'Tis the season to host relatives and friends escaping from frigid far-off lands to America's Finest City. And once they check in, what do they want first? San Diego's finest food.
Consider Laurel Restaurant and Bar, which is under new management, freshly remodeled -- with valet parking at last! -- and within strolling distance of Balboa Park's "December Nights."
From street level, you can see down into the dining room through the restaurant's tall windows, an envy-inducing fishbowl effect that makes you want to join the folks savoring their dinners below. The new decor is sleek and handsome in off-white with black trims, including the gleaming white tile flooring (with black no-slip strips) of the staircase leading down to the restaurant. If you need to wait for your group to gather, there are comfortable couches to the right and a cute little bar to the left. Huge glass cylinders filled with floating roses punctuate the space, and a double-sided banquette sets off the back third of the room -- suggesting a semi-private space for large parties while moderating the sound level on both sides. A full-size mirror hangs on the back wall, decorated with scrolled wooden cut-outs, a 3-D effect. The world-music loop on the sound system slips from North African to Cuban to jazz.
The food is equally stylish. The eclectic, ever-changing seasonal menu includes flavors from France, Italy, Japan, Southeast Asia, and California, unified by a sensibility that speaks with an unmistakable Gallic accent.
We met up with the Lynnester and her friend Samurai Jim, a roving engineer whose work takes him all over the globe (poor guy). Once seated, we were immediately greeted with poached edamame (fresh soybeans) -- the signature of the Urban Kitchen restaurant group that now owns Laurel. (Urban's head honcho Tracy Borkum prefers them to bread and butter because they don't fill you up before the meal. If you must have bread, you can buy a "grilled rustic" version as a $4 side dish.)
Jim, just returned from Greece, approved of the snack plate of mixed olives, although its $8 tab seemed a tad steep. For serious appetizers, we began with a spectacular house-smoked, cured elk carpaccio. Now I'm no stranger to elk, but Laurel's has to be the best rendition yet for showcasing this meat's distinctive flavor and texture. The thin tenderloin slices were splayed on a long rectangular plate, topped with slivered almonds and young arugula. The meat was lean, deep red, and slightly sweet from a light smoking over applewood, with citrus notes from lemon oil and lavender coulis. Coarse-ground black pepper kicked it up. What does elk taste like? Not like chicken -- nor beef nor lamb, nor even much like deer venison. You just have to taste it for yourself.
Kurobata pork belly was another winner. Kurobata is the Japanese name for gently raised heirloom-breed Berkshire hogs (originally from England), the porcine equivalent of Kobe beef. Berkshires have been reintroduced to American farms, but the Japanese name has stuck. A good-sized chunk of the uncured bacon arrived in a slanted-edge white bowl, mingling with small potato pancakes and shreds of dark greens. The braised meat was lightly crisped with a sweet-tart pomegranate and pasilla chili glaze. Its streaky, succulent interior tasted like honest, old-fashioned fatty pork -- not that thankless "other white meat."
"Do you like escargots?" I'd asked Lynne as we worked out our order. "I love them!" she answered. "I loved them so much when I was a kid that, for my 12th birthday, my mom gave me a set of escargot shells -- you know the kind, in a plastic cylinder on top of a can of snails." She also loved Laurel's out-of-the-shell treatment: Tender bits of mollusk meat, cut grape-size, mingled in a porcelain cocotte with English peas, pea purée, carrots, olive oil, and shell-shaped pasta (conchiglie), a neat culinary pun. The critters themselves weren't the least bit rubbery; I can't say as much for the pasta, but by now, potato gnocchi will have taken its place. With Laurel's ever-changing menu, any glitches are temporary.
"Crispy sweetbreads" had the look and mouth-feel of chicken nuggets, deep-fried in batter and wafted with candied "pancetta dust." I loved the roasted cippolini onions and thick crème fraîche sauce on the side, although the combo struck me as an odd coupling of Maxim's de Paris with Mickey D's. Jim and Lynne, however, happily polished off the dish.
The wine selection ranges from carefree, oyster-friendly Muscadet ($28) on up to great French bottlings like Château Latour '90 ($999). We were delighted to realize that we'd serendipitously arrived on "Sinful Sunday," when a selected list of wines are half-price. These are tag-ends from the encyclopedic wine list, with only a bottle or two left of each. For us, that meant enjoying a first-course bottle of Sancerre (Loire) marked down from $60 to $30, a white so easygoing and food-friendly that both the wine-shunning guys at our table enjoyed some sips before returning to their own quaffs. For entrées, Lynne and I ordered reds by the glass; my Feraud-Brunel Côte du Rhone was all I'd hoped, her Château Robin meritage (Bordeaux-style blend) -- not quite.
"Last time I ate veal cheeks, they were too rich," said Jim, tasting our first entrée's fall-apart-tender meat, the product of long and clever braising. "These are much better." My partner said, "That's because the ones you had were probably done with cream or a heavy wine sauce." Jim agreed. Here, served with a hint of a gentle jus-based sauce, the meat was bedded among roast parsnip wedges, creamy parsnip purée, and deep-fried parsnip flakes -- a study in three modes of one root's piquant flavor. "Wow," I said, "next time I shop in Hillcrest, I gotta get me some parsnips, and celery root and rutabagas, too -- enough with plain old mashed potatoes!" If there's any justification for the existence of winter, this dish is it.
A Wagyu (a.k.a. Kobe) beef fillet entrée offered thin, plate-covering slices of superb beef, rare as ordered and salted just right. They were augmented with more snail meats. Alongside was a hunk of roasted parsnip and a heap of lean mashed potatoes, colored bright green from parsley puréed in extra-virgin olive oil. "This is the best Kobe I've tasted," said my partner. Jim was entranced, too. I was not that mad for the mash nor intrigued by the meat, which I found more tender than flavorful -- but it was still an excellent twist on steak.