Restaurant Review: Double Standard
Young chef Chris Gentile pitches a near-perfect game at Double Standard
695 Sixth Avenue, downtown
"It was terribly, terribly good again,” I phone my wife. “This kid might be the best young chef in the city. If the third meal is the same, I’m going to carve his bust into a nearby mountain or a block of cheese or something.”
The chef in question is Chris Gentile. He’s 24 years old, and looks as though he’d get carded for smokes. He interned at Nashville’s Husk under Sean Brock, the James Beard Award-winning heir of modern Southern food. Then he came to San Diego and worked for Brian Malarkey. When Malarkey’s empire got a little too big, a little too burly, he all but handed control of his Point Loma restaurant, Gabardine, to Gentile until the group finally closed it.
After a particularly good first meal at Double Standard, I text Malarkey to see if my estimation of Gentile is a little overblown. “He’s good, really good,” Malarkey replies. “And cocky.”
Gentile does have a cavalier confidence about him. I’m not sure if it’s cockiness or the wild, almost Pentecostal zeal of the culinary youth. He describes dishes and ingredients the way boys describe their first time under a blanket with a girl. It’s infectious.
Gentile wasn’t supposed to be the chef of Double Standard. Owner David Mainiero had hired a big-name guy from L.A., but creative differences led to a departure before they even started. I’m sure it was a mini-tragedy for all parties at the time, but now I’m convinced it was a blessing in disguise.
Roasted Mediterranean octopus with guanciale vinaigrette and peewee potatoes
Anyone who’s walked by Double Standard has noticed it. It’s the modern Italian restaurant that took over the corner of Sixth Avenue and F Street when gourmet burger chain Counter Burger called it a day. Sixth Avenue is a perennial bridesmaid, never the bride, when it comes to foot traffic in the Gaslamp. Any city’s downtown area is like a road with well-worn ruts that pull visitors along the same old path. Just ask SBE. That massively successful L.A. hospitality group opened a branch of their massively successful Katsuya on Sixth Avenue in 2012. They closed it two years later. If even SBE has a problem, then there’s a problem.
But Double Standard’s owners have turned their corner into a screaming riot of color. It’s one Mad Hatter away from mimicking a fable. The thin sliver of patio that rounds the building is lined with artificial grass. A few chairs look like thrones for royal elves. There are blue chairs and white chairs and yellow chairs and aqua chairs. Interior lamps—the sort grandpa used to use to read with his whiskey—are placed on tables. They’re totally out of place in the great outdoors of the Gaslamp, and that’s why they work so well.
The interior is designed with an equal attention to chaos and mental instability, in a very good way. Plastic taxidermy animal heads hang on walls. So do metal taxidermy animal heads. A library lines the south wall. The books appear thrown onto the shelves in a fit of literary rage. A chandelier is hung with industrial meat hooks strung with Edison bulbs. The room is yellow and red and aqua and white and brick and wood and metal. The unifying theme seems to be rampant stimulation.
In other words, what a cool room— especially since it’s all windows and roll-up garage doors, taking advantage of San Diego’s legendary weather.
My wife had eaten at Double Standard with friends the week before I went in for review. She was shocked at how good the food was. It was the same feeling I’d had during a tasting of Gentile’s original menu soon after opening.
When I returned, it exceeded even my high expectations. The menu is separated into bruschettas, pizzas, and main dishes. The first section is small plates and sandwiches baked to order. Gentile’s short rib sandwich with caramelized onions, roasted garlic, and Gouda is an absolute moaner, like a chef’s riff on a Philly cheesesteak, only musty and overwhelming with umami. The only person who’d complain about it would be the same person who complains about butter and pleasure. From the selection of bruschetta, the prosciutto comes with a rice paper-thin slice of the cured pork (the perfect slice), paired nicely with sweetness from candied figs and honey, salt from housemade ricotta, and a light perfume of toasted pistachios.
From Gentile’s antipasti section I try the roasted Mediterranean octopus, which he tenderizes to perfection, roasts, and then finishes in the deep fryer. The crunchy exterior—lightly fried, not Long John Silver fried—adds an element of rich, indulgent fat that the traditional preparation (boiled and then grilled) simply can’t offer. In a guanciale vinaigrette with peewee potatoes, it’s a great take on what’s become a San Diego staple.
As for his mushroom toast? It’s the kind of delicious, creamy, cankle-spawning dish that is so perfectly seasoned that it gives you small trust issues. As if maybe there’s some ajinomoto (MSG) somewhere in the building. Looking for complaints, I might say that pouring the creamy mushroom mixture over the toasted bread makes it soggy at arrival. Chef could try serving the crispy toast on the side, letting people dredge it through the mixture to experience both textural thrills (creamy and crunchy). But we’ve all had bread bowls, and they’re delicious. Finally, I try his spicy pappardelle Bolognese. Again, it’s phenomenal, with belts of perfectly al dente pasta, torn hunks of braised short rib, and housemade sausage. It’s got a kick, and an unusually bright, acidic note (orange juice in the sauce) that’s perfect to offset the fattier cuts of meat.
It was after all of these dishes—not even a half-misstep among them—that I phoned my wife about maybe witnessing a real breakthrough in San Diego. Maybe not historic, but a shocking level of young talent. I felt like I was watching a baseball player pitch a perfect game, or a gymnast about ready to complete a historic routine. If Gentile’s third meal hit all the same notes, we’d name a child after him.
So, of course, the third tasting at Double Standard had problems.
It wasn’t bad, but it was heartbreaking, if only because success breeds its nastier offspring, expectation. It’s like when your favorite TV series introduces a mime in season 6. Or the new girlfriend is amazing, until you meet her husband. The meal started excellently with Gentile’s meatball, a full eight-ounce beast of tender veal, spiced with various herbs and dressed in San Marzano tomato sauce, pesto, and housemade ricotta. The slight disappointment started with the margherita pizza, with organic San Marzano sauce, Goia mozzarella, and petite basil. The flavor was excellent, but the sauce overwhelmed the crust, making it a wet mess that flopped and sopped apart when you grabbed it. Then the only true disaster arrived—a Berkshire pork belly that was overcooked nearly to the state of jerky. It’s long been said that you can’t overcook pork belly, on account of its high fat content (which is what makes it so delicious), but I’ve been seeing more and more chefs prove that false, as if they take it to be a personal challenge.
The brick of belly is served in a stone fruit puree that’s a tad too heavy on the vinegar, with slices of nectarines and granola. I was intrigued by the inclusion of granola, which seemed a very odd, hacky-sack, SoCal riff on the dish. Pigs eat nuts, so maybe it made great sense. But as served, the granola isn’t incorporated into the dish. Rather, it’s just a few tiny clusters on the plate tossed like rock confetti or a spilled campsite breakfast.
The scallops were better, perfectly cooked with a tan, George Hamilton-ish sear and a barely translucent center. The sauce is a charred leek vinaigrette, which is beautiful with the oniony smoke of the blackened leeks. But this sauce, too, is too heavy on the vinegar. It seems vinegar residue is a recurring mistake with Gentile. A small mistake, and less off-putting than lack of flavor. But balance is something learned over time. The scallops are finished with a citrus “snow,” a little molecular gastronomy trick (mixing maltodextrin with citrus for a fine, flavored powder). Tasted alone, the “snow” doesn’t have any brightness from the citrus. It’s pretty flavorless. That’s fine, but it’s not beautiful enough to just include for its looks. On the side they serve an excellent, creative charred onion cake, which looks like a green johnnycake, with a nice pungent herbal bite.
Prosciutto bruschetta with figs, honey, and ricotta
Finally, we try the desserts. The chocolate budino is overcooked, hard almost like a cake or even a scone. Budino should be soft and luxurious. This one is hard even for a Hungry Man brownie. The bambolini, too, are a little over-fried. Bambolini are essentially Italian doughnut holes, and Standard’s are served with orange rum curd, espresso mascarpone, and vanilla gelato. The mascarpone is just kind of dumped all over the plate, and there’s far too much of it. The gelato is excellent.
In the end, I’ll still conclude this is one of the best young chefs in San Diego. His ability to develop deep, interesting flavors in simple dishes should take decades, not years. And while Gentile’s “perfect game” might have been ruined by the third tasting, my excitement for him wasn’t. Watch him closely.