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Mess Hall Is Ambitiously In-The-Now

The concept of Liberty Public Market's signature restaurant pays off well, when it pays off.


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Mess Hall

2820 Historic Decatur Road, Point Loma

TROY’S PICKS
Grouper Fish & Chips
Chicken and Dumplings
Corn Soup

Like almost every American city, San Diego has been clamoring for something like Liberty Public Market for years. The idea is a giant hall packed with local food and drink vendors, where culinarians can shop, eat, drink, and sample the best of what nearby soil, ocean, and kitchens can muster. It’s a community, a beacon, and a shared responsibility—a Haight-Ashbury, hippie-love approach to food retail. Similar concepts in other cities enjoy almost mythical lore among food lovers, whether it’s the fishmongers playing catch with fresh catch at Pike Place in Seattle, or the drool-inducing artisanal cheeses at San Francisco’s Ferry Building.

Local group Blue Bridge Hospitality (Leroy’s, MooTime, Stake, etc.) spearheaded the $3 million Liberty Public Market project in partnership with landlord Liberty Station. Located in the northeast corner of the former naval training center turned restaurant-and-retail compound, LPM is 25,000 square feet, with 27 vendors and a 3,000-square-foot dog- and kid-friendly patio where locals hang in the sun, drinking craft beers from Bottlecraft tasting room.

The slice is right: Pizza with salsa verde, macadamia, and Point Loma salami

All vendors are local. Some who were watching the project in development wanted it to be more ingredient driven, like a farmers’ market. Though there is a seafood vendor (Dan Nattrass, ex–Catalina Offshore), a butcher (run by San Diego icon Tommy Battaglia), a bakery (Blue Bridge’s own pastry chef), and a produce shop (supplied by local farms like Suzie’s, Be Wise, and El Campito), people still grouse. They say they wish the lobster rolls were cheaper. They say they wish it were filled with smaller, indie vendors.

There are people who could witness Jesus emerge from the clouds over Point Loma and say, “I thought he’d be taller.”

Do the dip: Fish and chips with beer battered local grouper, thick fried potato chips, and spicy remoulade

Personally, I enjoy the Liberty Public Market concept, and how it’s been executed so far. I’m sure it will grow and evolve, but there are no out-of-town chains. It’s local mini restaurateurs and artisans, making a go, together.

The signature of LPM is Mess Hall, a progressive restaurant under the guidance of Blue Bridge executive chef Tim Kolanko (ex–A.R. Valentien) and chef de cuisine Colin Murray (ex–Brooklyn Girl). The idea is to pull the best ingredients from the market and create menus around them. Nothing on the menu stays longer than a few weeks. Kolanko studied for years under Jeff Jackson, and is one of the most respected farm-to-table chefs around.

The space is cavernous, looking like its former namesake where recruits refueled on government slop. On one end is Bottlecraft, San Diego’s successful craft beer tasting enterprise. The middle is the open-seating bar area, where market customers can bring food from any vendor, grab a seat and a cocktail or glass of wine selected by talented beverage manager Greg Majors (ex–NYC’s Craft) and GM/wine director Tami Wong (ex–Juniper and Ivy). Theirs is an impressive list, with five rosés—a smart move, considering San Diego’s sunny clime—and grüner veltliner (Johann Donabaum from Kirschweg, Wachau, 2013) and alternative, interesting whites like albariño and marsanne.

On the west end is the Mess Hall proper. It’s less a dining room than an elegant, fenced-off enclosure of sorts, very much part of the action in the rest of the room. A wood-burning oven glows before white tile. The tables are light brown polished wood, minimal, with little but a small succulent for decor. Light pours in through the antique windows to the patio, and bad paintings of boats line the walls (being “historical” middle school art, they weren’t allowed to paint over it). On the pass line to the kitchen are various jars of pickled ingredients and stacks of cookbooks whose titles serve to tell the kitchen’s own story.

The green light: Grains & Greens salad with charred lemon and olive oil, grilled halloumi, raisins, and seasonal vegetables

It’s not a quiet space, but only the naive would expect a hushed, candlelit dinner at a marketplace. For my first visit, I eat my way through part of the lunch menu, starting with the “Grains & Greens” salad. It’s an excellent first taste of Mess Hall, a perfect salad with farro, quinoa, thinly sliced radishes, pickled cauliflower, almonds, and griddled halloumi cheese in a vinaigrette. The halloumi, one of the best things to come out of Greece since democracy—a semihard, brined cheese of mixed goat’s and sheep’s milk—is perfectly browned, and the dressing light and flavorful. The open-faced steak sandwich isn’t as complete of a hit. On grilled toast, it’s merely a mound of meat mixed with caramelized onions and Gruyère, topped with a fistful of arugula. Sounds delicious, I realize, but there’s too much fat gristle on the meat, and it’s a bit under­seasoned. Maybe they thought the salt from the Gruyère would be too much. And it needs a bright note—the zing of yogurt, the ouch of horseradish, pickled radishes, something—to punch through the fat content. Arugula doesn’t quite have the strength.

The fish and chips, however? Possibly the best I’ve had in San Diego, with huge, meaty chunks of local grouper, not overly fried or plied with too much breading. The chips—thick rounds, like a disc-shaped steak fry—are decent, but it’s the sweet citrus remoulade (spiced with sugar and maybe a touch of curry) that makes everything on that plate taste so addictively good.

Bird’s the word: Chicken and dumplings with chanterelle mushrooms, peas, and basil pesto

Mess Hall’s biggest challenge is service. The entire staff is pleasant and likable. But for my lunch visit, there is only one server, tasked with seven tables or so. It takes 10 minutes before she says hi. Harried, she forgets to ask if I’d like anything to drink, and runs off. Throughout the meal, long stretches go by without any needed service. She’s struggling, and later explains that she usually has an assistant, but today she’s without. That’s fine. But I look at the manager on duty, and he seems to be lost in thought at the host stand, gazing out over his future and not doing anything of consequence. When short on staff, every manager or line cook or host should become a food expediter, taker of drink orders, busperson. All hands on deck, not one hand.

During our dinner, service is much better—except when we ask for to-go boxes for our appetizers and the server plops them down in the middle of our two-top. The boxes are now decor between us, and take up a good portion of our tiny table. Eventually, I move the boxes to an empty table behind us, along with menus that haven’t yet been removed, and wipe off the huge dollop of labneh from the center of the table.

As for the dinner menu, we do find a few hits. First, the chicken and dumplings. Perfectly crisped skin topped with delicious basil pesto, a thin, light broth beneath, and flavorful, delicate dumplings. Our corn soup is also excellent. “It tastes like cornbread batter,” says my friend. It does: delicious with cream, smoked oil, and blistered tomatoes. And their pizza, its crust browned just right, with salsa verde and Point Loma salami, is a good, wood-fired pie. Roasted bone marrow comes topped with what is almost a mushroom duxelles, and it’s rich with flavor over toast points.

Souped up: Corn soup with charred cherry tomatoes and smoked oil

Not so good is our duck confit. The skin is crispy. Too crispy, which unsurprisingly reveals overcooked, chalky meat. The farro risotto that accompanies it, however, is phenomenal, deliciously wet with dark, rich gravy. Our two appetizers also fall flat. The sea bass crudo, which our server explains is fresh from the waters off La Jolla, is a beautiful cut. But it’s served with fish sauce—a phenomenal ingredient when cooked down and incorporated, but too pungently fishy and fermented in a raw presentation. The eggplant has two elements, essentially: One is phenomenal, and one is not. The hit is the labneh, seasoned and spiced into a perfect yogurt sauce. The eggplant itself, though, stuffed with quinoa and tabbouleh, lacks the flavor to stand on its own.

The chefs at Mess Hall are some of the most sustainable and progressive in San Diego. So the ethos and ingredients are there. Some dishes sing, some dishes warble. That’s the risk you run by switching your menu every two weeks. An admirable program that pays off well, when it pays off.

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