Sofia Hotel, 140 W. Broadway, Downtown San Diego
In probably every English-speaking big city in the world, there's a Hotel Pickwick -- a quaintly faux-Victorian (yet divey) one-star habitation, usually located near a major bus or train station. San Diego's Pickwick just passed on. It was next to the Greyhound depot, but the venue has changed its name and nature: The new Sofia Hotel looks swanky, its guests more likely to be lawyers than rovers stepping off the 'Hound. Signaling the upgrade, the hotel houses a first-class but affordable new restaurant, Currant, which should prove a destination in itself. The chef, Jonathan Pflueger, has cooked at such hotsy-totsy locations as Montage Resort in Laguna Beach and New York's Russian Tea Room. He's got serious chops. (You'll find his culinary philosophy expounded on the restaurant's website, an essay nearly as long as this review and twice as earnest.) Pflueger was the chef who transformed Star of the Sea in the late '90s and later, as a consultant, turned the former Fifth and Hawthorn completely around before it reopened as Hawthorn.
The wonderful "greening" of the county's restaurants is spreading, so week after week, I find myself eating virtuous California cuisine made with seasonal locally grown produce, naturally raised meats, free-range poultry, etc. But unless the chef does something lively with these fine, fresh ingredients, the parade of goodness can get -- yes -- bo-ring. So I am overjoyed to say that Pflueger has something new to say on the plate, and a charming venue to say it in. Currant (with an a) is named for the fruit, but the restaurant exhibits the electricity of its homophone: current.
The decor is modern brasserie, with black-and-white tile floors, shiny black tabletops, sparkling chandeliers. It's not Art Deco but subtly hints at that style and level of sophistication. A pleasant bar is considerately situated in an adjoining room (keeping any bar noise segregated), and cool jazz plays softly on the sound system. It looks and feels like a space for grown-ups.
"What would you like?" our waiter asked as we read the menu. "Four more people to eat with us, so we could try all the appetizers," I said. The server was exemplary, a laid-back guy of a certain age, named Guy, who knew every dish on the menu and even "got it" when I specified the precise temperature I wanted the pork chop cooked to.
We began with a round of Malpeque oysters, and the departure from the ordinary began. In addition to a champagne mignonette, the bivalves were strewn with fine shreds of smoked salmon and cucumber, lending textural and flavor contrast as well as novelty. "Smart chef," I murmured.
Sturgeon gravlax (now off the menu) had a jokey quality: The austere raw sashimi-style slices, thick, with a steaklike texture, were surrounded by soft, comforting pumpkin waffles -- like a Zen monk wearing a fluffy orange sweater.
A zesty jumbo lump blue-crab salad was topped with a caraway cracker that resembled a sturdy potato chip, to serve as a platform for a slaw of apple, fennel, and celery root. A touch of curry oil lent a spicy undertone to the crab. All the elements harmonized.
Best of all were two specials, one of which has already made it onto the regular menu, while the other is under consideration. (Our good Guy informed us of the prices as he described them, as too few waiters do.) Foie gras with black Mission figs was exquisite, the liver cooked à point, and a good-sized piece of it, too. Even better was a clever rethinking of escargots. "I love foie gras the best of anything," said one of my tablemates, "but [here] I actually love the escargots more." The snails, free from their shells, mingled with a creamy, garlicky mushroom sauce that included whole chanterelles spread over sensuous soft polenta, with a pile of fine-minced parsley on the side. The combination included all the elements of classic Burgundian garlic-parsley butter, but with other rich flavors added to the conversation -- a convivial snail cocktail party.
There were at least four more appetizers we wanted to try (but then we'd have had to skip entrées), including a charcuterie sampler with house-made bresaola, duck prosciutto, and pork pâté. In the future, the chef plans to make cheeses in-house to amend this assortment. There's also a heritage-beet salad paired -- not with the standard (yawn) chèvre -- but with a melted-leek tart. A parsnip soup and steamed mussels with frites didn't sound too shabby either. (I'll leave the ahi tartare and Caesar salad to those who want the same dishes at every restaurant they go to.)
Our entrées weren't quite up to the starters. Oddly, three out of four choices revealed near-monochromatic color schemes, as though filmed in the sepia of an old-time movie. In an entrée of jumbo scallops, the thick orbs were lightly seared (barely browned, their centers translucent) and came with white truffle risotto, caramelized onion juice, and fried Maui-onion rings. I didn't really love this combination, but I respected it. I might have enjoyed it more if anything on the plate were a color other than beige-to-tan; my taste buds as well as my eyes craved something green and fresh. A thick chipotle-barbecued pork chop (cooked to 135û Fahrenheit, just as I specified) was smoky not just from the sauce, but all through the meat. It had been cold-smoked in the kitchen, coming by its "barbecue" designation honestly. The chop was gorgeously, tragically fatty around the edges and tender all the way through. Its companions were satisfying Tuscan-style white beans and, in a break from sepia, a wee bit o' the green, in a heaplet of arugula.
Muscovy duck leg confit was the essence of "confit food," the meat (served on the bone) shreddy and crisp-surfaced, accompanied by French lentils de puy, speckled with tiny carrot bits. Alongside came two baguette crostini coated with chèvre and currant jam -- that is, open-face cream cheese and jelly sandwiches! The pairing was surprisingly apt, lightening up (in all ways) a heavy, serious dish. The white cheese and purplish jam also gave the eye bright relief from another sea of brown.