Few high-end food items are as maligned by discerning foodies as surf and turf, the combo plate of meat and seafood that has tragically been reduced on many menus to a pairing of an over-sauced filet and an overcooked lobster tail.
No wonder the 1990 Encyclopedia Of Bad Taste damned the dish as “classic kitsch,” one “guided not by aesthetic concerns, but for the sake of vulgar display.”
Kyle Viera, executive chef at the Oceanaire Seafood Room, recognizes that the dish gets a bad rap. “People assume that a surf-and-turf dish is typically just a cheap steak served with a frozen lobster tail, when it can actually be so much more,” he explains. And Carl Schroeder of Market Del Mar argues that “if you pair perfectly prepared steak with perfectly cooked lobster, it really is amazing.”
Some 56 years after surf and turf was first served, during the 1962 World’s Fair, chefs like Viera and Schroeder are giving a much-needed makeover to this dish previously favored by the indecisively extravagant. Viera’s version substitutes pork belly for the steak and sea scallops for the lobster, along with a celery root puree and baby arugula, among other seasonal ingredients.
Schroeder’s take—miso-braised prime beef short ribs with spicy togarashi grilled octopus and truffled dashi broth—is less about preconceptions of the original dish and more about recreating a cherished memory.
“I spent a lot of time in Japan doing consulting for an American cuisine restaurant,” Schroeder remembers. “One night, I happened onto a restaurant in someone’s home where the whole family was cooking and serving you. I had octopus that night, and I also had miso-braised short ribs. I thought how great the two would be together, and so this dish was born.”
Meanwhile, Steve Brown of Cosecha SD, a prix fixe menu restaurant with a constantly changing menu, takes a more traditional approach while still reinventing surf and turf. “It’s all about harmonizing the bounties of land and sea on one dish,” he explains. In his interpretation, a 60-day dry-aged bone-in ribeye serves as the “turf,” while the “surf” includes a “unicorn” espuma—a froth made from a sea urchin and corn sauce, as well as lobster roe smoked bordelaise and foraged sea lettuce. “The ribeye is very rich with a little buttery funk, so I wanted to bring in multiple small components to stand up to the steak,” he says.
Other restaurants where diners can experience this new wave of surf and turf include Bleu Boheme in Kensington, where the dish is a cassoulet of escargots and shrimp, and STAKE Chophouse and Bar in Coronado, where it’s a steak tartare featuring smoked scallops. Regardless of the ingredients, Ryan Moore of Primavera Ristorante in Coronado stresses that balance is the key, something he manages with his Surf ON Turf variation: a 16-ounce grilled veal chop topped with Dungeness crab, sliced parma prosciutto, white asparagus and fontina cheese, with a sherry demi-glace. “No one flavor should ever overpower another one, or the entire dish,” he emphasizes. “When working with two proteins, it’s important that they complement each other. They should balance, like a perfect marriage of flavors.”
How long will this wave of culinary creativity last? The sky’s the limit, according to Marc Johnson, executive chef at Red O Taste of Mexico in La Jolla, who serves a 30-ounce tomahawk chop and a 1-pound lobster tail along with rice, beans, guacamole, pico, tortillas and two sauces.
“I think there’s a lot of room for creativity with this dish,” he says, “as long as one basic rule is followed—one has to walk, and one has to swim!”