Red Pearl Kitchen
SAN DIEGO’S GASLAMP QUARTER isn’t all that big. Eight blocks long, two blocks wide, according to the folks at gaslamp.org. But with roughly 100 bars and eateries vying for your dining dollars, this little stretch of downtown can seem endless.
Where are you going to take that blind date who may or may not be a vegetarian; who might want to graze on apps or indulge in a three-course meal; who could show up dressed to impress or sporting jeans and a T? Who’s got a lounge for people- watching, booths for canoodling, food served till midnight and a bar with televisions? What could possibly please your trendy gallery-hopping friends one night, your relatives who just want Chinese food another? Who ya gonna call?
Red Pearl Kitchen.
Part of an L.A.-based empire run by Tim and Liza Goodell, Red Pearl is that rare corporate restaurant that really gets it. Offer an appealing menu of Asian-inspired fare that feels at once trendy, healthful and fairly priced. Add exotic upmarket décor, a hint of exclusivity (two semiprivate dining rooms can be reserved in advance) and a well-trained staff, and people will come—and come back. Smooth but not slick, arty but not pretentious, this new eatery embodies the cool luster of its namesake gem.
Open for dinner only, Red Pearl caters to a diverse audience with a user-friendly menu of more than three dozen items. Bite-size dim sum and salad-type creations serve as starters, while heartier fare follows with headings like Grill (satays, ribs), Hot Pot (steaming broths with various ingredients) and Wok-Fired (stir-fry combinations). Guests are invited to order and share, family style—a wise way to approach this lengthy lineup.
In general, most dishes succeed. Credit that to a young chef with both passion and a clear vision of how to showcase Asian flavors. Jason Marcus may have majored in philosophy, but San Diego’s a better place for his ditching academia for the kitchen. Having cooked, dined and studied food throughout the world, his heart currently belongs to Asia.
“I was blown away by the flavor combinations, the complexity of the recipes, the incredible produce there,” says Marcus. For diners at Red Pearl, he seeks to build upon the recipes and techniques he encountered. “I try to exemplify what I liked about a dish,” he says.
A restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City inspired his fabulous spare ribs ($9) braised with fresh strawberries, star anise and cinnamon. The results are savory, not sweet, a complex blend of flavors melting right off the bones.
From Cambodia comes Shaking Kobe Beef ($16), cubes of buttery Wagyu beef (the breed behind Japan’s chi-chi Kobe product) soaked in pungent fish sauce and ground chilies before being “shaken” in a sizzling wok. Subtle at first, the dish leaves a lingering heat on the tongue. So do the six jumbo scallops sautéed with fresh ginger and snap-crackly snow peas ($17).
Thailand provides a reference point for the superb chicken hot pot ($9), a castiron kettle brimming with the aromas of fresh lime leaves, coconut, lemongrass and more. Ladle the mix over rice served on the side; there’s enough for two or three to make a meal.
Like things hot? Order the duck legs stewed with chili paste, wrapped in soft butter lettuce leaves with fiery banana purée and cucumber relish ($9). Choose diced ’n’ spiced tuna tartare served on delicate rounds of eggplant tempura ($12). Want something milder? Chicken skewers brushed with a mellow curry sauce and a crown of tamarind chutney ($7) fit the bill.
Only bland-o-rama fried rice with shredded chicken and a smattering of mango ($9) and scallop beggar’s purses that begged for more flavor ($6) disappointed.
SERVICE GETS AN A. The staff here is smart, efficient and good-looking to boot. Servers, dressed in second-skin tops with edgy motifs, know the menu, offer useful tips and get orders out promptly. The bartenders dispense expertly made mojitos and martinis (of course, at 11 bucks a pop, that should be a given).
And the outgoing “wine and sake hostess” who drops by your table isn’t just another pretty face trying to sell more product; she knows her stuff. Good thing, because the list is eclectic to the point of being esoteric, and there’s little under $30 a bottle. Two of her picks, the Root One Cabernet from Chile and a Tobin James Chardonnay, are likable and affordable at $29 a bottle.
Red Pearl doesn’t target any particular age group. The clientele includes diners in their 60s and above; well-dressed conventioneers in a range of ages; youngish, casual diners who probably live or work downtown; singles settling in at the bar; even a few families with well-behaved kids.
Top tables are the spacious booths in the back. Banquette seating along one wall shows the squeeze effect: every other table is noticeably smaller than its neighbors. A twosome seated at one of these minis will be juggling water glasses, cocktails, menus, tableware, candles and shared dishes all night.
That’s really our only caveat; well, that and the $20 parking fee (so fun cramming small bills into that metal slot!) in the shabby local lots on Padres ballgame nights. For $15, you can valet park at the corner of Fourth and J. Do it; you’re worth it. So’s an evening at Red Pearl.
Red Pearl serves dinner nightly, with the bar menu served until midnight (the bar is open until 2 a.m. on weekends) at 440 J Street, downtown. Reservations recommended; call 619-231-1100.