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Restaurant Review: Trust

Chef Brad Wise and Trust are two reasons to return to Hillcrest




3752 Park Boulevard, Hillcrest

Pork Sugo
Ricotta Agnolotti
Oxtail Raviolini

Hillcrest has seen better days. Looking around at the empty storefronts, it’s hard to remember this was once the apex of San Diego’s dining scene. What happened? You get different answers depending on whom you ask. Some business owners claim landlords got greedy, hiking rents and pushing out the creative class that made Hillcrest so phenomenal. Off the record, most business owners say homelessness is a big problem; the area’s adjacency to Balboa Park and UCSD Medical Center attracts a huge population.

But the strangest reason I’ve heard, from more than one Hillcrest business owner? It shocked me a little, when I first heard it. Gay rights killed Hillcrest, they say. This part of town was vibrant two decades ago because gays didn’t feel safe elsewhere. So they created their own safe haven in Hillcrest, and took great pride making it a killer place to live, work, and play. Now, with bigotry on the wane, our gay friends feel safer and freer to live anywhere they damn well please. Our gay neighbors have dispersed around the city. Dating has gone online, as well, which means there’s less need for a particular part of town to meet likeminded singles. These are all great things, and no one of sane mind would bemoan humanitarian progress just to save a part of our municipal heritage. But the fact is, some of America’s great gayborhoods have become less vital, exciting places because straight people aren’t as small-minded and aggressive as they once were.

So it’s heartening to see progress in this no-man’s land on the corner of Park and Robinson in Hillcrest. Jonathan Segal, one of the city’s top architects, has struck cool again with the Mr. Robinson building. Segal’s Q building was a catalyst for the revival in Little Italy, harboring Bencotto, Monello, and Underbelly on the bottom floor. And this new project has similar potential. The statement restaurant at Mr. Robinson is Trust, owned and operated by two vets of JRDN—general manager Steven Schwob and chef Brad Wise.

You say potato: Fire-grilled fingerling potatoes with vinegar whipped cream, butter, and chives

My first impression of Trust is—how has Wise eluded me? It’s my job to listen to murmurs of good chefs doing good chef things. And I hadn’t really heard buzz about Wise during his time in Pacific Beach. But oh, lord, he’s cooking very, very well at Trust. For this review, I enlisted the insight of one of the city’s top seafood experts, and a photographer friend who’s an avid food chaser. All three of us are floored by our first bite—fire-grilled fingerling potatoes with vinegar whipped cream. The whipped cream, savory and tart from the vinegar, soaks up the smoky, grilled flavor on the potatoes nicely.

Trust is set up for wood firing. The open kitchen of the spartan, modern space is stacked with logs. Smoke and dry heat have made a huge comeback among chefs, especially in San Diego with its Baja influence. Dry heat is not as forgiving as braising, so it takes a good chef to pull it off. And Wise is largely up to the task. The jalapeño vinaigrette for his Brussels sprouts is excellent, the floral pepper playing nicely against Cotija cheese and tangy Tajín. It’s the only dish, however, where we taste fire gone too far, with a vaguely burnt note. The beet salad with house yogurt, rye croutons, red onions, almonds, fennel, and a citrus vinaigrette is spot-on and delicious.

Pigging out: Pork sugo with polenta, tomato, asiago, and
fried sage

For his beef tartare, Wise makes a lavash in-house and spreads the cubes of raw meat in a Worcestershire vinaigrette evenly across the crispy flatbread, with tiny droplets of tonnato (a classic cold, tangy anchovy sauce) placed so that every bite has all its intended elements, including mustard seeds and poached quail eggs. The chicken liver toast with mostarda on grilled levain has just the right balance of creaminess and liver funk.

We don’t find as much success with Wise’s seafood. A hamachi crudo with cilantro, avocado, black sesame, bean sprouts, cucumber, fish roe, and taro root chips is a little overcomplicated. The appeal of crudo is the simple clarity of top-quality fish, and this is more of a seafood salad tower where the fish gets lost. His wood-grilled octopus in andouille, garbanzo beans, tomato, and herb butter has incredible flavor, but the octopus has been cooked sous vide a little too far, softening the meat to a near-baby-food state.

Braised to amaze: Braised oxtail raviolini with pine nuts, carrots, oxtail jus, horseradish, and whipped ricotta

Three dishes stick out far above the rest. Jaw droppers—even for my notoriously cranky and opinionated dinner companions. First, the braised oxtail raviolini with pine nuts, carrots, oxtail jus, horseradish, and whipped ricotta. Oxtail is a deeply rich, rewarding ingredient, and Wise uses it to perfection here. Second, the pork sugo with polenta, tomato, asiago cheese, and fried sage. It’s polenta refined to four-star status, and the tomato and pork sugo have been braised into a perfect, intensely rich bomb of umami. And finally, the ricotta agnolotti with sunchokes, black garlic struesel, winter truffle, panna (Italian cream), and basil. It’s a moaner, and that’s why we see it on almost every table in the restaurant. 

As Trust fills up with the urban crowd—and it almost always fills up—we appreciate the thoughtful design from Schwob and Wise. Like most Segal buildings, the space is a box of hard modernity, with concrete and marble and steel and huge windows. I’ve often complained about this setup for a restaurant. Hard surfaces make for a riot of clatter and chatter. But Trust has placed acoustic panels everywhere, and even during the busiest times, there’s a softness to the volume of the room.

Pasta perfection: Ricotta agnolotti with sunchokes, black
garlic streussel, and winter truffle

Our entrées show off the risk taking that makes Trust more exciting than your average bistro. The pork chop is a nontraditional cut, including the meaty chop and sections of pork belly. The problem with this cut, however, is that the pork belly doesn’t get adequately rendered, so it ends up less of that magical, soft pork fat and more of a chew. We also order the whole grilled branzino, and it’s executed perfectly, with crispy skin and herb relish, Campari tomatoes, and grilled lemon.

For dessert, try the citrus cake with buttermilk panna cotta, smoked vanilla granita, and orange curd. The textures of the creamy panna cotta, the moist cake, and the icy granita make for a perfect bite. Oh—and that profiterole, stuffed with banana cream and crusted with caramel. Part croquembouche, part classic American pie shop.

I won’t say this came out of nowhere. Wise and Schwob have pedigrees. But I didn’t expect to be as impressed as I am with Trust. In a time when many new restaurants champion flash and decor over food, Trust has managed to put it all together. It’s a jolt of rejuvenation for a part of town in need.

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