1337 India Street, Little Italy
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
For author Marcel Proust, the taste of a madeleine, a beloved pastry of childhood, evoked nostalgic memories that subsequently unleashed thousands of pages of prose upon the literary public. Most of us don't get quite that excited about our food.
Yes, flavors (and aromas) have a unique ability to bring back recollections of lost times, and sometimes even a tear of joy. And yes, at its best, cuisine is an art form, however evanescent the artworks. But if you eat at Anthology, your dinner may have to compete for your attention with jazz -- another evanescent art, much of it freshly created out of improvisations on old recipes (that is, standard melodies).
Good jazz can not only evoke past scenes, it provides them with a haunting soundtrack -- moving music turning into movie music. In my case, the memory movies (with my jazz-loving teenage self as the protagonist) are shot in black and white, in the fluid style of the New Wave filmmakers of the time, with a backdrop of glorious, bohemian Manhattan in the early '60s, jazz capital of the universe.
Our group began dinner at Anthology, present era. "I love this place!" said James, a handsome ex-chef-turned-realtor and Samurai Jim's neighbor. (We'd met previously over dinner at Kensington Grill.) "It's the perfect destination for a first date -- if the girl likes jazz." This splashy new nightclub-with-food at the south end of Little Italy has a menu overseen by celeb chef Brad Ogden and cooked by local toque Jim Phillips. We deliberately chose to go there on a Tuesday night, when there's no cover charge and the music is usually the house jazz band. I'm paid to review food, not music. "Eh, house band," I figured, "I won't have to pay attention." This particular evening, however, the band turned out to be a small combo led by sax player Jason Weber.
We were seated at a four-top in a slightly sunken area (let's not call it "the pit") close to the stage. The decor is glam and gorgeous, from what you can see of it in the atmospheric lighting. The ivory-colored leather(ette?) chairs look luxurious but aren't really all that comfy (at least for shorties). You can also sit at the banquettes lining the walls, but we chose a table because it's easier to converse. There are higher levels to the place -- a balcony-style second-floor mezzanine with a full menu, and a third-floor stratospheric lounge with only a bar menu, also balcony-style, from which you can look down on the groundlings and, I guess, throw popcorn on them. There's another bar at ground level (it was packed that night) for drinkers and single diners. There's a $20 food/drink minimum on the first floor, $15 on the mezzanine -- easy enough to meet with a glass of wine and a bowl of soup. No jazz-loving paupers allowed, I guess, except on the top floor.
"San Diego really needs a steady venue for jazz like this," James continued, "but it registers as a little too mature for San Diego audiences. Most people here want to eat and run, go dancing, go someplace else..." "Too shallow to settle in and enjoy the music," said Fred. James nodded and said, "But I'd be here every night if I could."
A page at the back of the wine list is devoted to cocktails devised by the head bartender -- most are slight variations on classics; others get creative with fruits and sweet liqueurs. I was the sole creativity-risker, choosing the tartest-sounding creation: a "Basil Limoncello" was as crisp and refreshing as I'd hoped. The gents went with classic booze. Meanwhile, the band struck up, and we ordered our dinner accompanied by its opening notes.
I have to admit up front that I'm long familiar with Brad Ogden's work (from the Bay Area) and that I'm not especially a fan. I've always found his food likable but underwhelming -- good, sound, user-friendly, but lacking in some dimension of passion or intensity. I think Ogden's greatest contributions to restaurant cuisine are probably his house-baked bread assortments. A server equipped with tongs duly brought around a bread tray and ramekins of soft butter. The Anthology choices mirror those at Arterra, where Ogden also consulted -- fabulous miniature corn muffins, mini-seeded baguettes, tiny blimps of sweet soft rolls. Be not ashamed, pig out at will: The bread server comes but once, to return nevermore. You want two breads at the least, but you should brazenly choose even more. (Purses are made for stealing fine restaurant rolls -- just ask my sainted mother, stepmother, or mother-in-law, if you can distract them from their harp-playing gigs in heaven.)
The best dish of the evening was an appetizer "duet of Maytag blue cheese soufflés." Two tiny puffed circles shared the plate, one a mild cheese, the other a strong one. Alongside were arugula, slices of port-poached pears, and a sticky, yummy mound of caramelized spiced walnuts. We played "mix and match" with the garnishes, and every bite was interesting.
A "farmers' market salad" is a riff on the classic French frisée-and-poached-egg salad, a mixture of green and red curly endive, fluffy hard-cooked egg, and applewood-smoked bacon bits in Banyuls vinaigrette, with (ta-da!) a few puffs of batter-fried chanterelle mushrooms on the side. The mushrooms were to die for, of course. But the surprise was how well the salad "aged" as we passed it around, the bacon flavor seeping into the vinaigrette and gradually ennobling all the other ingredients.
Steamed duck dumplings were controversial -- everyone sorta liked them but me, the Chinese-food snob. They looked something like wontons with pointy ends but didn't taste anything near. "Pastry is way too thick and doughy," I said, turning into the Last Empress with the nine-inch fingernails. "Any good Han chef would be embarrassed." The filling was mildly flavorful, the sweet-and-sour dip reasonably pleasing. Oh, go ahead, try them, make up your own mind.
"Santa Barbara Smoke-House Salmon" flopped. It wasn't smoked, it was thickly cut gravlax, tasting very ordinary plated over small, thin Yukon Gold potato pancakes with crème fraîche, minus any visible sign of the menu-advertised caviar. Although the lighting was dim, my teeth didn't detect any caviar crunch either.