Donovan’s Prime Seafood
333 5th Ave.
Starters $6 to $30, entrees $32 to $45, desserts $5 to $14
Chef Kemar Durfield hits every high-note at this Gaslamp classic restaurant
By David Nelson | Downtown Restaurant Critic
What makes it instantly obvious Kemar Durfield—chef and general manager of Gaslamp’s Donovan’s Prime Seafood—is a graduate of the kitchen at Addison, which just about everyone ranks as the top restaurant in San Diego County?
It’s easy: staffers iron the tablecloths directly on tabletops, eliminating any risk pesky creases or wrinkles might spoil a discerning diner’s complete appreciate of Durfield’s lovely and lovingly crafted cuisine. Addison introduced the practice locally and, thus far, Donovan’s is the only establishment to take it up.
Very much a special occasion restaurant, Donovan’s is the sort of place at which food insiders drop names the same way agents lunching in Beverly Hills casually allude to the celebrities in their stables. Names include Petrossian, the Paris-and-New York-based importer that supplies the precious Ossetra caviar that Durfield uses to decorate a plush Hamachi tartare. Names like James Boyce, William Bradley and Michael Mina, three leading American chefs who taught Durfield some of the most magical tricks of the trade. Names like Laughing Bird Gulf, Maine and Alaska, the breeding grounds of the ultra-choice shellfish that Durfield uses inventively to make his menu both luxurious and worth the investment.
Although the restaurant occupies a sizable space on a prime stretch of Fifth Avenue, the arrangement of the tables, the lighting and service make it seem intimate and private. There’s none of the ultra-social party atmosphere that has become such a popular distraction elsewhere. The mood allows guests to enjoy one another and the cuisine, which consistently demands close attention.
Oh, but back to that Ossetra caviar. Durfield uses it carefully but memorably in appetizers like the shellfish cocktail: an arrangement of prawns, clams and mussels with celery root and micro-cilantro. The dish is layered with coconut shavings, adding texture, and moistened with a slightly spicy, gazpacho-inspired broth. The caviar is also the kicker in a side garnish: a shooter of an oyster, some citrus and some Champagne ice (granite, for the French) that doubles the presentation’s luxury.
No less lush, the Hamachi tartare is tricked out in as many choice accoutrements as a Parisian model, among them a little crown of greenery centered by a finger of Ossetra caviar garnished with a few precious grains of gold leaf. Lime vinaigrette and a suave avocado cream meld the minced raw fish quite marvelously. So well, in fact, that a fellow diner paused long enough between bites to breathe, “This is divine.”
Meals consistently get off to good starts, with handsomely garnished crab cakes (more like cubes, actually) that probably are the best in town and a presentation of Laughing Bird shrimp (from the gulf of the same name on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica) in a robust bouillabaisse studded with caramelized garlic. Most items in the calamari appetizer appear twice, like charred tomatoes and tomato broth, grilled fennel dusted with fennel pollen and so forth. It’s about the nicest thing that ever happened to a little school of squid.
Entrees receive equally expert attention. Among the best are seared turbot (a choice fish rarely found on local menus) with shiitake mushrooms and citrus butter and diver scallops poised on a remarkable risotto, flavored with nutty Parmesan and tart, tongue-delighting sorrel. The simple perfection of seared Pacific Ahi tuna in a soy consommé with forest mushrooms and edamame makes you tackle it slowly, appreciating every bite to the fullest. For more traditional luxury, the entrée list includes market-priced Alaskan king crab, Main lobster garnished with gnocchi, turnips and walnuts (that’s a new idea, and quite charming) and a couple of USDA prime steaks for Donovan’s Steakhouse fans, maintaining allegiance to the most buttery and tender beef.
The brown butter pound cake is so light it should be called a half-pound cake. It’s delicious with the caramelized pear and butterscotch ice cream that flank it. A dark rum sauce and a brittle almond Florentine work equal wonders with the bananas Foster, but for something light, scoops of mango and raspberry sorbet end the meal on a graceful note.