By Frank Sabatini Jr.
What’s cooking at the Brigantine as she sails into her 50th anniversary?
There are contemporary dishes to satisfy new generations of diners and enough of the tried-and-true to keep longtime fans cruising in regularly.
It had been ages since I set foot into a Brigantine restaurant. Particularly the La Mesa location, which sits prettily at the base of Mt. Helix with its lushly landscaped grounds, sprawling patio and raised bar area flaunting an open kitchen. Having opened in the late ’80s, it received a remodel a few years back, resulting in lighter colors and handsome wood flooring.
The restaurant’s humble beginnings, however, date back to 1969, when Mike Morton Sr. and his wife, Barbara, founded the first Brigantine in Shelter Island. Swordfish was all the rage back then, and the Mortons gave the steak-like fish top billing.
“In the first few years, my parents were almost bankrupt and just tried keeping their heads above water,” said Mike Morton Jr., who serves as company president. “Neither of them had experience in the restaurant business. They learned through the school of hard knocks.”
Today, there are seven Brigantines throughout San Diego County, with an eighth coming to the family’s $25-plus million Portside Pier along Downtown San Diego’s waterfront. The mega-venue will also house other dining brands owned by the Mortons, such as Miguel’s Cocina and Ketch.
Waves of nostalgia rolled over us while delving into a nicely chilled shrimp cocktail amid nautical décor that still pervades. My dining companion became sentimental too, recalling a dinner he ate here with his late father when he visited from the Midwest. The shrimp, with its classic ketchup-horseradish sauce, we recalled, regularly served as our meal starter.
Fresh oysters have been in the offing for a long time, although I don’t remember them topped with shallot-shoyu butter and crumbled wontons. Their toasted crowns gave the traditional slurp some chew, and the combined flavors of the shallots and Japanese soy sauce paired jubilantly with the oceanic essence of the bivalves. (Oysters are also available raw or broiled with garlic butter.)
Many of the old-school favorites remain firmly intact, such as Brigantine’s peppery version of New England-style clam chowder, traditional Caesar salad, filet mignon, and of course the famous fish tacos made with Alaskan pollock, which didn’t debut until 1984.
Yet several contemporary upgrades have been made to certain dishes. And they left us highly pleased.
Beginning with our salads, a normally ho-hum iceberg wedge came draped with buttermilk-blue cheese dressing that exceeded in flavor and richness standard versions of yesteryear. And the house medley of baby lettuces offered an engaging interplay of dried cranberries, hearts of palm and robust blue cheese crumbles. Certainly not newfangled creations, but 21st-century salads done right.
The grilled swordfish used to always come with tartar sauce and lemon. But that changed in the mid-’90s, when a former corporate chef began finishing off the fish with pucks of avocado-lime butter. I was enthralled. The fish had the coveted flavor of charred top sirloin while the melting butter lubricated the filet with tangy creaminess.
In addition, the swordfish these days includes Parmesan risotto and broccolini, culinary props that diners only two generations ago might have considered foreign. I opted instead for two old-fashioned inclusions after learning from our waitress it’s permissible: a plump baked potato and par-sauteed veggies. My plate appeared dog-licked in the end.
We also shared pan-roasted scallops, which I’m certain in earlier days didn’t come served over corn succotash speckled with bacon and edamame. The trio of semi-large scallops were cooked to that perfect near-opaqueness while the co-stars of the dish added sweet-and-savory undertones.
The most recent newcomer to the menu is Brigantine’s first dedicated vegetarian dish — charred Japanese eggplant with lime-kissed cauliflower rice, plus carrots, peas, toasted almonds, pickled mushrooms, and red curry-coconut sauce. I was tempted, but it’s unlikely I’ll ever pull my appetite out of the ocean when dining here.
Brigantine’s bar offerings have evolved with the rest of the world’s. There are classic mules and margaritas, and signature cocktails such as sparkling pears, vodka grapefruit frescas and pomegranate sangria. The latter smacked of that deep, refreshing fruitiness you’d wish all sangrias offered.
The wine list shows off some impressive picks. Among them was a superbly structured “founders” cabernet sauvignon by Hahn Family Wines that carried me through dinner. Other lauded names include Duckhorn, Stag’s Leap, Cakebread and St. Francis.
My Brigantine tradition of ending dinner with a jumbo slab of mud pie fell overboard when laying eyes on a flourless peanut butter and chocolate cake. We backed it up with a slice of white chocolate-lemon cheesecake. Both could have originated from a gourmet bakery.
Which left me realizing that today’s proliferation of new restaurants, with their often over-ambitious menus and lack of soundproofing, had kept us away from the Brigantine far too long, if only because we thought of it as old-timey.
Note: In celebration of its 50th anniversary, all Brigantine locations will offer three-course dinners for two for $50 throughout the month of October.
— 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.