Kemo Sabe

Executive Chef and Partner Deborah Scott’s faithful friend is Kemo Sabe Restaurant, in Hillcrest. The Pacific Rim-inspired décor and cuisine reflects an appreciation for unique cultural perspectives, and melds textures, colors, and flavors into artful culinary masterpieces. Diners may not only feast on the exquisite tastes of each dish, but their imaginations will be fueled by the visual intricacies Chef Scott arranges on the plate. The flash-fried Whole Tilapia is simply statuesque, and the desserts are scandalously seductive. Each element on the menu strives to be a faithful friend to the taste buds, and keep you coming back for more.

Artful Cuisine You're Encouraged to Touch

Once you turn your back on the buzz of Hillcrest’s eclectic 5th Avenue Kemo Sabe’s dining room foreshadows the meal you’re about to enjoy. The walls of the large, rectangular space are bathed in sun-kissed tones of beige and brown with striking splashes of turquoise that hint at a Southwest theme refreshingly devoid of cliché elements. Native American symbols meld with an Australian Aboriginal aesthetic in the large, iron art piece that separates the space without imposing barriers. The light provided by frosted fixtures in the four corners of the room underscores each plate on the table while illuminating everything else in a gentle glow. Even more impressive than what you see in Kemo Sabe’s décor is precisely what you don’t: the high ceiling yields surprising acoustics, enabling our party of three to effortlessly converse in the midst of the hustle and bustle.

Rarely does one have the opportunity to savor a three-course meal hand-picked by the chef; rarer still, and infinitely more memorable, is the experience of being personally guided through each dish by a chef who has transformed the process of serving a meal into an artful unveiling. Executive Chef Deborah Scott was a truly gracious host and lent a sense of enthusiasm to the experience that left us not only full, but inspired.

Before we embarked on our eating-spree, our attentive server recommended we wet our palates. The wine list was anchored around a California-centric selection that offered an impressive array of sparkling wines, sakes, and plum wines, in addition to more standard whites and reds. I chose the Artesa Chardonnay: brilliantly fruity with hints of lemon blossom, green apple, pineapple, and delicate notes of vanilla and toasted oak, to complement the intricacies of Chef Scott’s dishes.

The Roasted Nut-Crusted Fried Brie was the first of the three appetizers we devoured. The impressively large slice of soft brie was cleverly hidden beneath a crisp layer of roasted nuts. It shared a platter with grilled squaw bread, chili-rubbed tortilla, a salad of finely sliced beets and carrots, and a roasted whole head of garlic. We hardly had time to gawk at the colorful compilation before Chef Scott arrived to illustrate the preparation of the perfect bite. She scooped a knife into the steaming head of garlic and slathered it on the squaw bread, spread a large bit of the brie’s gooey goodness over the garlic, and then scooped some jalapeño jelly, encircling the dish, over the cheese. The result was an amazingly seductive bite – the warm silkiness of the brie cut the intense heat and sweetness of the jelly, while the amplified aromatics of the garlic provided a smoky baseline. Like the brie, all of Chef Scott’s dishes would prove to possess exquisite visual presentations, finely choreographed flavors, and unpretentious serving and eating methods.

The New Zealand Black and Green Mussels, sautéed in a garlic and chipotle cream sauce, were presented next. A heaping bowl of large and petite mussels were dressed in a thick sauce that accentuated the mussel meat without masking it. The savory-sweet, smoke-charred intensity of the chipotle spice was subdued by the creaminess of the sauce, and the ginger peaked out to tickle the nose. The mussel meat itself was tender, smooth, and delightfully reminiscent of the sea. We were enticed by the complexity of flavors and simplicity of execution, and we felt right at home while pulling the meat from the shells and sopping up the sauce with anything we could – spoons and scraps of squaw bread worked equally well.

The Charbroiled Mexican White Prawns were then delivered. Three giant prawns, wrapped in bacon, sat triumphantly on pillars of piped goat cheese and herbs. The initial bite more than made up for the hesitation we felt cutting into the visual masterpiece: we were rewarded with a surprising insinuation of wasabi that presented itself more as a feeling than a flavor. The bacon was crispy and played well against the texture of the shrimp; its slightly salty and sweet flavor added another dimension to the subtle goat cheese. The intriguing play of flavors, textures, and visual components, were the manifestation of Chef Scott’s thoughtful objective to have “crunchy, salty, and sweet,” build on each other.  “Like a composition, you want everything to mesh, work together, and make sense.”

We were a touch sad to see the rummaged appetizer plates whisked away, but only until they were replaced by the entrées. The first entrée was the truly breathe-catching Whole Tilapia: flash fried and perched upright as if frozen mid-swim, it defied gravity and our expectations. Lemon grass spouted from its mouth, adding “water” to this edible sculpture. The tilapia’s tail was nestled in a cool seaweed salad beside a bed of undressed udon noodles and three dipping sauces of varying spice. The moistness and natural aroma of the fish was captured beneath the crisp fried skin yielded by its flash frying, sparing the meat from greasiness or toughness. The belly of the tilapia was stuffed with Thai basil and lemon grass, which produced a charred smoky flavor highlighted by licorice notes that perked the senses. The udon side offered a cool relief from the spicy intensity of the dipping sauces and the fish’s bold flavors. The finished product directly reflected Chef Scott’s goal that Kemo Sabe’s food “isn’t something you can easily duplicate at home.”

Our server had our full attention as he set the Blackened Satay Chicken Breast Stack before us. Three large cuts of chicken were separated by grilled slices of pineapple, and were surrounded by pressed chili corn cakes, a coarse-cut melon salsa, and a thick slice of grilled plantain banana. The juice and flavor of the meat was locked in by the jerk-marinade that married a refreshing fruitiness with a spicy intensity. The juice of the grilled pineapple was cool, syrupy, and cleansed the palate. Breaking through each layer with a fork, one appreciated the presence of the corn cakes’ slightly yeasty texture, which absorbed a degree of heat without diluting flavor. The grilled plantain’s dense texture and savory essence complimented the sweet melon, and anchored the lighter notes of the marinade. After pausing over a few well-proportioned bites, I was reminded of a tropical sea breeze and a simple sense of wellbeing.

Chef Scott chose a fan-favorite for our last entrée: the Skirts on Fire. A massive charbroiled skirt steak was accompanied by black beans and a grilled quesadilla. A mandarin-serrano relish bestowed a contrasting splash of color to the dish, and flattered the steak’s Thai chili rub. Spicy mustard sauce was an intriguing addition to the black beans, and immediately proved a natural fit. While the expertly seasoned and cooked meat and understated side dishes encouraged us to use our hands to tear the quesadilla and scoop up the beans, we never mistook the dish for anything less than a tour de force.

Our dining excursion was winding down, and we found ourselves sighing aloud with gluttonous contentment. Yet how could we refuse the White Chocolate Cheesecake Tower and the Chocolate Hazelnut Napoleon? The White Chocolate Cheesecake Tower resembled no other cheesecake I’ve ever seen. Crisp praline cookies provided the stability for each level of the tower, and tasted of honey, nuts, and caramelized sugar. Unlike traditionally creamy fillings, this cheesecake boasted a thick and textured mixture that was only lightly sweetened. Its rich flavor and weight was evocative of cannoli filling and played off the honey-nut sweetness of the cookie to offer an intriguing balance. The Oregon blueberries provided a splash of color and sweet finish to the plate.

The Chocolate Hazelnut Napoleon was similarly inventive and delightful. Large scoops of kahlua ice cream separated flaky sheets of hazelnut puff pastry, with dollops of dark chocolate mousse dotting the dish. The light and crunchy pastry accentuated the slightly coffee-flavored ice cream and in conjunction with the slight bitterness of the dark chocolate mousse subdued the sweetness. The lusciously smooth texture of the mousse added a seductive note.

From beginning to end, Chef Scott’s enthusiasm, sincerity, and vision, manifested in each stage of our meal. Chef Scott concluded the evening with the hope that her patrons leave saying that “they had a truly unique experience – that the flavors were powerful, and that nothing was dull or boring.” The success of Kemo Sabe is largely the result of Chef Scott’s skill at expressing multiple cultural perspectives through cohesive productions of flavor, texture, and visual cues seldom found elsewhere – and her dishes are certainly never dull or boring.

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Restaurant Info

  • 3958 5th Avenue
    San Diego CA 92103
  • Address: 3958 5th Avenue, San Diego CA 92103
  • Cross Street: University Avenue
  • Location: Hillcrest & Uptown | Hillcrest
  • Cuisine: Pacific Rim |
  • Cost: $$ | Inexpensive | $25 - $50
  • Category: Fine Dining
  • Star Rating:
  • Reservations: Recommended
  • Dress Code: Casual
  • Meals Served: Dinner |
  • Parking: Street | Valet Parking |
  • Payment Options: VISA | Amex | MasterCard | Discover | Diners Club |
  • Corkage Fee: 15.00 | Per Each Bottle
  • Staff: Deborah Scott | Sommelier
    Deborah Scott | Executive Chef
  • Phone: (619) 220-6802

Business Hours

Monday
Tuesday
Main Dining Room | Happy Hours 5:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.
Main Dining Room | Dinner 5:30 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Wednesday
Main Dining Room | Happy Hours 5:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.
Main Dining Room | Dinner 5:30 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Thursday
Main Dining Room | Happy Hours 5:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.
Main Dining Room | Dinner 5:30 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Friday
Main Dining Room | Dinner 5:30 p.m. - 10 p.m.
Main Dining Room | Happy Hours 5:30 p.m. - 6:30 p.m.
Saturday
Main Dining Room | Dinner 5:30 p.m. - 10 p.m.
Sunday
Main Dining Room | Dinner 5:30 p.m. - 9 p.m.

Features

  • Full Bar
  • Late Dining
  • Catering Services
  • Famous Chef
  • Outdoor Seating
  • Smoking Area
  • Wheelchair Access
  • Valet Parking

Occasion

  • Romantic Dining
  • Dining Alone
  • Business Dining
  • Meet for a Drink
  • People Watching
  • Quiet Conversation
  • Special Occasion
  • Trendy / Hip

 


F.A.Q. - Frequently Asked Questions

Kemo Sabe is open from Tuesday through Sunday for dinner, and they are closed on Mondays.
Kemo Sabe Happy Hour is available Tuesday-Friday from 5:30pm to 6:30pm at the bar only.
Yes, you are welcome to dine with your dog on the patio.
Kemo Sabe offers a Pacific Rim-inspired menu.
Kemo Sabe is located in the Hillcrest neighborhood.
Yes, the restaurant is fully accessible.

Menus

Happy Hour

  Available Tuesday-Friday from 5:30pm to 6:30pm at the bar only.


Happy Hour Offerings

Dinner Menu

Starters

Entrees

Afterthoughts by Sharon


User Reviews

Great food  

I ate at Kemo Sabe last week and really enjoyed the food and the atmosphere. The presentation was wonderful. I did not want to eat my food and destroy all of the work that was put into it. The staff was great and the manager very informative. I am happy that I can eat such amazing food in Hillcrest instead of having to drive to downtown San Diego.

Creative food, good service  

Consistantly wonderful food and generally very good service. When our table was not ready at our reserved time the host offered us each a glass of wine while we waited. A class act. Chef Deborah Scott can occasionally be seen checking with diners about the quality of their experience. A wonderfully creative menu keeps us returning -- one of our favorite restaurants in San Diego.

Worth Every Penny  

I went with a couple friends for a birthday, and was SO impressed. The waiter was wonderful and attentive. The food was better than I expected. The drinks, appetizers and meal were all wonderful. The dessert selection was a little lacking, but overall it was a fabulous experience. The ambiance perfectly complimented the attitude of the fare. All smiles here.

Kemo's Was Hott!  

Walking into the restaurant I felt it was on the small side, although the decor stood out in a positive way! Our server was outstanding he recommended a few items the dinner party and I utilized. The was great with and outstanding presentation. You are close to the individuals next to you but its Hillcrest what to you expect. My wife and I will dine at Kemo Sabe's again without hesistation!

Another great experience!  

I had dinner at Kemo Sabe last night and once again it did not disappoint. Attentive staff and amazing food made for a perfect evening. The seed encrusted brie and bacon-wrapped shrimp on goat cheese were great starters and we split an entree...Skirts on Fire! The skirt steak was outstanding and had great flavor and spice...hard to find these days. All of the items above ordered in preparation for the potted brownie dessert...just amazing. Overall, just a great experience.

Fabulous food and service  

Deborah Scott's food is amazing. Its so beautiful when it comes out and it tastes just as good as it looks. This is a reasonable priced restaurant that offers you a night of sampling appetizers or having the full meal. I hight reccommend the white prawns stuffed with wasabi and wrapped in bacon! YUM!

Best of San Diego  

From the minute you walk into this establishment, you know you are in for a treat! Expecially when you have the pleasure of being seated by non other than Gregory (Shell). We were treated like we were someone important. Then the food came....Unbelievable!! First the presentation, along with everyone around you, you have a masterpiece infrount of you. Then the taste...OH...MY...GOSH!!!All I can say is you are in for a real treat!! Best of San Diego on my book.

Consistently a Delightful Experience!  

I have dined numerous times at Kemo Sabe over the past few years with friends, family and business contacts. I am always confident that we will have an outstanding experience. The service is consistently top-notch and personable. The food is divine in flavor and inspired in presentation. The seating is a bit tight and the parking is valet or paid garage, but the overwhelmingly positive facets outweigh these small inconveniences. The sister restaurant Indigo Grill, further downtown, is just as awesome and seems to have more vegetarian fare. Everything I have ever ordered at Kemo Sabe is delectable, from salads to appetizers to entrees and of course, desserts. You just can't go wrong.

Best Meal We've Had in Years!  

Kemo Sabe was an extraordinary experience. We ate there on a Friday night, with a reservation. We were seated right away, and offered drinks immediately. Our server, Q, was extremely attentive throughout the evening, going so far as to offer suggestions and feedback regarding the different menu items. We started off with HOT sake and the Dim Sum and Then Sum appetizer. Although the menu indicated that the food preparation time might be longer than other restaurants, all of our food was served quickly. The appetizer was amazing - even for me, someone who isn't a big seafood eater. Every single part of it tasted divine, from the main parts to the sauces and salad. And the presentation of every item is exceptional. My husband ordered the Thai Chowder as his entree, and had only good things to say about it. I deviated from my normal meat-eating route and ordered a vegetarian entree...Good Things Growing, I believe it was called. The menu description doesn't begin to do it justice, because there are multiple sides included that aren't even on the menu. Again, presentation was outstanding, and every single item on my plate was incredible. The tempura yam was my favorite, the eggplant terrine was a nice contrast. The ravioli in pesto was sumptuous. And to the side were 6 about 6 other types of roasted vegetables (many unusual and wonderful) as well as a rice caked glazed in some kind of teriyaki-like sauce. I have nothing but good things to say about my experience last night. I will definitely recommend Kemo Sabe to anyone I can, and plan to return again soon.

Awesome!  

We ate here Friday night and were totally stoked. Food was so good. I had the skirt steak after my first pick, the halibut, was unavailable. My girl had the filet, my mom had the ribs, and Mike had the spicy chicken. We all shared our food, so everyone had a bite. I think the best entree were the ribs. I had 2 after my steak was finished. Great martinis and service even after we were 30 minutes late. Cohn restaurants are always good.

Best Japanese cuisine  

Best dinner ever taken my wife on Mother's Day, it was excellent, the service was Superb, we are coming back, my three sons enjoy the different dishes that we ask for, and we want to try other menu dishes, the Best fry fish, I ever had. First time to visit this restaurant, very impressed, I have been in San Diego for over 25 yrs, and I thought I had seen it all. THIS IS A MUST , KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!!!!!!!!

New part of town  

A buddy and I were directed to Kemo Sabe by the hotel. We were visiting San Diego and not for the first time. We never made it to this part of time prior to this visit. The starters were excellent and well presented. The three dishes we shared were so well presented and were superb. For a great dinning experience and to experience of a new part of town, this was a great evening.

We Love Kemo Sabe!  

We love Kemo Sabe! It's our favorite date place. We celebrated Valentine's this year at your restaurant. It's all fabulous - we like everything about it. Especially Chef Deborah Scott's flavor creations - pure genius! Sashay & Gary 

Kemo sabe is the place  

Great eloquent restaurant with great food at a decent price.

Best Meal in SD  

The decor is fab, the food ecletic and delicious, the wait staff attentive. A great experience for this NYer seeking great food in a comfortable setting.

Fantastic!  

Fantastic!

Genuine Epicurean Delight  

If you want to experience exquisitely blended flavors from a select variety of foods from around the globe, then you must visit Kemo Sabe. The presentation of the dinner plate is amazing enough. We actually took pictures. I doubt that you could find anything on the menu that did not warrant a glowing review. My choice was the "Glazed Duck". My wife selected the "Black and White Salmon". This was a "Wow" experience for both of us.

One our favorites  

Always a great experience at Kemo Sabe. From the atmosphere to the cuisine. Impeccable everytime.

Beautiful Meal  

Saturday night we had THE most amazing dinner ever. I can not rave enough about this restaurant. The service was great, our waiter was awesome. The restaurant is Kemo Sabe, it's on 5th St. in Hillcrest. I highly recommend it. We ordered the Dim Sum and then Sum appetizer, which was a mix of sushi, fried wontons, and other delights ... the coconut calamari was some of the best calamari I have ever had ... and I have it wherever we go out to eat. While we were eating, there were a bunch of men dressed in traditional indian garb running back and forth past us to the restaurant next door. (By Indian, I do mean from India.) Apparently there was a very special birthday going on, for a 16 year old girl. They had belly dancers on the roof with fire wands, angel dancers on stilts and a red carpet. The birthday girl was brought into the restaurant in a special lace covered cart carried by four men in gold Alibaba slippers. I had to take pictures ... and while I was doing so I had the pleasant opportunity of speaking with Sharon Scott the head chef of Kemo Sabe. We laughed together at the entourage. T and I then ordered dinner ... I ordered another appetizer because I wanted to save room for dessert. I ordered the Navajo Bi Pie, and I have to say it was the most tasty food, presented in the most beautiful format I have ever had the pleasure to eat. The prawns were cooked perfectly and the creamy goat cheese that accompanied was a perfect compliment to the amount of spice on the prawn. T's dinner was called Good Things Growing and was a vegetarian dish. Being middle eastern he has pretty high standards for how eggplant is cooked ... and he said that outside of Jerusalem this was the best eggplant he had ever eaten. Dessert was absolutely to die for, and I nearly did, because I was so full and just could not stop myself from eating it. Food critics have the best life. I wish I could eat out like this every night !!!!

Taste Bud Service  

Great service, great food and wine make for a wonderful time!

Kemo Sabe  

Too bad they are closing! This is a fabulous restaurant with great service, wodnerful and food and great atmosphere! Hopefully the chef will have just as much success with her future plans!

Great  

great food, service, and atmosphere

 

great service  

Kemo Sabe is a great place to dine with friends looking for a fun, relaxing night with big portions of food. The service was good and our server was sweet, attentive and accomodating. The food, however to me had too much going on on one palate. There were so many diverse flavors and spices in one dish that, in my opinion, was too over powering and deflated the taste to the star of the dish whether it was the fish or steak that we ordered. Great atmosphere, great service, and great location. Food was ok.

great place  

great place

great good & drinks  

If you're looking for a great martini, and great food, you need to come here. When you order a martini, don't forget to upgrade to the shaker, well worth it.

Kemo Sabe August 2010  

Excellent wait staff! Very large portions. Appetizers would be fine for a meal.

Beautiful but lacks taste  

The food was absolutely stunning to look at. However, upon tasting it, I would say I was VERY disappointed. We had the brie appetizer and I had lamb, while my husband had the salmon for dinner. While beautifully presented all the food lacked flare. All was basically bland. I would not go back here to eat, as our $80 bill (no drinks) left me feeling ripped off.

disappointing  

Services was underwhelming, food generally tasted good, but was overpriced and had too much on each plate, too many sauces and accompanyments. Hot plates came out with cold or uncooked vegetables mixed in with hot meat, etc. Just too much going on. Also the waitress did not know much about the wine list and gave bad advice.

not a great experience  

I thought the restaurant was unique but that's all. The food was not that great and the service was worse. Our waiter made us feel like we were being rushed. I looked at my bank account online a few days later, to find out he added money to my tip!

Average, at best  

Menu looked promising, but the reality was less so. Food was very one dimensional, and swung HARD to the sweet. Sweet chili and overcooked were the themes.

SAVE YOUR MONEY  

Over priced for choice of cuisine. Selections of food has way too much spice to cover the real taste of the entre. Helpful staff, inviting atmostphere with less than cute crowd. Tables are too close for comfort unless you like to join others conversations. Never again.

Save Your Money (agreed)  

The host was not present on a slow tuesday nite, thus the wait for seating took some time until the bartender came to the rescue. the food did not arrive at the same time as my date and to add further disappointment the food arrived cold. over all the service was poor and the food quality has declined greatly.......Debra should be ashamed at the quality for a slow tuesday night.

WAY overrated!  

Definitely save your money. Both our dishes were so salty we could hardly taste anything else. The service was horrible, we never received service after our meals were delivered. Even our water was empty the entire time. Talk about intimate! We were practically sitting on the couple next to us. It was far to expensive, I was wishing we were across the street at Bombay the entire time.