By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Imagine if San Diego and New York traded culinary places. Manhattanites could grab a killer carnitas burrito while sauntering through Times Square while we stuff our faces at any Downtown street corner with pizzas using soft water in the dough — the debated element that distinguishes East Coast pizza from all others.
Based on my extensive eating in both cities, neither scenario seems possible.
Mexican food as we know it generally sucks throughout the Northeast. And whether it’s because of our mineral-loaded “hard” water, semi-arid climate or some inexplicable circumstance, achieving the greatness of back-East pizza in San Diego remains an earnest aspiration rather than an achieved reality.
New York West, located in the overly named Embassy Suites by Hilton San Diego Bay Downtown, came close to that benchmark in a specialty pizza we ordered. It scored even better with meatballs and cannelloni, both of which tasted as though they originated from a mom-and-pop eatery in Manhattan’s shrinking Little Italy district.
The restaurant is accessible from Harbor Drive, where a spacious dining patio resides, or via a short jaunt through lobby’s main doors on Pacific Highway.
The interior features an attractive bar with nostalgic paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando and the like. There’s also a special-events “show” kitchen that adds visual warmth to a mix of high-top tables and standard ones dressed in linens. The motif falls somewhere between a West Coast sports bar and a chic restaurant in New York’s midtown.
Co-owner J.T. Meadows — not a native New Yorker — also operates the San Diego Pizza Company food truck, and he’s about to open Fault Line Bar & Grill later this month in the East Village. (See this issue’s Food and Drink Blotter for details.)
Classic New York dishes comprise about 80 percent of the menu with choices extending to an antipasto salad, spaghetti with meatball, linguini with clams, New York strip steak, various pizzas and more.
They mingle with such continental items as burgers, lemon-caper chicken, grilled salmon with béchamel sauce, and the lobster-topped deviled eggs we ordered as an appetizer.
Available with or without herb-crusted bottoms, we chose the former. The whites of the eggs, however, were over-cooked and created a rubbery barrier between the tasty herb crust and whipped yolks, which were accented with tender chunks of poached lobster.
Excellent concept, but not the gourmet version of a Scottish egg I had envisioned.
Our other appetizer, “not your mama’s meatball,” was a substantial orb of beef and pork belly cooked to supple perfection.
I was concerned it might taste bacon-y, but instead it delivered the soulful flavors of herbs and garlic, plus sweetness from the deep-red tomato sauce draped over it.
Veal and beef is a classic meat combination in New York kitchens and it appeared inside the cannelloni pasta tubes my companion ordered.
Spinach, nutmeg and cloves were the added bonuses that made them intriguingly more enjoyable.
New York West makes its pizza dough in-house. It’s stretched relatively thin and offers an outer crust that is crispy on the outside and pleasantly bready inside.
We ordered the fredo, topped with mild pesto sauce, grilled chicken, roasted tomatoes, fresh basil and Parmesan cheese.
Our only complaint was that the abundant juice from the sweet tomatoes seemingly waterlogged the pizza’s underbelly, causing it to quickly loose its crunch.
New York cheesecake is also made onsite and it doesn’t get any better in terms of creaminess. It sported a texture that was both firm and fluffy. The filling contained classic, subtle notes of vanilla extract and possibly citrus while the graham cracker crust was sinfully buttery without tasting excessively cloying.
The bar offerings cater well to locals and hotel visitors alike with boutique wines and many of the beer taps flaunting labels from craft breweries. In addition, the cocktail list features everything from margaritas and mai tais to gimlets, martinis and of course, Manhattans.
Happy hour is held from 4–7 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 10 p.m.–midnight, daily. Discounts apply to beer and various appetizers. Parking in the area at any time can be tricky, although according to the restaurant, customers can park for two hours within the hotel garage for $5 with validation.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.