Herb & Wood Shines in Little Italy
Chef (and target) Brian Malarkey does his best work yet at the stunning new restaurant
2210 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy
Among all the quite lovely design elements at Herb & Wood in Little Italy, the most telling one is invisible. And that is the huge target painted on chef-owner Brian Malarkey’s back. Aside from Richard Blais, very few San Diego chefs have gotten as much media exposure as Malarkey.
No one shoots at the no-name. With each media article, TV appearance, or large-scale graphic with your face on it, you move closer to the middle of the bull’s-eye. Character building is America’s second favorite sport, right after character assassination. We build celebrities with the same intent we build piñatas: with a messy and vaguely violent end-game in mind.
Malarkey is an especially enticing target. He has the personality of a Coachella dance tent. He’s a dapper-looking feller with blue eyes. He doesn’t seem to come from the wrong side of the tracks, beating all odds just to live and have a job. There is no underdog about him. He can be cocky, he can say controversial things, and he can also be sweet and generous. He likes funny hats. The name of his restaurants sound like hipster euphemisms. He commands attention and attention commands him.
Herb & Wood is his and GM-partner Chris Puffer’s massive, 8,500-square-foot baby—a multilevel warehouse space that took over the former Mixture art emporium in what is the undisputed culinary aorta of San Diego. The duo basically shares a wall with Blais at Juniper and Ivy.
And, well, I’ve got bad news. Herb & Wood is excellent. My condolences.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve had uneven experiences at Malarkey’s restaurants in the past. The first time I experienced his food was years ago at Oceanaire, downtown, where he shared a few off-menu creations and made some of the best seafood I’d tasted. Then, after competing on Bravo’s Top Chef, he left to make his name with Searsucker and Herringbone. In the beginning, I had quality meals at both places. As the fabric empire expanded, results varied. During astronomical growth, the first thing to fall off the rocket is quality control.
Managing partner James Brennan sold the whole social-dining portfolio for millions to nightlife behemoth Hakkasan. If there’s something haters hate most, especially in the precious, auteur-friendly restaurant world, it’s wild success and financial gain. Those close to the Searsucker situation will say that it was rough on Malarkey. The chef has referred to Herb & Wood as his “fresh start.”
After working with star designer Thomas Schoos in the past, Puffer prettied this one himself. And he turns out to have an eye for this. The towering walls drip with sky-blue paint that fades into white, creating a soft, messy, feminine elegance. The room is hung with gigantic portraits of what appear to be society women with all sorts of painterly dysmorphic bodies (skinny arms, gigantic heads, warped torsos). The women are the stars of the room, looking both sultry and haggard—as if the models were customers who’d stayed at the H&W bar until tired and aroused in equal measure. There’s a three-foot wooden sculpture of a middle finger near the front couch-lounge. The staff has been known to present it with great fanfare to particularly quarrelsome diners. The coasters say “YES.” Drinking here is positive affirmation.
With its soft seats, tufted leather, couch areas, and muted pastels, H&W is a counterargument to the dominant design trend of reclaimed wood, concrete, subway tile, and steel. There are no Mason jars, no rusty farm tools on the wall. The back patio (which is as large, if not larger than the main dining room) has a double-sided fireplace for cockle warming. Malarkey has said he and chef de cuisine Shane McIntyre were inspired by a trip to L.A. restaurant Night + Market, where they determined that what made chef Kris Yenbamroong’s Thai food so phenomenal was acid. And so most dishes at H&W have a bolt of lightning that only comes from the likes of citrus, vinegar, wines, and other high-note food. Since a majority of H&W dishes are cooked over dry heat, the acid serves as a foil for the roast smoke.
You can taste it in the tarragon butter that dresses the simple plate of grilled king trumpet mushrooms. The mushrooms are a little too wet, swollen like my cankles after a long walk, and losing a bit of their grill magic. But the licorice butter is phenomenal. A generous dose of sherry acidifies the venison, which is cooked textbook, soft and near-life in the middle, the edges and bit parts crispy and spiked with thyme. Over a bed of buttermilk polenta—a sort of cornbread pudding—only Yelpers with anger surpluses would find much of anything to complain about.
The attire of the servers at H&W looks plucked from a Milanese runway, with possibly Cubist black vests. A friend’s experience at H&W resonates with my observation: Staff knowledge of dishes is encyclopedic.
Looking around at the crowd, there are some luxury cheekbones in here. The hostess stand looks like a casting call. Seems almost as if OpenTable is having diners submit their best selfies before doling out the hard-to-get reservations. At a certain point, half the room seems to speak another language, suggesting a strong, wealthy crowd from across the border.
Parking? Well, it’s a nightmare. But in the age of UberLyft, that matters little.
Rest assured, parents—a whole section of H&W’s menu is dedicated to veggies, grilled or roasted. The baby carrots are the runaway favorite, charred and tossed with sesame seed dukkah (an Egyptian spice blend of herbs and toasted nuts), peppery Espelette yogurt, and chimichurri (there’s your acid). You’ll also notice—through the glass kitchen windows at the back of the main dining room—a leg of pork pinned to a carving board. That is jamón Ibérico, the deliciously aged Spanish pork. Order it in the beet and burrata cheese salad with sherry and walnut pesto, and be sure to get a touch of every ingredient onto a single forkful.
They make use of the pizza oven, too, fermenting their dough in house for 48 hours to develop that beery, craft-pizza flavor. We can’t resist the decadent special pie of the night, topped with tufts of burrata cheese, tongues of local uni, and caviar. It’s the USA Olympic basketball team of food: so many stars, so many expectations. And it blows them away. It is a $36 pizza, mind you. And if there’s one thing that will shock people about H&W, it’s the cost. The “everything under-$20” trend is not alive here, with the chicken as the most affordable entrée at $25, and topping out at a grilled rib eye chop with shallot confit, green peppercorn, and sherry for $70. So bring the credit card that works.
The best dishes may actually be in the house-made pasta section. Both our orders bring glee into our two-top. First, rigatoni with short rib—which is both smoked and then braised into submission, giving off just the right amount of smoke. It’s part barbecue, part Italian Sunday supper. But the celebrity of the H&W menu is the oxtail gnocchi with roasted garlic, parsley, chive, sherry, and Parmesan. Oh, Lord. Oxtail is one of life’s better gifts—just a slow-cooked bomb of beefy flavor and connective tissue that dissolves into a sort of omnivore butter. And this is one of its better uses.
About the only “miss” we have on the menu is a special of hamachi (yellowtail) collar in a teriyaki sauce. The teriyaki is a tad sweet, overwhelming a very good cut of fish, and the kitchen hasn’t butchered our collar correctly, leaving a thin film on the outside that, while not impossible to eat, is a little like a dental dam.
We find the desserts a tad inconsistent. One night, the blueberry soufflé—which a server collapses tableside by cutting a hole in the hot pastry and inserting a dollop of ginger gelato and blueberry compote—is one of the most delicious things we’ve had in town. The next night, it’s a bit runny and undercooked.
The bar, under the booze whispering of Will Van Leuven (ex Prohibition, Puesto) is a popular place to experiment with herbs and BAC. Try the Bourbon and Rosemary, with Old Forester bourbon, sugar, lemon, basil, orange oils, and rosemary—a well-balanced brown drink more approachable than a Manhattan, and not as sweet as the usual old-fashioned.
We waited three months after their opening to do this review. Usually by that time, restaurants have cut back on staff and expensive ingredients and settled into a “bottom-line approach” to restaurateuring. There is nothing bottom-line about Herb & Wood. There is ample staff, top-quality foodstuff, and one of the most stunning indoor-outdoor spaces in San Diego. Turns out Malarkey, Puffer, and McIntyre know a thing or two about making dinner into both substance and show. You’ll pay for the experience. But you’ll likely be glad to.