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location: 717 Fourth Avenue,Gaslamp Quarter
number: 619-232-4440
chefs: Abel Gutierrez

pork chops with pasilla chorizo cream sauce

Stuffing: 1 serving
2 ounces choppped Andouille sausage
2 ounces chopped shiitake and oyster mushrooms
1 tablespoon grated Boursin cheese
pinch salt and pepper
12-ounce pork loin chop
cayenne pepper

Cook sausage; drain. Add mushrooms, cheese, salt and pepper; sauté. Stuff mixture into double-cut pork loin chop; rub meat with cayenne pepper. Broil 2 minutes each side, and finish in a 450-degree oven for 10-12 minutes.

Sauce: 1 serving
1 tablespoon chopped chorizo sausage
1 tablespoon pasilla (dried chili pepper), puréed
1 ounce heavy cream

Cook sausage; drain. Add pasilla and sauté with heavy cream until thick. Pour over stuffed pork chop.
You’re walking down Fourth Avenue near Horton Plaza, taking in the sounds, sights and scents of the city. Some are more attractive than others—especially when it comes to the scents.

You pass a restaurant, another, then another. Then it hits you: a whisper of garlic tempered with what might be broiled lobster, a hint of chilies and a definite note of grilled filet mignon. You stop dead, like a hound on the trail. A herd of badged conventioneers parts around you like lemmings. They ignore the posted menu on the sidewalk, which speaks of Cajun-dusted scallops, seafood risotto and duck salad. This is where the marvelous aromas originate.

At 7:17 on a Saturday night, at 717 Fourth Avenue, you discover the magic that is Seven-17.

The restaurant opened on July 17, 2002, bringing an ambitious new menu and direction to the former Portobello Italian eatery. Last November, Abel Gutierrez became the chef, after doing some very nice work at the now-closed Kalahari Café.

Abel’s ready and willing to give downtown diners the sophisticated flavors they deserve, starting with appetizers. His lobster bisque ($9) is robust and toasty rather than unctuously rich, an effect achieved by roasting the lobsters and vegetables. For a more decadent starter, choose the meaty portabella mushroom, overflowing with crab tidbits, Parmesan cheese and lush lobster cream ($10).

The crab cakes ($10) are textbook perfect, their delicate seafood taste unmarred by excess filler and boosted by herbaceous filé powder and a drizzle of garlicky aioli. (The black-bean salsa on the side could use a few more chilies, though.) Even the familiar Caesar salad shines, with fragrant cheese shavings and exceptionally yummy croutons ($8). The house bread is light and crisp, like the best piece of toast you’ve ever tasted. It comes from the Assaggio Italian Bakery up the street.

The sheer variety of entrées makes you wonder whether the chef can pull it off. No worries—Gutierrez is equally adept with fish, fowl and meat. He’s definitely got the chops when it comes to lamb and pork—like the eight-bone rack of lamb ($26) crusted with mustard and herbs, then finished in a blackberry bordelaise that tastes like highbrow barbecue sauce. Roasted just ’til it’s rosy, it’s spectacular. And the stuffed pork chop is equally impressive, filled with a mixture of herbed cheese, mushrooms and Cajun sausage that enhance the already flavorful meat ($24).

The exotic incense character of five-spice powder infuses the Sonoma duck breast, sliced and served rare in a plummy glaze ($26). Alongside the duck, wasabi-laced mashed potatoes offer a complementary blaze of horseradish. There’s plenty of heat in the Cajun sea scallops, too; dusted and seared with a variety of ground chilies, they’re magically tempered with a nutty Frangelico cream ($25).

Most entrées include a serving of one of the praiseworthy side dishes—also available à la carte for $6 or so. One night’s French fries were splinter slim and as crisp as good Parisian frites, while the au gratin tasted hearty and homemade. Seasoned butternut squash and a sweet-potato hash spiked with cumin and clove were flawless. So was the grilled asparagus tossed with garlic.

For dessert, choices include a handful of gelatos (not made on the premises), seasonal berries served in a martini glass, tiramisu, crème brûlée and the house specialty, bread pudding. The latter, presented with buttery rum sauce and vanilla gelato, is worth a detour from your 2004 resolutions. Desserts are $6 to $8.

Seven-17 has a sultry yet suave vibe, compounded by spare furnishings and ultra-high ceilings. In the bar, candles shimmer while specialty martinis are shaken and stirred to the sounds of live jazz on Friday nights and a deejay’s hypnotic house music on Saturday evenings. The dining rooms (one semiprivate) are rather austere, but comfortable enough and not too loud.

Interesting crowd, too: one part elegant older couples, two parts well-dressed young sophisticates. Aside from one gifted waitress, the serving staff seems a bit out of its league, awkward as freshmen at a senior dance while they clear plates and replace silverware. But happily, they’re improving.

In addition to a full bar, the restaurant has a lengthy wine list that celebrates reds. If you can appreciate (and afford) the likes of Cosentino Reserve Cab for $130 or Shafer Merlot for $68, they’re here. Expect to pay at least 30 bucks for the majority of labels on the list. With a glass of Ferrari-Carano Fume Blanc going for $9, you might as well order the whole bottle for $32. Remember, you can take any leftover wine home.

With such special food—not to mention all those lucky sevens in its pedigree—Seven-17 deserves to withstand the sometimes-fickle tastes of downtown diners. With so many restaurants being a real gamble, it’s great to find a sure thing.

Seven-17 serves dinner nightly at 717 Fourth Avenue, downtown; 619-232-4440. The bar is open until 2 a.m.
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