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Prep School

Troy Johnson reviews Prepkitchen


DAVID PACE RAN A LIQUOR STORE in San Antonio until his salsa hobby went ballistic. The Simpsons began as a cute bit for the Tracey Ullmann Show. Play-Doh was invented to clean dirty wallpaper.

Sometimes the side project becomes the project. The spinoff becomes the spin.

For restaurants, spinoffs are both a business model and survival tactic. High-end chefs love the profit margin (1.8 percent for fine dining, 5.8 percent for casual, which most spinoffs are). Thus Mario Batali's Mozza2Go and Tom Colicchio's 'Wichcraft. Locally, we've seen Market spawn Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant and Whisknladle spin off Prepkitchen.  

Restaurateur Arturo Kassel and chef Ryan Johnston made their names with Whisknladle, La Jolla’s farm-to-table breakout of 2008. Diners and press gave a standing ovation. When they opened casual lunch offshoot Prepkitchen a year later, it seemed like a cute, one-off gesture for local.

Try It
1660 India Street

Prepkitchen was based on the fuss-free “shift meals” Johnston made for Whisknladle staff—roasted Jidori chicken, pork belly sandwiches, burgers with Gruyère.

In 2010 they opened Prepkitchen Del Mar—a bigger joint that did very well until an electrical fire last October. With it still closed, they shifted focus to Little Italy.  

Little Italy is hot. Bencotto, Craft & Commerce, Davanti Enoteca, and UnderBelly have provided a much-needed transfusion of new blood. Prepkitchen takes over a second-story corner space. Gutsy move. Little Italy is ruled by sidewalk bistros. No one climbs stairs for antipasti.

A thin façade of street-level glass is all they had to work with. Bluemotif Architecture (Cowboy Star, Solace in Encinitas) installed a steel light fixture filled with carnival lights and wine bottles. Massive, gnarled planks of parota wood (koa-lite) curl up the wall and onto the ceiling, like woodsy arrows pointing to a party upstairs.

And there is a party upstairs. PK Little Italy is loud with artful chatter, neutered indie rock, and the hiss-clank-expletive of the open kitchen. The place is divided into three distinct spaces (dining, bar, and semi-private “library”), and the salvage décor matches the rustic, family-style food. Weathered porch balusters. Wrought-iron gates. Potted culinary herbs line the dining room windows, which offer great views of the bald spots on amiable drunks who argue about soccer at Princess Pub across the street.

Prepkitchen’s bar has long, wooden communal tables, jammed with urbanites who savor craft beer the way Napa locals sip cabernets. Chandeliers are birch branches, a-twinkle with LED lights. The “library” to the left has parota wallpaper, bookshelves, and wine bottles. A white-brick fireplace suggests this is a place for romance and families. Even chintzy families like mine, who paint fireplaces white.

It’s at once cozy and lively, casual yet trying hard to be hip. I like it very much, even if my design friends claim it’s a ripoff of many places they’d be glad to take me to. (Design friends always say this.)

Drinks here echo Whisknladle, an early adopter of farmers market cocktails. Try the classic London’s Burning (gin, avo, lime, roasted jalapeño) or a Puesto de Sol, with tequila, blood orange, and pomegranate.

Rustic sammies dominate lunch. The PK pastrami with apple-horseradish slaw is like a Jewish deli classic for the Portlandia generation. Relentless carnivores will enjoy pork belly tacos, cut into wee bits for greater caramelization.

At dinner, Johnston gives good charcuterie. Start there. The diabetic chef also creates perfectly light dressings, whether his fantastic Caesar or the warm white bean and arugula (which, though oniony, needs more acid). I loved his butternut squash soup with a wisp of Greek yogurt—proof that “real cooking skills” are a fine substitute for “tons and tons of butter.”   

Over two busy nights, service from the half-shaven staff (razor aloofness seems company policy) was beyond proficient and food-aware. No sucking up or upselling. Only one dish failed to impress (a dry porter-braised beef). Our pork rib with hard cider sauce was excellent, and confit pork belly (essentially a thick slab of bacon) with pickled fennel could turn vegans into wild aggressors of livestock.

Duck confit over white beans seems counterproductive (beans sog the confit). But the crunch is ensured with duck-fat bread crumbs, and the accompanying housemade pork sausage makes Jimmy Dean taste like commercial-grade tofu. The dish I dream about on the treadmill, though, is the squid. Usually it’s a fried appetizer cliché, but Johnston fills large hulls of the cephalopod with Cotechino sausage, lathered with a fragrant tomato sauce. It’s like a surf ‘n’ turf rigatoni.

To finish, I tried the NY-style cheesecake (so-so); a salted caramel, fudge, and pecan brownie (only real jerks could hate it); and bread pudding with banana, dulce de leche, and coconut-candied walnuts (I’d write home to mom about it, or at least email her).   

I could natter on about how unisex bathrooms in crowded restaurants are an awful idea. Or how someone should paint over the brown specks on the white communal sink (a public school fountain relic). But PK Little Italy nails its mission. It’s a fancy chef serving good, un-fancy food in an artful room. It satisfies, inspires, and makes you want to take off your shoes. Maybe get a little drunk, grow a half-beard.

The only question now: What spinoff comes next?

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