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Restaurant Review: Ironside Fish & Oyster

Ironside Fish & Oyster is the crown jewel of Little Italy (bring pillows)


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Ironside Fish & Oyster

1654 India St,
Little Italy
ironsidefishandoyster.com

TROY’S PICKS

Lobster roll
Salmon
Whole roasted fish

A few years ago, Little Italy was a nice, quaint place to get some red sauce, maybe a salami sandwich at Mona Lisa or bucatini from Assenti’s. Now you hear locals talk about parking dilemmas and “oversaturation.” You go to the Gaslamp to party and peacock. You go to Little Italy to eat.

The boom seemed spurred by The Q, a mixed-use building from local architect Jonathan Segal. Into its bottom floor went modern Italian standout Bencotto. Down the street, a James Beard-nominated restaurateur put in Davanti Enoteca. Then two non-Italian concepts opened the floodgates: cocktail haven Craft & Commerce (part of Consortium Holdings) and Prepkitchen (an offshoot of La Jolla’s Whisknladle). Little Italy was dubbed “the new North Park,” then surpassed that this year when Top Chef all-star Richard Blais opened Juniper & Ivy. Two upcoming projects include one from iconic Baja chef Javier Plascencia (in the new Ariel building) and another from Brian Malarkey (in Mixture’s warehouse space).

ROLLIN’ ALONG: Lobster roll with brown butter mayo and chives

Some new joints took over failed Italian restaurants. Others retrofitted warehouse spaces on the northern end. But every restaurateur who scouted the area was drawn to one large, abandoned, expensive, and potentially magical warehouse in the middle of the action: Ironside Metal Supply. It seemed ripe for a rave party or one grand restaurant.

Ironside Fish & Oyster is that restaurant—the third Little Italy project from Consortium Holdings (Craft & Commerce and UnderBelly being the first two). It’s the most ambitious project yet from the group people love to resent. Those fascists don’t serve vodka! Those moustache-twirlers won’t give me ketchup or a Budweiser with my fries! Their crimes against mass-consumed food and drink are well-documented.

And yet, each of Consortium’s concepts—including Neighborhood, El Dorado, Soda & Swine, Polite Provisions, Rare Form, Fairweather, and Juice—seem to do well, if not extremely well.

Why?

First, design. The folks at Consortium are art-school kids who treat their restaurants like giant dioramas, filling them with elaborate detail, camp, and cultural statement pieces (i.e., broken mirrors in Craft & Commerce evoke deep vanity thoughts). After a $1.8 million build-out by talented designer Paul Basile, Ironside looks like NYC’s Grand Central Station inside the hull of Titanic. The front is all roll-up garage doors with windows edged in brass. One wall sports hundreds of gold-plated piranhas, like a catacomb dedicated to a B movie. A seafoam-green bench runs down the middle of the 4,500-foot space, separating the bar from sit-down dining. There’s old luggage near the rafters. A giant octopus tentacle cradles a light bulb. Big-band jazz plays a perfect mood.

The place is as visually awesome as it is physically uncomfortable. The stools near the bar are too small for any ass not attached to a runway model. The tables are the size of pizzas.

For a restaurant group known for its tattoos and see-through earlobes, Ironside attracts a surprising amount of mature, sophisticated clientèle. Then again, hipsters and elders have always had similar interests.

IN THE PINK: Sautéed salmon over corn and chanterelles

Another reason Consortium succeeds? They find holes and fill them (Neighborhood was downtown’s first craft beer bar, and UnderBelly was the first ramen shop in Little Italy). At Ironside, they realized Little Italy—historically a fishing village—didn’t have a single seafood joint. The nearest oyster bar was downtown. So they created a menu full of local seafood, plus a lobster roll and chowder. Their raw bar—with up to eight oyster varieties served on chilled metal countertops—is now the busiest in town.

What Consortium isn’t known for? Food. Neighborhood’s burgers are good and Craft’s mini-corn dogs fun to eat, but Consortium is famous for making world-class drinks in cool-looking rooms. To drastically change this, they hired Jason McLeod, a chef who earned two Michelin stars at Ria in Chicago.

Ironside is McLeod’s showroom, and it’s Consortium’s first stab at a restaurant with proper service. On a Monday lunch shift—usually a day off for chefs—McLeod is here, overseeing the open kitchen. He’s there Tuesday night, too. He’s got good help at Ironside, with chef de cuisine JoJo Ruiz (ex-Searsucker) and bread-maker/pastry chef Donna Antaloczy (ex-Bouchon Bakery, Nine-Ten).

Old Ironsides: “Baby Jesus in velvet pants”

So how’s the food? Over two visits I try 12 dishes, and most fall in the good-very good-damn excellent range, with only one true misstep: a far-too-acidic ceviche, which is a no-no for a fish joint located near Mexico.

For the lobster roll, they split a buttery Dutch roll and fill it with massive chunks of Maine claw meat in brown butter mayo and chives. Some lobster rolls are flooded in picnic mayo, which masks the lobster flavor. But Ironside’s is lightly dressed and one of the best I’ve had (just wipe the grease on your jeans). Their chowder is nice, even if it could ease up on its bacon enthusiasm. The fish and chips are solid, with a well-browned batter and meaty white fish. The pork belly comes with creamy grits and a phenomenal Luxardo cherry demi-glace. Our belly is a tad dry, but a sauce that good forgives “tad” errors.

The white bass collar appetizer is a really generous portion for $10, topped with a nice chimichurri. A single octopus tentacle is beyond tender and its sauce of Castelvetrano olives and chorizo is a nice, deeply flavorful salt element. Served a la plancha (grilled on a metal plate), though, it’s missing the caramelization and a little char to develop levels of flavor. The plancha spot prawns in anchovy butter miss nothing—a sort of lobster replacement therapy at a third the cost. The knuckle-meat crab cake has nice flavor (including a touch of sriracha). It lacks crunchy texture, but that’s supplied by the bread-and-butter pickles that have a really nice pop of fennel. The tomato salad is a ridiculous portion of riches—huge slices of heirloom tomatoes served with obscene amounts of Humboldt Fog cheese in olive oil and aged balsamic.

For mains, McLeod’s salmon is simply one of the best I’ve had. Sautéed over pork belly scraps, the crust is so crisp and light it cracks like brulée, and it’s served over corn purée and chanterelles. Even stuffed, our whole vermillion rock cod from Punta Baja in basil pesto (with toasted Marcona almonds instead of pine nuts) is highly enjoyable.

GONE BANANAS: Fried banana bread with fruit and Bavarian cream

Service on both nights is professional, friendly, knowledgable, if a tad slow at lunch (it takes five minutes for someone to touch my table). In light blue jean shirts, servers err on the side of casual, as they should.

Under drinks man Leigh Lacap, the bar has damn near everything (50-plus cocktails in all). It starts with a riff on the oyster shooter—single raw oysters with Champagne cocktails. In fact, there are 14 Champagne cocktails on the menu, plus a bevy of lemon-spiked stimulating drinks (aperitifs), fortified sherry cocktails (referred to as “baby Jesus in velvet pants”), digestifs, and coffee creations. We especially liked the Swiss Pile Driver with gin, Cynar (bitter Italian herb liqueur), grapefruit, and orange cordial.

In terms of design, vibe, and grandeur, Ironside is the crown jewel of Little Italy. For tackling so much (bakery, craft cocktails, oyster bar, etc.), it does very well. Just think of it as a bring-your-own-seat-cushion establishment, and you’d be hard-pressed to have a bad time. 

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