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Confidential

Photo by Brevin Blach

DON’T LET CONFIDENTIAL’S good looks and celebrity pedigree fool you. It’s not what it seems.

Sure, doormen guard the portals, The Bachelor reality TV star Andrew Firestone is an investor, and most of the clientele is rich or good-looking or both. But Confidential isn’t simply one of the Gaslamp’s hottest bars. It’s also one of the best new restaurants in town.

Confidential’s secret weapon is chef Chris Walsh, a local celeb in his own right. After years of earning raves as executive chef at California Cuisine during the 1990s, Walsh launched his own Café W in 2001. Two years later, when the restaurant was destroyed by fire, fans of Walsh’s exuberantly creative tapas-style dishes and gorgeous presentations were crushed.

Among them were friends and local club proprietors Darren Moore and Merritte Powell, who were planning to launch a new restaurant-lounge venture. “I used to eat at Café W,” says Moore. “When he had the fire, not only my heart but my stomach ached.”

The partners wanted to build a serious restaurant, not just a bar serving food to meet liquor-licensing requirements. Walsh longed to get back into the kitchen. A dramatic, two-story space at the corner of Fourth and E was available. The result? Confidential had its grand opening in May.

With its sophisticated lighting and sound, classic-modern design and modish music mix, the place draws an eye-candy clientele with patrons who think nothing of dropping $450 on a bottle of Cristal champagne. And indeed, it was the club aspect that drew crowds at first.

But now word’s out that Chris is cooking again, and aficionados are dropping in for dinner. Chalk it up to the chef ’s enthusiasm for seasonal ingredients, fondness for heirloom produce and penchant for the unconventional.

Dishes are served in liqueur glasses or porcelain cups, in tiny wooden boxes or other offbeat presentations. Of more than 30 dishes on the menu, only two are similar to ones served at Café W (lobster bisque and rock shrimp tostadas, brought back by popular demand). Everything else—including half a dozen desserts—is new.

WITH RARE EXCEPTION, the new dishes impress. Some of the very best come not with, but in, a spoon. Take the luscious veal sweetbread ($8) nestled in an Asian soup spoon with tangy-sweet diced quince. Or the spoon topped with fruit salsa and a perfectly grilled scallop dusted with Szechuan pepper ($8).

One night’s complimentary amuse-bouche, chilled fresh plum soup pumped up with Chambord and champagne, came not in a bowl but a shot glass. And the best salad we’ve had all year ($8) looked like a delivery from FTD. Red and golden watermelon arrived seasoned with flurries of black pepper and feta cheese, red-hot torpedo heirloom onions and port-like Banyuls vinegar—plus a sheaf of arugula like the Statue of Liberty’s torch.

Even more-traditional dishes get spun. On the section of the menu marked “Sliders,” you’ll find White Castle knockoffs gone uptown. Priced $8 to $10, the petite buns hold spiced ground lamb and chutney, or a wonderfully unctuous duck confit.

Quesadillas come filled with huitlacoche (Mexico’s delectable fungus) and a fresh zucchini blossom, in corn tortillas from a local tortilleria. The dish is a steal at $7.

The shrimp and calamari tempura ($12) transcend the bar food genre with a cashmere-light batter, perfect cooking and a kicky chipotle mayonnaise. Garlic French fries on the side were limp, though, like they’d partied a little too hearty.

The sweet corn risotto with grilled shrimp ($13) missed the mark, too. Nice risotto, but the seafood was overly charred.

THE DESSERTS (EACH $7) seduced us quicker than you could say The Bachelor. Chocolate angel food cake in a pool of coffee crème anglaise and mocha ganache frosting was sweeter than a stolen kiss.

As for the “hot chocolate sampler,” oh, baby. It’s three kinds of chocolate, each melted with cream and presented in a miniature cup: Mexican Ibarra with subtle cinnamon; bittersweet with passion fruit sauce; white chocolate stirred with white pepper. Devour with a spoon, guzzle as shooters, or use as dip with fresh fruit on the side. Hell, just use your fingers. Or your date’s.

Low-slung, white leather sofas with tables provide most of the seating (with plenty of cuddle potential), along with bar seating and a raised banquette. The second-floor loft offers additional sofas and a fine view of the crowd below. It’s a crowd that favors cocktails or bottle service (buy a bottle of Skyy vodka for $300; get set-ups and service at your own table) over wine.

That’s fine by us. Whatever you’re drinking, it’s three cheers for Confidential.

Confidential serves dinner Tuesday through Saturday at 901 Fourth Avenue, downtown, 619-696-8888; confidentialsd.com.

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