IT SEEMED TO ME downtown restaurants were grabbing too much press, but the chilaquiles at Jsix argued otherwise. At breakfast one Sunday, a friend let me hijack a forkful of his meal before placing it off-limits. Twenty-two hours later, I returned for a bowl of my own.
A messy jumble of fried tortilla strips, sultry salsa, minced chicken and eggs, chilaquiles ($12.50) by no means resembles haute cuisine—but in terms of cosmopolitan flavors, ooh la la! Built for those who consider good food a birthright, this is home cooking, but like familial French and Chinese dishes, it breathes a sophistication unfamiliar to a country befuddled by Swanson’s, Aunt Jemima and Kraft (Velveeta, anyone?). Chef Deborah MacDonald Schneider weaves her nests of chilaquiles from many complementary items: corn tortilla snippets simmered in red guajillo chile sauce, onion, cilantro, juicy chicken, Oaxaca cheese and eggs. The decidedly piquant accent suggests ordering the eggs over easy—the yolks flow through the dish, taming the heat and adding a suave finish. Intensify the fire with drizzles of Schneider’s homemade hot sauce, which chiles de arbol convincingly spice. The mild, fresh pico de gallo salsa is crisp and perfect.
Not yet beguiled by prefab grub, Mexican households enjoy food you want to eat, and Schneider has written the book on the topic. In May, Rodale Press will publish ¡Baja! Cooking on the Edge, a volume that blooms with the flavors the Toronto-born chef distributes through her chi-chi dining room in the Ballpark District’s Hotel Solamar. The bold menus capture Baja’s rustic yet sophisticated cooking style at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Each meal hour offers unique pleasures, like the cactus pear honey butter and homemade jam served with morning toast. The Solamar is popular with convention groups from Europe, who must delight in the chorizo–jack cheese–mushroom omelet with pan-crisped potatoes ($13.75). For Americans who think “sweet” in the morning, options run to lemon French toast with toasted almonds and Grand Marnier poached apricots ($9.50).
By design, Jsix has its own entrances at the corner of Sixth and J (hence the name) to avoid the inference that it might be a hotel restaurant. It neither looks nor feels like one. San Francisco’s Kimpton Hotels group helped invent the “boutique hotel” concept, and all the trendy touches are present—from daring décor to a well-trained young staff with plenty of personality.
Visually, the two wings of the dining room—the open kitchen knuckles them together—are an artwork with no particular theme, but with a strong intention to delight. In one room, the “wall of fezzes” is a symmetrical sculpture of 75 yellow-tasseled red caps (jolly patrons have been known to swipe them). There are mosaics, high ceilings finished with both rough wood and fanciful moldings that glow like mother-of-pearl, floral upholsteries, abstract murals and massive windows that look out at nothing in particular and sometimes let in too much sun.
MacDonald’s insistence on housemade foods begins with wrought-iron baskets crammed with exceptional focaccia, chili-cheese and sourdough breads and accompanied by a fragrant olive tapenade (beware of oily dribbles) that tempts guests to turn bread and spread into a meal. At lunch and dinner, menus open with such savory tapas as Moroccan-spiced lamb skewers with green olive–orange sauce ($3.75 each) and succulent “wraps” of chipotle honey–basted Kobe beef rolled in lettuce leaves ($4.95 each).
Other starters feature Baja flavors: A tomatillo, mango and Serrano chile sauce lightly spices succulent grilled prawns ($6.75 each), and lime and fresh chipotles put the diabla in the shrimp “cocktel” ($9.50), which plunges five plump beauties into an orange sauce whose color warns of its heat. Cucumber and jicama add crunch to a sweet-savory passionfruit ceviche ($8) mounded in a cocktail glass. The effect of the salt used as a distinctive flavoring in the sauté of king trumpet mushrooms with plenty of garlic and chiles ($8) is worth noting. Bright lime wedges, diced tomato, cilantro sprigs and slivered Serrano peppers colorize the bowl of tender steamed clams, a brothy appetizer filled out with buttery twists of gemelli pasta.
For something substantial, MacDonald builds a better burger on a housebaked roll ($9.75) and adds cheese, grilled onions, bacon and her own spicy-sweet ketchup (Americans dined well in the pre-Heinz era). A tasty pile of sizzling, garlic-scented fries balances the plate.
The kitchen knows soups, too. The split-pea soup served as an occasional brew du jour ($6) is good enough to earn a slot on the standing menu. More thinly bodied than a typical split pea, which has the consistency of porridge, its flavor benefits from the contributions made by smoked ham, crisp ribbons of hardbaked pita bread and a spoonful of fresh salsa that lends a regional accent.
THE DINNER MENU DOTES on Baja flavors, but not exclusively. The Jsix cioppino ($23) nicely blends shrimp, other shellfish and mahimahi (usually) in a rich, sauce-like tomato broth, which can be brightened with the very French red pepper rouille served on the side. Grilled lamb sirloin is rubbed with mint, garlic and oregano and served with ruby chard and hibiscus chutney ($26); the red wine used to braise Angus beef short ribs ($25) becomes the basis of a truly satisfying sauce.
But the regional dishes are so good, like the nicely crusted, cilantro-glazed Kobe beef flatiron steak ($33) that truly melts in the mouth. Basmati rice and black beans garnish twice-sauced seared tuna with ruby grapefruit salsa and banana beurre blanc ($28). Jsix gives seafood thoughtful treatment, exemplified by the reduction of Gewürztraminer and lobster stock that sauced one night’s square of pan-seared Baja-caught blue-nose grouper balanced on a round polenta cake ($26).
Finish lightly with the coconut-lime crème brûlée ($6) or richly with the date-macadamia cake with butterscotch sauce ($7). An alternative, the slightly bitter hot chocolate with an extravagant “float” of lightly whipped cream ($3), sends you home smiling.
Jsix serves three meals daily at 616 J Street, San Diego. Reservations are accepted at 619-531-8744.