By David Nelson
Regionlocation: 3671 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest
chefs: Michael Stebner, Allyson Colwell, Jack Fisher
Lima Bean Bruschetta
6 ounces dry lima beans, soaked overnight, cooked until tender
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 sprigs rosemary
1 teaspoon chili flakes
salt and pepper, to taste
1 sourdough baguette, cut into 20 croutons about a quarter-inch thick
1 clove raw garlic, cut in half
Parmigiano Reggiano, to taste
Combine beans with vinegar, olive oil, rosemary and chili flakes. Season to taste. Grill croutons until well charred, rub each with raw garlic, and drizzle with olive oil. Spoon bean mixture over croutons, Sprinkle with grated cheese.
“The Craftsman,” “The Forager” and “The Artisan” share their work space as comfortably as three old shoes, and there seems to be no left foot in the trio. Michael Stebner, Allyson Colwell and Jack Fisher have a collective age of 92 and claim some 35 years’ cooking experience, much of it together in hotel kitchens in Coronado and La Jolla. Were they to recruit a partner nicknamed “The Decorator,” their new Region might become the hottest restaurant in the territory.
It certainly sizzles in Hillcrest, where Region opened last November in the Fifth Avenue premises that formerly housed Mixx. The name indicates a regional cuisine, which misleads a bit but not too much. The menu proclaims: “Our goal is to explore the foods that come from our own backyard, by using simple techniques given to us by great cooks from beyond our region.”
Stebner, whose partners accompanied him from Nine-Ten at La Jolla’s Grande Colonial hotel—and whose title would remain executive chef, had the trio any taste for formalities—says, “Part of our mission is to define California cooking using the foods of this region.” Should this transpire, it won’t be too soon. San Diego ought to claim its own cuisine, or at least local specialties, given that the area has superb vegetables, fruits and herbs, some excellent seafood (lobsters and yellowtail tuna especially) and a good mix of ethnic influences. However, what we’ve excelled at is fostering fast-food chains; San Diego has a national reputation for fish tacos. Region tilts against fast-fooderies as a member of the Slow Food Movement, and restricts itself to county-raised foodstuffs when possible.
Says Stebner: “We would like to support any local artisan who wants us to use his products, and we certainly would like to serve local cheeses.”
Cheeses already play interesting roles at Region, and will do so more when pastry chef Jack Fisher—nicknamed “The Artisan” because of the precision with which he bakes—expands his repertoire to include sausages and cheeses. His silky ricotta purrs “homemade” through the cheesecloth weave impressed on its surface. Valued for its texture, a wedge sometimes pairs with transparent slices of speck, a lightly smoked, Alpine version of prosciutto, in a substantial appetizer whose bland-savory qualities are teased by a small salad of baby romaine and tender fennel rings into a lively ménage à trois ($6.75). For dessert, the same cheese makes a creamy background for a rhapsody of honey, pears and quince ($6.75).
All three cooks earn accolades for Region, whose guests scrape bowls brimming with succulent purées of the leeks, Hubbard squash or other choice vegetables that pile into the soup pot that day ($6.75). Every afternoon, host Joshua Deerman, who cheerfully notes that he is the sole staffer to don jacket and tie and demurs that “maître d’ would be too formal a title for Region,” climbs a stepladder to illustrate a blackboard embedded in a dining room wall. A competent artist, Deerman chalks renditions of corn and carrots and notes the day’s fresh vegetables and their sources: salsify, cardoons and lima beans from Chino’s in Rancho Santa Fe, apples from Crow’s Pass Farm in Temecula, greens from Good Faith Organics in Jamul.
Unearthing as well as cooking this produce is the work of Allyson Colwell, “The Forager,” a Cincinnati native who studied English literature and art history but always had a yen to cook. She commenced foraging for knowledge at Azzura Point at Loews Coronado Bay Resort in October 1999, and accompanied Stebner and Fisher to Nine-Ten. An equity partner in Region, she roots up baby beets, tender cabbage and musky turnips at farmers’ markets, and cooks them with an evident understanding of the treatment that develops their best qualities.
The daily chalk painting is one of Region’s décor highlights. The building greets guests in a spacious street-level bar and shunts them up a flight of stairs to a dining room that boasts a few framed photographs of agrarian scenes, a rather good chandelier, fewer tables than it needs to look properly furnished, large expanses of lime-green walls, and votive candles glowing in jam jars, a touch substantially cheesier than the house-made ricotta.
Stebner, “The Craftsman,” actually built some dining tables, as well as the attractive produce table in the bar, which at Christmas time brimmed colorfully with persimmons and pomegranates. “Woodworking is my other passion,” he says. The chef learned on-the-job under the celebrated James Boyce, first at The Phoenician in Scottsdale, where Stebner was raised, and then at Azzura Point in Coronado.
San Diego servers sometimes dress better than their clientele, but waiters at Region wear jeans and two-toned, athletic-style jerseys, which Stebner describes as “a step up from a T-shirt, but not a button-down, necktie look.”
The Prices please, and dishes like ossobucco Milanese ($16.75) give such bang for the buck that the partners may win their desired “loyal clientele that dines here three times a week.” The ossobucco tastes better than most, and, oddly for a veal shank centered by a marrow bone, looks quite pretty under a halo of buttery braised carrots. Milky risotto rises precisely to the brim of a simple white bowl as an al dente plain across which rivulets of remarkable brown sauce flow quite appetizingly. The veal retains sufficient texture to highlight its succulent qualities, and the ensemble of rice, sauce and meat is a wild success.
Simple items turn special on this menu, including pork roast dressed with sweet potatoes and raisins ($16.50) and oven-gilded roast chicken garnished with cabbage and a fragrant “panade,” or pudding, of onions and carrots ($14.75). Fish might be bass given pungent panache by chives, turnips and radishes ($15), or skate wing, which is actually ray and has surprising attractions, especially when pan-crisped and sided with polenta, caramelized eggplant and a tasty stock reduction flavored with smoked pork cheek ($14.75).
The daily menu may include ear-shaped, homemade orrechiette pasta served swimming in turkey broth with porcini mushrooms and a laid-that-day egg ($7.50). It’s light, tasty and different.
Region serves dinner from 6 p.m. until 10 Tuesday through Saturday, at 3671 Fifth Avenue in San Diego. Reservations are suggested; telephone 619-299-6499.