By Frank Sabatini Jr.
We initially delved into house-made potato chips, Buffalo-style chicken wings and shrimp ceviche stacked on a trio of delectably crisped corn tortillas — foods you’d expect from everyday restaurants that make no apologies for weaving a little grease into your meal. Yet at the new Drift eat + drink, there isn’t a deep fryer to be found, which is exactly what the kitchen intended.
Drift replaced the outdated Michael’s inside the Hyatt Regency La Jolla after a $12 million renovation to areas of the hotel. It soft-opened in September with a sleek mid-century design, spanning two interior dining areas and a central bar. There’s also a spacious patio replete with comfy furniture, outdoor heaters, and plush throw blankets for chilly nights.
In the absence of signage, which we’re told is coming soon, patrons enter the main lobby and hang right down a small hallway leading to Drift’s well-marked threshold. To the left is a sparsely decorated dining room filled with four-top tables and string lights. The area to the right is loungier with softer lighting, sofa sets, high tops and communal tables equipped with electrical outlets for charging up your phones and laptops.
Perhaps to some, the intended “surf culture of Southern California” is obvious. To me it wasn’t, although I found the aesthetics smooth and appealing anyway.
Dinner potentially begins with a handcrafted cocktail using a house-made syrup and fresh, muddled fruit, such as what goes into the raspberry-orange martini. Or from a list of classics, the bar obliges with mojitos, Manhattans, mules, etc.
The wine list is concise, but covers the leading varietals as well as a couple of blends such as Hess Treo, an inky red that falls squarely into the category of a good food wine given its light acidity and mellow fruit. It paired easily to everything we ordered, including the sweet and tangy ceviche bedded on house-made oven-baked corn tortillas you’d swear were fried. The Kettle-style potato chips will fool you, too.
It was obvious the wings were baked. Void of crispy dark spots, they needed a few final minutes under a hot broiler. But the sauce was authentically Buffalo-style, the accompanying bleu cheese was robust, and the jicama and carrots for dipping were snappier than the stringy, overripe celery sticks.
Skipping over tempting choices within the salad and flatbread categories, we proceeded to the soup of the day, which combined corn and lentils in what tasted like fine, beefy chili, sans the meat. Served with a loaf of warm, crusty bread and herbed butter, the combination was as soothing as slipping into a pair of flannel pajamas on a nippy night.
Our waitress, Ivy, was an obvious professional. She recently transferred here through Hyatt from Minneapolis, and worked previously in Hilton restaurants at other locations. Whatever we asked about certain dishes, she knew the exact specs.
We were naturally curious about the “giant meatball” for $21 on the entrée list. Ivy explained it’s an eight-ounce orb of pork and beef while giving us an accurate visual of its size with her thumbs and index fingers. Though not so giant, we ordered it anyhow.
The ball was denser than expected and it cut better with a knife than our forks due to the lack of breadcrumbs in the mix. Covered in fresh-tasting pomodoro sauce and topped with a dollop of excellent house-made ricotta, I liked everything about the dish except for the odd pairing of vegetables propping up the meatball.
The carrots were a somewhat natural fit, since many Italians use them to sweeten their tomato sauces. But potatoes and asparagus? It isn’t as though they clashed with the sauce, they just didn’t connect. The dish basically cried for a plop of pasta instead, or some of that same good bread served with the soup.
My companion ordered the sustainable salmon, a rather thick fillet cooked to a soft pink inside and with a gentle sear on the outside. The lemon-butter sauce gave rise to everything on the plate — the fish and the same medley of vegetables that sat forgotten under my meatball.
Other entrees such as stout-braised short ribs, roasted half chicken and the curried cauliflower casserole I almost ordered are available only from 5 to 10 p.m. Yet appetizers, salads, flatbreads and six different sandwiches are up for grabs throughout the daytime in an atmosphere that is actually among the least fussy of hotel restaurants in La Jolla.
Drift also offers happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m., daily, when draft beers are $4, wines by the carafe are $5 off, select cocktails are $8, and flatbreads drop down to $10 each.
—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.