Surveying the Menu
Dining critic Candice Woo dishes on the highs and lows of six hot plates from Downtown to Del Mar.
Hot... but worth the hype?
Thanks to his numerous television stints (from Top Chef on Bravo to a giant Rice Krispies square contest on TLC) and personal appearances at marquee events all over the country, for better or worse, Chef Brian Marlarkey is undoubtedly San Diego’s most recognized food personality. When he opened Searsucker, in splashy fashion last summer with a red carpet party, fans flocked to get a glimpse of the chef and his signature fedora, while curious and skeptical foodies wondered, “But what about the food?” Well, for the most part, it’s unfussy, satisfying stuff that you want to eat—though most of it is so rich you ought not to very often.
Start It Up. The starters are most successful, though quite basic—an artichoke dip made with gruyère, nicely roasted garlicky mushrooms topped with creamy burrata cheese, a runny-yolked egg over a cube of pork belly—all tasty, though you’ll have to decide whether wading into the pulsing Gaslamp for these is worth the trip. The restaurant space itself is well designed and merits a peek. For admirers who may consider the steep dinner bill as the price of admission to the Malarkey show, he’ll have to clone himself when he opens his second restaurant, Burlap, an Asian-influenced concept set to debut in Del Mar this summer.
Verdict: Not for those allergic to hype, but if you’re a fan you’ll be satisfied.
Flavor Del Mar
At his previous post, Arterra, in the Marriott Del Mar, Chef Jason Maitland exhibited a palpable passion for both innovative cooking techniques and Old World food traditions—working with whole animals, making charcuterie and the like. So when he re-emerged late last year as the executive chef of the new Flavor Del Mar, it seemed as though he’d be able to spread his creative wings even further, now unfettered by the bonds of hotel responsibilities.
Refresh the (Menu) Page. But for the most part, the Flavor menu matches the space—attractive, sleek, and a little cold. The short ribs, a carry-over from Arterra, are good, though the dish in general ought to be nominated to a Hall of Past Food Champions and retired along with tuna tartare and truffled fries, which are also both on the menu at Flavor. A plate of veal cheek, housemade sausage, collard greens and grits, with buttermilk biscuits, sounded promising and soulful, but the cheek was too fatty to eat, even for this braised meat-lover, and the biscuits dusty and dry. I still have fond memories of the homemade rabbit sausage corn dogs that the chef prepared for a food event a few years ago; let’s hope he’s given the opportunity to rediscover his playful side that made his food at Arterra so appealing.
Verdict: Needs some tweaks, but the chef’s got potential.
Craft + Commerce
Good news: there’ll be added elbow room here soon, as the eatery is expanding into an adjacent space. With a no-reservations policy, the wait for a table can run over an hour. (Try to get a drink at the bar, and the crowd is often three bodies deep.) When the talents behind Neighborhood opened this second spot in Little Italy last summer, they reached beyond Neighborhood’s burger-centric menu to create a more fleshed out bill of fare, though it has developed a better reputation as a hip watering hole than a food destination.
Booze Before Food. The drink accolades are well-deserved. Cocktails are well-crafted by co-owner Nate Stanton—one of the friendliest bartenders in the biz—and the beer selection is great, so the food ends up playing second fiddle. There are some nice pairings, like tender buttermilk biscuits served with spicy cheese sauce and fruit preserves that make a perfect cocktail snack; a decadent appetizer of roasted bone marrow and toast matches successfully with richness-cutting beer. Just steer clear of the fried chicken—naked pieces of the bird that seem to have been barely flour-dusted before being fried until dry and if you’re craving an ice cream sandwich, there are much better, homemade versions currently being served at Starlite and The Linkery.
Verdict: Go early to beat the crowd.
Deserving of a Brighter Spotlight
Wine Vault & Bistro
If there’s one restaurant that should be part of your regular repertoire, it’s this India Street gem. Operating as a well-kept delicious secret since 2005, their current executive chef, K.C. Howland, is a true find. Working at a Michelin two-star Bay Area restaurant and George’s California Modern in La Jolla before coming to Wine Vault, Howland uses his fine culinary skills and modern methods of cookery to create impeccable, seasonal dishes; the menu changes daily, so the chef can serve just what is local and most fresh. The restaurant is a little untraditional in that it’s open only a few nights a week. Thursdays and Fridays offer an a la carte bistro menu plus a three-course $20 dinner. Saturday’s only meal option is a $30 five-course prix-fixe menu. Other nights are usually reserved for winemaker events, as the restaurant also boasts a robust retail wine business.
The Price is Right. Wine Vault’s owners, Chris and Mary Gluck, ought to be lauded for their ability to offer such quality food at improbably affordable prices. The cozy setting is a bonus. Twin fireplaces, one inside and one outside on the patio, are two of the reasons Wine Vault was my pick for Most Romantic on our Best Restaurants list.
Blind Lady Ale House
Blind Lady’s chef, Aaron LaMonica, has perfected the art of artisan pizza-making. The pies, topped with locally-sourced ingredients are wonderful, especially when paired with a craft beer from this eatery’s exceptional rotating list. I love the potato and artichoke pizza, and the one crowned with an oozy egg and bacon.
Give Me More. But, for anyone who’s tasted LaMonica’s housemade charcuterie, his occasional specials, or experienced one of the restaurant’s all-too-infrequent, multi-course beer pairing dinners, it’s clear that the chef is capable of much more than pizza. I respect that the owners want to keep the food simple and prices low with minimal front-of-house service, but with a chef whose cooking chops were honed at NINE-TEN, Region and The Lodge at Torrey Pines, they’ve got the potential to build a full-fledged, award-winner in more than just the beer category, if they want.
Though many of San Diego’s best hotel restaurants are well-renowned, Jsix, in the Hotel Solamar, deserves to have a brighter light shone on it. The dining room is a little sterile and awkwardly configured, but Chef Christian Graves creates a tight-knit community in the kitchen. In addition to utilizing his rooftop garden, Graves has supported local farmers for years—well before the slow-food-style of cooking pervaded the scene in San Diego. His occasional community trips to local farmers markets with diners—where he teaches people how he shops for produce and preps it before they sit down to dinner in the restaurant—have become legendary over the years. He and his kitchen make everything on the charcuterie plate, from bread to vinegars, mustard, preserves, and pickles in-house, and have excelled at creating innovative vegetarian and vegan menu options as demand grows.
So Local. Another reason to admire Jsix? Even though they do a lot of tourist trade in the downtown hotel location, they want to embrace their neighbors and offer a 10 percent discount to anyone who shares their 92101 zip code.