Donovan's enters the chef-centric world with Addison protégé, Kemar Durfield
DONOVAN'S IS THE HEWLETT-Packard of SD restaurants—a successful enterprise known for sturdy, consistently good product. Their business plan does not include terms like “exotic,” “chef-driven,” or “risk-taking trend sniffers.”
Opening first near La Jolla in 1999, their dining rooms are all dark wood in thick epidermises of lacquer. Tux-clad servers with great posture crumb white linen. Salt-and-peppered barons talk tax havens over Manhattans at the bar. And the kitchens are efficient protein heating mechanisms. No haute Blade Runner cuisine by a chef with a neck tattoo of Ferran Adrià. Just primo beef excellently cooked, served with easily pronounceable veggies and priced for expense accounts.
In 2005, they opened a second in Phoenix, followed by Downtown SD in 2008. It was a bold time to expand. Wall Streeters were already taking the window instead of the stairs. Americans were booby-trapping their lawns to foil Fannie Mae repo men. Ribeyes were out; short ribs were in. Yet in 2009, they added the 8,000-square-foot Gaslamp spot formerly known as Bondi.
They opened it as Circle of Fifths, an Anthology-esque supper club. When that stalled, they re-concepted earlier this year as Donovan’s Prime Seafood. Seafood is a much fussier protein. It demands something Donovan’s didn’t have: a top-notch chef mastered in the art of sauce. (By design, most steak house cooks are behind-the-scenes au pairs for quality beef.)
In October, they announced Kemar Durfield as exec chef and GM. For the last five years, Durfield was chef de cuisine at Addison. The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller named it the best restaurant of 2011.
Durfield’s move to Donovan’s was shocking. He was supposed to be knighted into some James Bearded bistro with precious furniture. He was destined to author 16-course degustation menus with unicorn medallions in a reduction of manatee pheromones.
With his hire, Donovan’s christened their first chef-driven restaurant. And Durfield’s hamachi tartare, with avocado mousse in a lime vinaigrette and chili oil, is one of the payoffs. The silky fish-on-acid inspires the woman next to me—who warned her companion, “Vietnam is lovely, but prepare yourself for poverty”—to lick its essence from her fork. Not unlike a pleasure-starved person finding a rare dose of it.
Durfield is part chef, part vaguely OCD food engineer. His dishes have symmetry and point-counterpoint. They have feng shui. I imagine each sliver of “young coconut meat” is lowered onto the back of these Laughing Bird prawns using levers, pulleys, and the latest casino anti-theft technology. It finally touches down with such a lightness that the prawn is neither bruised nor aware it’s being joy-ridden by an adolescent island fruit. But you taste the coconut's sweet, subtle nature fat, and feel it crush in your mouth like a pliable candy shell.
This isn’t laboratized cuisine, however. Durfield doesn’t value the chiaroscuro of his lobster claw over its flavor. And, oh, that flavor. A half claw and tail with citrus-braised turnips, spiced candied walnuts, lobster sauce (butter!) and white balsamic gastrique.
Hearts of palm salad? Eh—as thrilling as brushing your teeth. Instead, pretend his scallops are just as good at preventing your need for Spanx-brand undergarments. Because they’re fantastic over Carnaroli risotto and sorrel sauce with lemon purée. In a world where soulless bistros cut butterfish into circles and sell them as “scallops,” this redeems.
A Brittany turbot in kefir citrus butter also invokes awkward food moaning. Though I find all turbot to have subtle top-notes of price gouging. Or my palate is just too indolent to detect why its market value is triple that of sea bass. I’d rather spend quality time with those prawns. Durfield gives ‘em caramelized garlic sauce, next to king crab in a spinach sauce and bacon vinaigrette. It's wild and unattractive nature now tamed, groomed, and ready to foxtrot.
Both visits I dine alone on a leather barstool (even their patio chairs are leather). Service is impeccable, a Donovan’s trademark. But the bar still has Bondi’s brushed steel. Jazz paintings hint of a failed supper club. The dining room is chophouse lacquer. It’s a pastiche of orphaned design. A snippy qualm, maybe. But if you’re making a drastically different move toward Michelin-style greatness, the room also needs to make a cohesive new statement. Not an echo.
The brand name, too, could go. Durfield’s servings are petite French—apropos for his super-refined cuisine, disappointing for regulars who equate “Donovan’s” with protein slabs big enough to mount.
It’s a work in progress. Durfield had to clean-sweep the joint, train staff, rearrange the kitchen. The menu isn’t even fully his yet. I’d give it a year to peak, but gladly taste every half step he takes.