A Return to Renaissance
Given that the Gaslamp Quarter headed toward Rock Bottom when a branch of this national chain opened at the corner of Fourth Avenue and G Street some months ago, it seems apropos to remember that culinary innovation, not mass marketing, originally gave this resurgent neighborhood the cachet that today makes it the unofficial public rec room of San Diego. When new, such pioneering Gaslamp Renaissance eateries as Bayou Bar & Grill, 515 Fifth, Croce’s and Fio’s featured menus sufficiently cutting-edge to attract food-oriented San Diegans who previously never ventured south of Broadway. Now everybody goes, because the Gaslamp offers something for everybody—a good deal, generally speaking, as long as room for creative independents is left by well-financed restaurant companies eager to share the clientele enjoyed by T.G.I. Friday’s, Hard Rock Cafe, Moose McGillicuddy’s and other chains that already capitalize on the district’s magnetism.
Fourth Avenue, once light-years removed from the sizzling action on Fifth, now boasts its own bustling restaurant row. This street recently gained an elusive new flavor from the opening of Chive, a creation of Kensington Grill proprietor Tracy Borkum that weaves many inventive details into a striking and singular fabric. Chive amusingly presents itself as the epitome of 21st-century “moderne,” defined by creative cooking billed as “cuisine moderne” and by a somewhat stark but stunning interior described as “London moderne.” In a way, it’s a shame that Borkum chose to open in December rather than waiting for the new year, when Chive would have ranked as the first really interesting new eatery of 2000.
The decor will strike many as cold, but it has a way of gradually revealing itself as a carefully pruned garden of visual delights. I rarely read far into press releases, but I applaud Chive for insisting that “in signage, typography and menus, a strong modern text is deconstructed with unexpected, playful twists.” I have no idea what this statement means, but it sounds good.
Chive is very much about look. Intent on good times, a handsome crowd clinks glasses around a sculptural, box-like bar whose bottles stand against translucent panels that emanate a dense orange glow. In the dining room, whitewashed brick walls compete for icy effect with stainless steel columns and chairs; luxurious banquettes are lined with huge, deep pillows.
Many other details combine to make Chive distinctive, including commissioned artworks, bowl-shaped salt and pepper cellars, and wine lists whose wooden covers bear the stamped invitation to “IMBIBE.” One or more full-length chives garnish virtually every dish, including desserts; the herb also flavors the butter served with a selection of excellent, artisanal breads. The place makes a stylish showcase for the cuisine of chef Henry Freidank, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who previously cooked at Mixx and Kensington Grill. This young chef possesses the kind of talent that causes knowledgeable taste buds to sit up straight, pay attention and begin applauding well before the show comes to a conclusion.
Freidank has a particular flair for creating tart, bitter, sweet and strikingly sharp garnishes as accents for the main ingredients in his starter courses. Both a sweet pineapple coulis (a sauce-like purée) and a tongue-biting red chile oil serve as foils to tender scallops rubbed with Jamaican “jerk” spices ($9), and a relish-like fennel confit brings an astringent note to mussels served in spicy tomato broth ($9). As an architectural reference to Chive’s angular decor, Freidank builds a “nest” that consists of savory duck sausage, a contrastingly tart dried-cherry compote and a cone of crisply fried, spiral-cut potato ($10).
Items like the “pulled” (shredded) pork spring roll ($7) and the Dungeness crab cake with pickled tomato ($9) deserve attention, but the starters reach their zenith with the Hudson Valley foie gras ($14), cut in medium-thick slices, sautéed until lightly crusted, and served with bitter baby greens and a brilliant marmalade of red grapes highlighted with a taste of tangerine. The exceptionally lush, buttery foie gras cries out for the marmalade’s sweetness, and the combination soars. It is so good it might draw attention in Paris, where foie gras is much more common; there, of course, the menu would offer a glass of sweet wine as an accompaniment. Chive makes no such provision, but should. The entrée price range of $16 to $25 seems reasonable for the neighborhood, especially considering that the top-priced item is a seared beef filet teamed with a grilled, pancetta-wrapped prawn, a cake of fingerling potatoes, wilted bitter greens and a carefully flavored brown sauce. Just as interesting, the bottom end of the cost scale stars ponzu chicken, an Asian-inspired poultry dish that features clear, pleasant flavors and the contrasting textures of crisp Chinese long beans and wasabi-flavored mashed potatoes.
Pork shank braised in the style of ossobuco ($21) frankly seems cloyingly sweet, but a peppery brown sauce and Cheddar-enriched potatoes make the perfect savory complements to a New York steak ($22). An unusual blue-cheese risotto pairs happily with an Australian lamb loin sauced with charred yellow tomatoes ($23).
If the meats shine, so do the fish dishes, from grilled swordfish topped with hoisin-flavored butter ($21) to crumb-crusted, citrus-sauced escolar balanced on a mountainous serving of puréed celery root ($19). Having praised these dishes, it must be noted that if Freidank has made ravioli ($17) stuffed with red wine–braised veal cheeks and finished with mascarpone-mellowed brown sauce, get your order in before the kitchen runs out. In a town rife with pasta, this shines like a white truffle discovered among the roots of an ancient oak.
Desserts include a “sandwich” of meringues and berries in a creamy black-currant sauce, plus such showy offerings as a layered parfait of white, milk and bittersweet chocolate mousses, and the banana-macadamia spring roll, a fancy confection dressed up with a sensational coconut gelato (each $7). Much less complicated, the beignets ($6), fried pastries served with pineapple-flavored custard sauce, make a wonderfully sweet impression.
The list of 25 rums that proprietor Borkum assembled as an alternative to the martini menus popular in the Gaslamp provides another choice way to conclude. A fine rum costs no more than $10, although self-indulgent souls may succumb to the sugary blandishments of the rare Pyrat Cask 23, priced at $35 the glass.
Chive serves lunch Monday through Friday, and dinner nightly, at 558 Fourth Avenue in downtown San Diego (619-232-4483). Reservations are suggested.