The Guild occupies an out-of-the-way location, but don't even think about sneaking there for a secret tryst. Not if you're a foodie, an academic, or any other sort of creative or intellectual type -- you'll be spotted by somebody you know, or who knows you. This odd little restaurant feels like a clubby hangout for artists and artisans, with a high ratio of intelligent-looking faces and vaguely bohemian vibes, hairstyles, and outfits. At my first "scouting" visit, when the Guild had been open a mere five weeks, I noticed chef Michele Coulon at one table, Bread & Cie boss Charlie Kaufman at another, and big-time restaurant consultant Pam Wischkaempfer at a third, doing lots of table-hopping. The second visit, with the Lynnester and posse, we didn't encounter any culinary celebs, but old friends of Samurai Jim were sitting at the next table. Feels all warm and cozy to find such a community scene in sprawling San Diego.
The restaurant began as a joint project of architect/metal sculptor Paul Basile (who designed the dome on Hotel Solamar, among other awesome projects) and businesswoman Linda Karp. Paul has transformed a former industrial space into a colorful, artisanal café, with a bar-lounge in one room, a warren of intimate dining rooms, and, through the back window, a view of his sculpture workshop, where you may see sparks flying if he's at his labors. Unclothed acrylic-topped tables, ranging from little two-tops to banquet seating for a dozen, display stylish, heavy metal rings around black napkins and weighty forks and knives. Alongside are corked bottles of water (help yourself) and medium-size white salad plates, which you'll be using to eat on from the portions served on central platters. If you're not sitting on a banquette, you'll be occupying a Basile-designed one-armed wooden chair, complete with purse hook in back, resembling a college lecture-hall chair (but with its arm too narrow for note-taking). "International lounge music" (as the chef calls the genre) plays softly over the sound system. Conversing is no problem.
Chef Melissa Mayer is a professional artist (painting and photography) who fell into food as another compelling art form. Her succinct menu (about 18 items long) features worldwide cuisine, with some emphasis on Asia and Mexico. The dishes offer modest portions, designed for sharing and nibbling. For the most pleasure, figure on ordering two to three dishes per person -- and bring one or more companions to eat with.
Quite a few of the dishes are topped with poufs of extraordinary "foams," and these are reliably the highlights of the menu. To the best of my knowledge, "foam" was invented in the '90s by genius chef/mad scientist Ferran ("molecular gastronomy") Adria at El Bulli, his fabled restaurant near Barcelona. Since then, it's spread through the culinary world, such that American cooking-school students now all seem to graduate with a minor in foams and froths. Trendy chefs in America's foodie cities have taken up the technique mainly to provide amusing, tingly textures (and to show off their culinary hipness). But Mayer takes foam seriously, as a way to vary and intensify tastes. Her full-flavored creations imbue the dishes with fresh shadings and complementary flavors, taking the role that heavier sauces, gravies, and reductions play in more conventional "fine cuisine." But unlike simple gravies, foams combine complex mixtures of ingredients that open up in the making to become more distinct. They're great fun, too, of course -- but there's nothing frivolous or arbitrary about them. They belong to Mayer's food the way paint belongs on canvas.
"Caprese -- A Study," for instance, is a remarkable molded version of the Italian classic of fresh mozzarella, tomato, and basil, poured out of a glass cylinder into a stack on the plate. The layers of mozzarella and tomatoes (amazingly ripe for early spring) benefit from an infusion of blended, strained pesto. The crowning touch is the tall, intense layer of basil foam on top. It not only tastes like fresh basil, it tastes better, embracing all the other ingredients in a sensual fuzziness. Not only does the texture literally tickle the tongue, but its flavor bestows the gift of life to a nice but overly familiar Italian restaurant staple, transforming it into manna fit for sportive Roman gods. Yes, it's really that good.
"Unexpected Greek Salad" enjoys the same pattern -- instead of a clichéd platter piled with romaine, tomatoes, and cuke slices, it arrives as a neat cylindrical stack topped by a completely different blessing of foam. The salad, featuring baby arugula, is intense, green, and pungent with fresh herbs (mint, oregano, and dill) and topped with a fluffy white tzatziki foam made of puréed cucumbers, goat yogurt, goat feta, and egg-free mayo. (The lactose-intolerant can order it safely, thanks to the substitutions of goat products for cow's milk.)
"Tres Queso Stuffed Roasted Pasilla" has a large, semi-mild roasted, skinned chile filled with a trinational combination of feta, gorgonzola, and Mexican queso fresco cheeses, napped with a creamy Mexican-style red sauce. On the side is a steel ramekin of serrano--lime soda foam to slather on top. (The soda takes the place of the customary water in the foam recipe, adding another flavor note.) This foam is more creamy than bubbly, and the chile serrano in it is well tamed. Wild as it sounds, it's comfort food.
"Toyo Ito," tuna sashimi, is another froth-topped palate-pleaser. It arrives as a cocktail in a large glass, filled with cubes of silky crimson yellowfin tuna (from the prized belly) mixed with avocado, spicy Asian chile-sesame oil, and red Hawaiian sea salt. On top is a generous fluff of fresh-grated wasabi root foam with a powerhouse kick. This is the opposite of comfort food (make sure to fill your water glass before tackling it), packing a punch that stops just short of overwhelming the sensuality of the fish.
But not by the foam alone can you find good food here. The chef also has a fine palate for cheeses. My gang loved the chèvre brûlée, rounds of grilled goat cheese over grilled artichoke hearts, dressed in thyme-citrus vinaigrette, each plated over a dainty round of toasted artisan bread from Bread & Cie, the grand bakery that furnishes all the house breads (and the breakfast pastries). It's deceptively simple, deeply satisfying.
[2009 Editor's Note: The Guild has since closed.]