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Stingaree

454 Sixth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

One of the hottest new spots is Stingaree -- a giant (22,000 square feet) disco palace with a serious restaurant on the first floor, under the charge of chef Antonio Friscia (previously at Alfieres at the Sheraton Harbor Island). Stingaree draws its moniker from an old nickname for the lower Gaslamp Quarter. In the Gilded Age, the Stingaree was San Diego's version of the Barbary Coast -- a shady playground for nonstop sin: drinking, gambling, and consorting with ladies of the evening. (At least two of these "entertainment enterprises" were owned by the legendary Wyatt Earp, of OK Corral fame.)

To check out the latest Stingaree, two hot blondes accompanied me and my partner -- my colleague Provvi, a tall, elegant foodie interested in the decorative arts, and our neighbor Heather, a slight, outspoken interior designer. They both looked over the room with interest, pointing out the combination of old and new trends.

The latest restaurant must-haves include a water wall behind the bar -- the one here extends to the second floor. A wrought-iron staircase rises three floors to the mezzanine-level nightclub and rooftop patio (open free of cover charge on Sundays as a hangout for the hungover). These mingle with colors and shapes reprising corporate design of the postwar '40s -- neutral rectangular color blocks (battleship gray, olive drab, parachute pink) and, framing the booths, patterned mahogany and cream plastic cornices. Nonetheless, we were comfortable at our shiny table for four, which was roomy enough to fit six without crowding.

The evening started quietly with soothing world music, moved on to mellow '50s jazz, segued into Latin dance beats, and finally, heavy-pounding club music -- '70s disco reborn. As people eat, drink, and talk -- and as the place fills -- the party grows loud. Did I mention this was a nightclub a full month before it gained a kitchen? The week we ate there, a dermatologists' convention was in town, and the stentorian skin docs at the next table were letting loose like schoolkids on spring break. (They were not discussing the skin trade -- not in the medical sense, anyway.)

The menu's attractive folder provides a short narrative on the historic Stingaree district. Headings speak Italian and run to several pages, with sections titled Piccolo (soups, salads, small appetizers), Mezzo (medium-large appetizers), and Piu Grande Di Mezzo (entrées) -- plus Verdura (veggie sides) and Dolci (desserts). Within each category, items are identically priced. (The one exception is a line-caught sea-bass entrée with a $10 surcharge.) Bread is baked in-house and comes with a bagna (olive oil with tomato purée) dip, which gave us time to search for something refreshing on that hot and muggy night.

We chose a couple of dishes from the Piccolo, bypassing tempting-sounding soups -- even (over my severe objections) a chilled vichyssoise (potato-leek cream purée) topped with sevruga caviar, vetoed by my tablemates for its potato content! I should have ordered it anyway, with a signing statement that I would take home any leftovers. (I later learned that it's one of chef Antonio's personal favorites. Darn those skinny blondes!) Instead, an inspired combination of long, tender-firm grilled asparagus spears and torpedo onions arrived on a torpedo-shaped platter with strips of savory red peppers laced through the stalks and toasted almonds arranged geometrically alongside.

A wholesome salad of Chino Farms greens was sized for four to share, showcasing red wine-poached pear slices, whole hazelnuts, and crostini of toasted Italian bread slices spread with mild, tangy Robiola cheese. These were scattered among assorted ultra-fresh lettuces dressed in a delicate Sherry vinaigrette. Everyone agreed it hit the spot.

The Mezzo section offers some of the most interesting dishes. Especially the "Duo of foie gras" -- a stunning contrast between an elegant poached torchon and a seared slab of fowl liver. The torchon was extraordinary, up there with Tapenade's benchmark version: an ethereal marshmallow texture that melts in the mouth, plated atop a brioche crostini. The seared piece, on the other hand, was a thinnish slice on an overtoasted slab of bread. It was cooked dark and -- to my tastes -- dry, reminding me of Aunt Frieda's chopped liver pâté.

Ménage à Trois is a mixed fry of calamari, Atlantic scallops, and prawns, served with a garlicky Meyer lemon aioli. The herbal batter is so airy it's hard to believe it includes any calories, and the mixture is spiced with slivers of hot cherry peppers. (Make sure you have plenty to drink on hand.) The squid pieces include tentacles as well as rings, and along with the other critters, it arrives tender and stays tender. A Sicilian shrimp and crab cake also held a jolt of chile, plus corn kernels. "I like fishy flavors," said Provvi, herself Sicilian, "but this is too fishy. I don't know why. I think it's the crab they're using." It tasted like good-enough lump crab meat to me, although there was more filler and salt than I prefer. Maybe the addition of shrimp jangled her taste buds.

At the chef's last outpost, Alfiere's, Friscia made a thin-skinned ravioli stuffed with braised short rib meat. (It'll be on Stingaree's menu in the colder months.) It was a knockout. So is the Porcini Ravioli here -- but at the wrong end of the punch. In this version, the ravioli skins were as thin as I expected but...what the heck was in the stuffing? None of us much liked the mild-mannered mushroom mousse that barely plumped out the shell. The sauce combined morels, asparagus, and mint in a light, pale broth. While it reads like a roster of champion ingredients, everyone decided the dish was down for the count.

The Piu Grande Di Mezzo (entrée) choices for summer include six meats, five seafoods, and two birds. Although chef Friscia grew up in a family of San Francisco fishmongers (their motto was "Friscia Fresha Fisha!"), red meat seems his strong suit. As part-owner of Stingaree, he has full purchasing power and serves pedigreed natural meats from the likes of Niman Ranch and Vande Rose. The Kobe Australian flat-iron "steak frites" was a hit. Served very rare as ordered with a peppercorn demi-glaze, it was toothsome -- especially for a cut that's often tough. (The burgers are Kobe too, chuck steak ground in-house.) It came with fragrant fries sprinkled with truffled salt, Parmesan, and parsley. "I've never tasted fries with these flavors before," said Heather. "But they're a little mealy, like McDonald's fries," my partner said. "Cooked crisper, they'd be fabulous."

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