This restaurant is closed.
Now that summer's here, many of us like to eat a little lighter and stay out a little later. Fulfilling these desires are several new supper clubs that specialize in "small plates" -- tapas that aren't Spanish but come from all corners of the world, wherever the chef's imagination roams.
Confidential is the leader of this global tapas pack. Its chef is Chris Walsh, who showed great promise at California Cuisine and later at his own Cafe W, both in Hillcrest. Now Walsh has resurfaced at this atmospheric Gaslamp lounge and is no longer merely promising -- he has achieved liftoff. His grazing menu offers something for every taste, from the barely legal blonde at the bar, nibbling spiced cashews behind her Cosmo, to the culinary adventurer looking for cuisine, not a scene.
The restaurant occupies a historic brick building with Roman arches supporting the windows. Giant round chandeliers hang overhead, lending the effect of a chic, updated '70s disco (minus the spinning lights). Seating is on comfortable white leatherette couches and square ottomans along the window's edge and at a high white banquette facing tall barstools along the side-wall, opposite the long bar and a large blue screen pendant from the soaring ceiling.
There are several DVD screens around the room: At our first visit (which coincided with a "handbag show" by a local young designer), the one nearest us ran a silent documentary that depicted Khmer Rouge atrocities, including piles of skulls. That seemed odd in the context of the loud techno music with booming bass, and the evening's louder-yet twentysomething crowd, too busy waving, chatting, and table-hopping to give the screen a glance. A balcony-level loft with more tables looks down on the action. That and the outside patio seem to be the primo spots for peace-lovers when the house is full. Happily, not all nights are so frantic -- another weeknight visit at an early hour found the room quieter and the vibe mellow.
The loose-sheet menu printed on fuchsia copy paper (so you can check off your choices if you have a pen on hand) includes 30-odd items. The first menu section is called "Shooters, Spoons and Demi Soups," most of these furnishing about four bites total -- but those bites are intense. Take the dish described as "Diced Maine Lobster-Passion Fruit-Ginger-Grapefruit-Ponzu." A glass cylinder arrives filled with a mysterious colloid that proves a brilliant way to present (or disguise) the bulk lobster knuckle meat that has been showing up everywhere. This bracing mixture contrasts the dark flavor of passion fruit and the tartness of citrus against the lightest touch of soy. You get a small spoon, but after the lobster bits were gone, we simply chug-a-lugged it like a sushi bar's honeymoon oyster.
Crispy veal sweetbreads are another dish that meets the challenge of a difficult ingredient: Sweetbread (cow pancreas or thymus) is so unctuous that it's too filling for a full entrée. Here, you get a fried morsel, crisped on the surface, complemented by diced candied quince (very sweet), a mini-frizz of peppery "rainbow sprouts," and a crowning touch of savory Banyuls gastrique, a light sauce made from a young red Provençal wine. It's a great dish to introduce this seldom-seen delicacy to people who've never tried it.
This menu section also yields a jumbo sea scallop sashimi -- three paper-thin slices of silky sea scallop topped with three fresh blackberries, dressed in Kaffir lime-infused olive oil and garnished with micro mint sprigs. The combination is fresh, subtle, unexpected. Then there's the most substantial choice, a small cup of lobster bisque, sweetened with a touch of Tuaca citrus-vanilla liqueur and topped with a puff of vanilla whipped cream. It resembles a cup of hot cocoa made with lobster instead of chocolate, and in place of a cookie, it comes with a crostini of lobster meat and mascarpone cheese. The soup was too sweet for my partner's tastes, but I found it a kick.
"Small Plates Cold" are next on the menu. These include bar nibbles like marinated olives, fried almonds, spiced cashews, and house-made soft pretzels, followed by several salads. The cheese plate (with fruit conserves and spiced walnuts) makes a sophisticated final course in lieu of dessert. We also enjoyed a roasted white corn pancake (served hot, not cold), slicked with a spicy pepper purée. Crowning the pancake is a chilled curl of spicy salmon gravlax -- house-cured in tequila, cilantro, and powdered pasilla chile -- girdling a palate-cooling dollop of crème fraîche.
"Small Plates Hot" is the header for the largest group of dishes, found on the reverse side of the pink page. These tapas aren't all that small. We found them substantial enough to share between two nibblers.
Not to be missed is a summertime specialty: BBQ Sugarcane Shrimp Adobo. At first bite, my inner Little Richard wanted to burst into screams of jubilation: "He's got it! Yeah-eah he's got it!! Whop bobalula, a whomp bam boom!" Two jumbo shrimps (each skewered on a small stick of sugarcane) are rubbed with Mexican-style adobo paste and briefly cooked on a very hot gas grill. The adobo caramelizes to a sweet, smoky char, especially on the tail shell, while the prawn meat emerges tender and juicy. The shrimps are perched on a martini glass, atop a haystack of crunchy jicama sticks with a light Meyer lemon dressing, covering a scoop of pineapple-Scotch Bonnet sorbet -- icy-spicy-sweet. Scotch Bonnets are the Jamaican variant of the habañero (reputedly the hottest of all chilies) that are not merely incendiary but boast a unique fruity-mustardy flavor. In this dish, all the flavors, textures, and temperatures harmonize but remain distinct -- sweet, smoky, savory and spicy, hot and cold, smooth, crunchy, and meaty -- and you get to participate in the creation of this masterpiece by choosing your sequence of bites.
A similar thought pattern seems to animate the seared foie gras plate, which comes with savory pinot noir onion marmalade and candied apples, along with a glassful of bubbly apple mimosa (champagne and pulpy apple nectar). I loved the mouth-shocking surprise of the mimosa, but the foie gras seemed greasy.