We also reveled in "Farm + Vine," a mutable selection of three cheeses with an optional flight of matched wines. This is a great way to start your first dinner here, if for no other reason than to sample some of the obscure boutique wines on the list. At one visit, the cheeses were a full-fat cheese studded with black truffle, a Humboldt fog chèvre, and a firm, nutty cheese resembling Emmenthaler (without the holes). The wines were a Zolo Torrontes from Spain (a lively, mouth-filling white), a Barrel 27 Viognier (a bit sweeter but equally lush), and a tannic red Tempranillo. On future visits, both those whites are in my sights. Incidentally, one of the special joys of eating here is that most wines are not only available by the glass, but by the half-glass -- perfect for designated drivers, inquisitive tipplers, and commitment-phobic personalities. (Say, what a way to check out your date before you get too serious! Does he or she order a half or full glass?)
A certified organic flatiron steak came properly rare with a mini-ramekin of melted butter and a tablespoon filled with Gorgonzola cheese. The small-town Midwesterners at the table (Lynne, Mary Ann, and brother Tom) adored it, but the Chicago and California factions were less sold -- even in shared portions, Sam picked at it, Jim left most of his, and I needed the cheese to boost the flavor. Alongside came lukewarm frites (which were also tepid at my first visit, accompanying several other dishes described in the next paragraphs). They may be good when they're hot, but they're not.
These weren't my only reservations. Two dishes that didn't quite live up to their promise involved Maine lobster -- not the whole, luscious arthropod, just its skinny legs. The dark coral-colored meat is extracted from those dangling swimmerets, the parts crunched through the shells with your teeth and hoovered up when you really, really want every last taste of lobster. Alas, the meat has only a hint of lobster flavor. It's used here in lobster crabcakes, wherein the mixed sea meats are shredded (no seductive crab lumps), given a coating of pistachio nuts and a swish of Brie crème fraîche sauce, and served with arugula leaves and garlic-mashed potatoes. The whole Michigan contingent loved the cakes. Crazed for Maine lobsters since childhood, I wanted to taste more seafood and felt that the mashed potatoes only got in the way.
The other lobster-leg dish is the "New Haven BLT." The chef named the sandwich to celebrate the avant-garde architecture scene rising in New Haven, Connecticut, but to an ex--East Coaster it brings to mind something they might serve in the New Haven Railroad club car carrying Masters of the Universe home from Wall Street to Darien. (Such people would probably take lobster in their BLTs for granted and keep tapping on their laptops as they chomp.) In any case, the sandwich is a BLTAL including avocado, arranged as a pair of piled-high cubes between slices of crustless artisan toast, dressed with gentle wasabi mayo. "Cute food," I murmured.
You get fries with that, and also with Kobe beef sliders, which sorry to say sound better than they work, involving Humboldt Fog, avocado, tomato, basil, and arugula aioli arranged between slices of the same hearty, grainy toast. Here, the bread is a problem, not a plus. You can't easily lift these sliders up like burgers and bite through all the ingredients -- the toast constantly threatens to shimmy off on its own. And I'm not the lone voice in the wilderness on this issue -- both sets of dinner companions tried this dish and agreed that sometimes -- as in sliders -- you just need a soft mainstream bun. Brioche bread might do nicely, if you want to get arty.
Sesame-seared yellowfin has a spicy chile sauce and sesame-oil dressing, but our tuna was a bit overseared, and in any case, the dish has become ubiquitous to the point of ennui. Nothing new or thrilling in this rendition. Fish tacos feature dry-grilled mahimahi and shredded red cabbage in soft mini-tortillas. Alongside come three interesting sauces, including a spicy pale green one -- but in this "sharing menu," diners get no individual spoons among their silverware. The only way to apply sauces is to pour them on, and the only way to taste them before deciding how much you need of each is to rudely dip a finger into the shared ramekins and slurp it off. These were the first taste of San Diego's signature dish for Mary Ann and Tom, who were disappointed. The rest of us strongly recommended that they try again at Blue Waters, Tin Fish, or even Rubio's.
Desserts change from week to week. An apparent mainstay is the chocolate sandwich, which French kiddies eat for breakfast as pain au chocolate -- crisp white artisan toast spread with melted bittersweet chocolate, here accompanied by a mound of chocolate gelato and a "mini espresso martini" that tasted as if it was smoothed with milk, not cream. It struck me as the sort of dessert made by a chef who's more into savories than sweets. My companion that evening thought the espresso martini tasted like instant -- but the real coffee and espresso served here are excellent. At the second dinner, we did much better with a "Piña Colada Study" -- pineapple upside-down cake with a daub of rum coconut ice cream and a small "key lime martini." The cake is flawless, the martini amusing, and the ice cream heartbreakingly delicious (melting too quickly, like all homemade ice creams without stabilizers). It's a fine dessert for those who like a final bite of sweetness but hate to walk out waddling.
In fact, the Guild is that rare restaurant where you can enjoy numerous distinctive tastes without feeling glutted. You can bond with your friends over shared bites and not blow your diet -- almost all the dishes have a lightness, an elfin spirit, that's all about flavor and fun and quality, not excess quantity. This would be an ideal lunch spot, since it offers pleasures that don't require a nap afterward. And if you're still dawdling over your 1040, you can take a breather here and enjoy some good vibes and vibrant food at a price that doesn't break the bank.
[2009 Editor's Note: The Guild has since closed.]