also salty.  Could it be these soups are held warm all day?  Surely not, but that would explain them reducing to a concentration of salt like this.

We were shown the desserts in a very well executed presentation by our server.  They all looked very, very tempting.  But they were also very, very mono-chromatic.  Varying shades of cream and chocolate. Nothing light and fruity, nothing new.  But all executed very very well.  We shared salted caramel pudding, and it was truly good, balanced, tasty and restrained.  Mmmmmm!

OK, the summary?  Service as good as it gets, professional, trained, pleasant and informal.  Better than I have seen in several years, including in NYC! Congratulations, someone is working hard at this.  The kitchen can cook.  Dishes are well conceived, and recipes well designed.  Execution is inconsistent with the potential of the dishes, but the central items are so well done they deserve to be enjoyed.  The owners are rightfully proud of their well deserved awards, reviews and experience.  They have been here for over 3 years, so it seems to be working.

The bill was reasonable for the quality of the experience we had.  I will go back.  I would recommend anyone make a significant side trip to visit.  We were at Dockside around 6:30 on Saturday night.  The A team should have been cooking, and the dining room should have been full.  Sadly, it wasn't.  We saw 3 or 4 other parties, all more than 4 diners, but not a full house.  In any city, a restaurant this good would have been on a wait.  But around here, people patronize places they have always patronized.  It is the hill up which a restauranteur pushes his business.

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