We all felt that the slow-braised veal cheeks could have used another hour or so of slow-braising to turn them to proper Gallic meat-mush. The flavors were rich and winey, but the texture was rather tough. Here the color scheme was mahogany brown and beige. But who could say a word against the mixture of multicolored fingerling potatoes, tender caramelized salsify ("oyster plant"), and baby artichokes? One of the best features of Currant is the loving, individualized treatment of vegetables. Not just cooked and slapped on the plate, they are cherished. I suspect that even strict vegans could get glorious meals here, drawing from the side dishes and accompaniments.
The staff includes a pastry chef, so all desserts are house-made, including ice creams. The choices sound enticing, but those we tasted proved a bit less than enchanting. The Grand Marnier soufflé (order in advance) started well but grew eggy and dense as we reached the bottom. The banana strudel in Moroccan "brik" pastry (similar to filo) looked like an egg roll and promised cardamom flavoring in the caramel. We couldn't taste the spice -- the coarse sweetness of mashed bananas eclipsed all else. But the house-made crème frâiche gelato on the side was exquisite. Port-braised pear ice cream was lovely but would be even better surrounded by slices of Port-braised pears to reemphasize the basis of its bashful flavor. Still, I'd love to go back and sample the currant bread pudding, tarte tatin, chestnut crème brûlée, pumpkin cheesecake, and profiteroles with espresso ice cream. So many temptations, and surely one or more must be triumphs. And there are several alluring cheese platters as well.
Best of all, perhaps, are the prices for this inventive, distinctively personal cuisine. While not exactly cheap eats, they're in line with other upscale neighborhood restaurants like Avenue 5 and Bleu Bohème, but the cooking is at a higher level of skill and imagination. The wine list is laden with reasonably priced bottles from underappreciated growing regions (plus a few high-end superstars), so whatever your tastes or budget, you'll find an appropriate quaff. Our bill for four diners in shameless-indulgence mode was fully $100 less than at Anthology or Sushi Ota (well, the sensei has expensive tastes in sake). But even if you can't handle shameless indulgence, you can make a superb meal of two courses of exciting appetizers with food costs of about $25 a person. Our Guy won't mind -- he hinted that we should consider doing just that. Whichever way you go, one thing's likely: You won't be bored.
ABOUT THE CHEF
"I grew up with my father, so out of necessity I learned how to cook. I took great interest in it, and it was always my summer job," says Jonathan Pflueger, who hails from Laguna Beach. "I started as a dishwasher, became a prep cook, and then a seafood cook at a little Mexican restaurant. I never really thought of it as a profession, and I ended up going to Vassar College and graduated with a degree in Third World history. I was planning to go to law school after that, but I needed to pay off some serious student loans, and I got lucky and worked my way into a great French restaurant called L'Etoile in Madison, Wisconsin. That was about 20 years ago. Until then, I'd always been a short-order cook, and this just opened a whole new world of flavors and products to use. At that point, I realized that this was what I really wanted to do.
"I never went to culinary school, but from that point on I worked and learned as much as I could in each kitchen, and as soon as it became a production job I'd move on. I sought out the best kitchens and best chefs from whom I could learn, and that was my education for the first ten years, until I finally had my first opportunity as an executive chef, with the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, as chef of the dining room. Then I came to San Diego and was offered a position running Anthony's flagship, Star of the Sea. I was there for six years, but then I was offered the chance to go back to New York as the re-opening chef for the Russian Tea Room in New York City." (Pflueger served as executive sous-chef at showman Warner LeRoy's zillion-dollar refurbishment of the Tea Room into a fantasy Czarist palace, with a French-Russian menu. The food was roundly panned by the New York Times and other media.) "It was quite an experience. It was such a unique opportunity. Myself and one of my mentors, Fabrice Canelle, the executive chef, we had a test kitchen at Tavern on the Green for six months prior to the opening. We had Russian food consultants come in. Once the place opened, we had four floors of dining, 88 cooks. We communicated through walkie-talkies. We'd make an 800-gallon batch of borscht every day. It was amazing. It was more about the theater of the place than about the food.
"After two years, I wanted to be in an atmosphere that was a little more intimate and food-driven than the Tea Room, and I came back as the chef de cuisine for a French bistro in Newport Beach, and from there I got an opportunity to open my own restaurant in Laguna. It was called Vertical, and it was a tapas and wine bar -- it was all tasting plates and fun wine flights. We were open for two years before I left to become the opening executive chef at Montage Resort, which offered me a lot more money than we were making.
"Montage was an unbelievable resort, but I was an executive chef and we had three restaurants that all had very talented chefs de cuisine, so my position was more about managing managers and crunching numbers. It did give me the opportunity to do stages in France with George Blanc and Paul Bocuse...But what got me into this business was my love of food and cooking, and I didn't quite have those avenues there...I started teaching at Laguna Culinary Academy and doing some consulting work. Through that consulting work, I ended up meeting the owners of the Sofia Hotel. I started out as a consultant here, but as our relationship grew they just decided, 'Hey, let's do this together.' And it came to fruition when we opened Currant on September 1. I'd fallen in love with San Diego when I was here before, and my daughters love living here, and I'm here to stay.