616 J Street, Downtown San Diego
Christian Graves, the new chef at J-Six, is proud to be a card-carrying Slow Foodie. If you haven't heard about it yet, "Slow Food" doesn't mean you'll have an hour's wait for your appetizers, or that everything's stewed -- although it is the opposite of mass-produced, unhealthy fast food, a movement dedicated to preserving traditional ways of farming, cooking, and caring for our food and planet. A serious side effect: wholesome, tasty fare.
The Slow Food movement started in Italy, and Alice Waters was the first to practice it in an American restaurant (Chez Panisse). It begins at ground level with saving and growing diverse heirloom seeds, rather than buying sterile, patented commercial hybrids from mega-corporations. It includes farming with organic and sustainable growing methods in place of pesticide drenchings, and raising animals naturally and humanely (for better flavor and healthfulness, as well as contented cows). It encourages contact between the growers and the cooks (e.g., at farmers' markets) and choosing fresh local products as much as possible, rather than foods shipped from half a world away. And it involves supporting products made by small-scale artisans, ranging from honeys to handcrafted hams to cheeses and honest breads.
At J-Six, the kitchen bakes the breads, chef Graves cures charcuterie and makes sausages, and the friendly, knowledgeable waitstaff serves gently reared free-range meats and local produce. (We're lucky in San Diego, surrounded by farms with a year-round growing season. It must be tough to be a Slow Food maven during a Minneapolis winter.)
Stepping into J-Six is like entering a theater where the play's in progress, the bar and open kitchen stage sets with a golden glow. The dimly lighted dining room snakes around them, divided into more intimate areas by tall, plush sound-absorbing booths, which keep the noise level painless. Mike and Scott were with us, and Mike ran around the room like a kid, testing the comfort of the different banquettes (he liked them all) and barely resisting the temptation to horn in like Harpo Marx on a couple cuddled in a rounded floral shell of a booth. In the area where we were seated, the decor runs off in three different directions: The ceiling has upside-down white foam flowers, like a fake Italian palazzo; one wall is hung with strips of translucent round beads resembling a Filipino capiz-shell curtain; another wall is mysteriously bedecked with dozens of identical Moroccan fezzes hanging from pegs. "My father hates the decor," said our waitress, who seemed to have a family connection to the place. "He didn't like it when they were putting it up, and he doesn't like it any better now."
The menu has a more coherent diversity. It's divided into "small plates--starters," "large plates," and "share bites" of appetizers or cocktail noshes serving two to six -- plus a few side dishes. (Unlike a steakhouse, entrées come with veggies, so the sides are meant as extras.) The table breads are a light olive-and-herb loaf and a denser red-pepper bread, served with a spread of Kalamata olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and olive oil that you ladle on with a spoon. "Talk about addictive -- I can't stop eating this," said my partner.
As a foursome dining "family style," our attention went straight to the "share" plates. We began with a trio of summer salads. There were heirloom tomatoes with fresh mozzarella, a standard dish on local menus but distinguished here by luscious green-ripe tomatoes with a light pesto beneath them. I loved the cantaloupe and prosciutto, another conventional combination, improved by a garnish of red onion slivers and a lemon verbena gastrique. A block of herbed French feta surrounded with diced cucumbers and onions lacked something, though. "This is like the dressing on a Greek pita sandwich, minus the yogurt," Mike observed.
We couldn't pass up a platter of the chef's house-made assortment of charcuterie. The juicy unsmoked sausage, similar to fresh Italian sausage, was plated over coarse-ground mustard. We loved it, but I was even fonder of the thinly sliced, mild bresaola (cured beef) -- tender and pleasing wrapped around crunchy cooked green beans dressed in tarragon crème fraîche. The smoked ham turned out to be house-cured duck prosciutto, made from the plump breast of a Moularde (foie gras) duck.
We turned our attention to the "small plates," which were not so small. First arrival: steamed Manila clams in a deep bowl filled with a salty, complex broth of seafood stock and tomatoes topped with crumbled house-made chorizo (a bit bland); bread fingers perched on the edge of the bowl. "This is the perfect sharing dish," said Mike. "Lots of bread and sauce and flavor." "And if you tackled this whole thing by yourself," Scott added, "you wouldn't want an entrée." As we worked our way through the dish, we experimented with the table breads for dipping. The red-pepper bread had the right stuff.
The showpiece of the meal was a plate of truffled white-corn ravioli with butter-sautéed, whole, fresh, chanterelle mushrooms (yeah -- fresh, not dried, and what a difference!) aswim in a chive and lemon fondue, which proved to be a luxurious but not-too-heavy cream sauce. My first raviolus was perfect, bursting with the sweetness of slow-roasted Chino Farms corn. The second was undercooked, the pasta thicker than expected. But the filling was so devastating, it could have been wrapped in paper towels and I'd barely have noticed -- definitely one of the year's best bites.
At this point, nearly done with our starters, we took to wiping the platters. "This is the first place we've gone with you where we're using the bread to sop up the last of the sauces," said Scott. "Usually, halfway through and that's enough." "Right," said Mike. "We're like starving Third World children lapping it up."
"Our seafood is the freshest in town," the waitress told us as we were choosing entrées. "The fish was cut five minutes before the doors opened." The signature dish, she said, is the seared sea scallops. We tried them, and sorry to say, they didn't taste all that sparkling. Although not phosphated or otherwise mistreated, they were nearly flavorless -- cut today, perhaps, but probably caught a couple of days before. They were overshadowed by the accompaniments -- a fondue of "box shucked" corn (rasped from the cobs on a box-grater, with all their sugary juices), dotted with English peas and ricotta gnocchi. The naked cheese gnocchi (in Italian, they're called gnudi, like "nudie," because they're like ravioli filling without the pasta skins) were tender and tiny -- all two of them. (I got the plate first, and I counted.)