The most expensive dish on the menu features a good portion of the best parts of a Maine lobster, out of the shell, with thick-skinned ravioli filled with pumpkin puree, along with thin slices of lightly cooked fennel root, and a foamy sauce based on a lobster stock reduction barely touched with powdered star anise. It's very good, but not as good as the bass. Few things are.
A venison strip loin was cooked rare to our order -- but alas, since most restaurant venison nowadays is farm-raised red deer from Australia or New Zealand, it's nothing like gamy wild venison. Chef Joe himself was disappointed with its mildness: "Compared to the deer my father used to hunt in Minnesota, it just tastes like a cow," he told me later. Nonetheless, if venison is on the menu, you'll get very tender meat, cooked to order (and please give this fatless meat its due by ordering it rare). It came with purple and green broccoli and cauliflower, all just right. The garnishes were supposed to include pomegranate-juice gnocchi, but the kitchen was all out that night. A black truffle demi-glaze sauce was AWOL, too. In any event, chef Joe is going back to the rack of elk that appeared on earlier menus. Having eaten elk (a delicious meat), and after observing the careful treatment of venison here, I think I can recommend the rack sight unseen.
Due to a printer's error, the menus before us no longer trumpeted the pedigrees of the meats, as previous menus had, but when we tasted the flat iron steak, it was clear that it was Kobe beef. It, too, came rare as ordered, surprisingly tender for this cut, accompanied by caramelized onions, roasted red potatoes, asparagus, and above all else, a zesty chipotle béarnaise sauce that tasted freshly made and (aside from the addition of chilies) true to the classic recipe.
On a return visit, the evening's special was another "difficult" cut of Kobe beef, the short rib. Served boneless in a thick square, it was topped with two rounds of fried onion, crowned by a haystack of buttery slim haricots (French green beans), all plated atop a shallow pond of chipotle barbecue sauce. The meat was tender and rich, its sauce a serious barbecue sauce and not some sweet, ketchupy thing. It was complex and spicy, clearly the product of much thought and experimentation (and a lot of ingredients). The onion rings were coated with panko and seasonings, and my only wish is that the chef would use a sweet variety like Maui, instead of plain yellow onions, to live up to the rest of the ingredients. If you're into wine, go for a big, bold red with this -- the somewhat tannic but fruity Nebbiolo on the wine list might be perfect.
If we're to believe chef/writer Anthony Bourdain, diners should approach "specials" with caution, as they may feature the remnants of some aging ingredient that the chef wants to get out of the kitchen before it spoils. (I think I'd be scared to eat at Bourdain's restaurant.) But at Galileo, the specials are worth serious consideration, because they're where a talented chef gets to exercise more creativity than on the printed menu items. At our first meal, Cheryl's heart was set on a special I wouldn't have ordered, seared ahi with soba and Thai green curry. Surprising the heck out of me, the spicy sauce tasted convincingly like genuine Thai curry, not the usual dumb farang fusion-fakery. I even liked the soba, since it was the carrier of that sauce.
My visits to Galileo 101 were slightly premature, as a dessert chef from San Francisco was hired to start work the following week, with a license to do "edgy," non-mainstream sweets. When I ate there, unfortunately, although desserts were all house-made, the choices were the easy-to-cook standards of restaurants without specialized pastry chefs: various crème brulées, gelati, chocolate lava cake, house-made s'mores. There's also a cheese plate listed among the appetizers, which might have served for dessert if we hadn't already finished our wine. Mainly, though, after both dinners we wanted to leave with the meal's great good tastes still in our mouths.
Googling Galileo 101 turned up almost no previous press coverage. I'd attribute this to the restaurant's tendency (in the language of Galileo-era astronomy) to be a "mutable star," with a shifting identity, plus its location in an obscure corner of the galaxy -- a cul-de-sac where J Street ends at a park. With no foot traffic, the restaurant is invisible except to those who already know about it. But if it's been an undiscovered star, it's now become a culinary star, one that awaits your discovery.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Galileo 101's owner is Jay Amini, in his first venture into the restaurant business. He was originally partnered with a more experienced restaurateur, whose share he eventually bought out. Asked about the restaurant's shifting identity, he says, "We are always improving." One likely improvement is in the skill of the chef.
Chef Joe Craig, aged 28, hails from Minnesota. "I've been traveling around the United States, cooking in high-end restaurants, and I landed in San Diego because of the weather," he says. "I worked under Scott Halverson at Chive for two years, and from there I came here and worked under Danny Salcedo for about eight months, until he left." Craig's interest in cooking stems from childhood. "My father was an awesome cook, and he hunted. He'd cook deer, and boar, and all sorts of wild game. As a kid, I loved to be in the kitchen. So when the time came, ten years ago, I studied cooking at the Art Institute of Minneapolis."
Joe was the one who put the game meats on the menu. "I had some awesome venison, but it didn't have much game flavor...I just took that off the menu and put back a rack of elk. But the owner didn't want us going too crazy on this menu with things like the elk, the venison, the Colorado lamb braised for 12 hours, and the Chilean sea bass with Okinawan purple sweet potato. People were reading the menu and asking, 'What is this?' So I also put some stuff on that people will recognize -- simple things for the San Diego people and conventioneers. I had to put a pasta on the menu, a really good one with shrimps, but it's still pasta. The problem is, you put a pasta on the menu and a tenderloin steak on the menu in San Diego, that's all that people order. That's not fun for a chef. But I can still buy high-end product, like Wagyu tenderloin I get from Snake River Farms for, like, $400 apiece [for about six pounds], and Kurobuta pork, and Jidori chickens. One of the good things downtown, a lot of the guys around here are buying high-end stuff now. People aren't trying to buy and sell garbage around here any-