Is Quarter Kitchen the proverbial riddle wrapped in an enigma? The glam new high-end restaurant at the Ivy Hotel has been getting loads of "buzz" -- but the buzz-tones range from the happy murmur of honeybees in clover to the snarls of angry wasps. With a menu that's all over the map and prices that range into painful territory, it was bound to generate controversy. You can eat there without breaking the bank (in fact, that's one way to taste some of the best dishes), but a full three-course feast runs about the same as an equivalent dinner at El Bizcocho or A.R. Valentien -- around $150 per person, 600-odd quarters, even without indulging in Caspian caviar.
Is it worth it? Depends very much on what you order and whether or not you're attached to having an entrée rather than a whirl of appetizers. The huge restaurant has a few little high-style annoyances, enough to tip the rating a quarter-star downward (the food averaged 3.25), and some dishes went thud. But the good ones were very good indeed -- and the best were splendid. (Later, I'll propose a flexible plan for a light, sexy dinner to yield maximum pleasure for a relatively gentle price.)
We headed out on a Thursday night to avoid the weekend Gaslamp zoo -- the Lynnester, Fred, and a new Bay Area transplant whom I'll call Kent as his nom de restaurant. The crowd that evening was sparser and less swanky than I'd been led to believe. The only people in long, backless gowns were the hostesses. Nobody else was dressed to the nines, although some young women on dates, true to Gaslamp fashion, wore frocks starting low on the bosom and ending high on the thighs. ("You could say they're dressed to the threes," said Fred. "One-third dressed.")
The decor is spacious, chic, and comfortable; many tables afford a view of the bright, glassed-in open kitchen where you can watch cooks sweating over a hot stove. The ambient lighting is considerably dimmer, so it can be difficult to read the menu. The tables, slightly too cozy in size, are preset with "chargers" consisting of square, shallow wire baskets the size of dinner plates. Chargers generally strike me as pompous remnants of the Gilded Age, and these, especially, hindered reading the menu and wine list, while sadistically enforcing the ancient rule, "Mabel, Mabel, strong and able/ Keep your elbows off the table." You have to wonder whether restaurant designers ever try eating at tables furnished with their brilliant concepts.
The chef is British-born hotshot Damon Gordon, an alumnus of the English and American kitchens of legendary French chefs Michel Roux, Alain Ducasse, and Claude Troisgros, arriving here fresh from a stint at New York restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow's splashy Japanese-oid Ono. (Reviewing the last in the New York Times, Frank Bruni awarded it one star for "good," noting that it seemed like a theme park where "gimmickry trumps gastronomy" and complaining that the menu ran off in too many directions at once. I do wish, though, that Gordon had transplanted Ono's fabled "parfait" of foie gras mousse, sea urchin roe, and plum wine gelée to San Diego.)
Dinner began with good breads (including plain and seeded baguette slices) and ice-cold unspreadable butter squares (small annoyance #3 or #4, I lose count). The "amuse" was a tasty, warming demitasse of potato-horseradish soup. Then the killer appetizer arrived in a bent wrought-iron sculptural stand, cradling five caviar "tacos" -- but not tacos as you know them from the 'Bertos. These had shells of supernal delicacy, made of wafer-thin slices of potato (slow-baked, then flash-fried) curving around a lush filling of American paddlefish caviar, robed in crème fraîche amended with horseradish, red onion, and chives. (You can opt for endangered Caspian caviar, but the lower-priced spread was glorious as well as virtuous. It's from Tsar Nicoulai, probably the most expensive and highest-quality brand of paddlefish roe.) A mouth-filling combination with light, sensual textures, this was food for the gods, and I'm sure Poseidon and Yemanjá would be tickled blue by it. Lynne and I each wanted a whole portion to ourselves and would come back to Quarter Kitchen for that alone.
Salmon tartare is potentially a delight, despite an artsy-fartsy presentation that sacrifices flavor for visual flash. Three narrow, legless parfait-glass "vases," suspended in an armature, display ingredients layered from top to bottom: crème fraîche scattered with golden tobiko, raw chopped salmon and chives, and mashed avocado. In a tray at the bottom of the device are toasted baguette slices to spread the mixture on. The problem? Diving in from the top, your first two spoonfuls are nearly all crème fraîche, the next several spoonfuls are all salmon, and you don't hit the nouveau-guacamole until nearly all the fish is gone. If the elements were layered on a flat plate instead, you could taste this engaging combination of flavors simultaneously. Next time, I'll scoop the contents onto a bread plate, making heaps of each major ingredient to commingle at will.
A spicy crab soup is rich, rewarding, and decidedly pungent with hot chile oil in a thin coconut-milk broth flavored with Kaffir lime and laced generously with fresh-tasting crab hunks. Alongside are a pile of miniature spring rolls the size of lipsticks, stuffed with spicy crab, yet oddly dry and dull.
The revisionist Caesar salad disappointed us. Replacing the raw or coddled egg of the classic dressing is a whole, allegedly soft-boiled egg. But our refrigerator-cold egg was medium-cooked to solidity, yielding no sploosh of warm yolk. There were plenty of anchovies, though -- not the standard pink slivers but thick, pickled white ones from Spain. Instead of bite-sized croutons, there were long, toasted baguette slices, which I guess you're supposed to break up yourself if you want them mixed with the greenery and dressing. The Parmesan played a cameo role -- maybe we got shorted on it. We wished we'd ordered the manic-sounding "Kitchen Sink" salad of lettuce, shrimp, artichokes, "crispy" Brie, pancetta, etc., instead, or the Caprese with fried green tomatoes as well as red heirlooms. Another salad's sly anthropological title, "The Raw and the Cooked," tickled us but didn't tempt us as much. (Will we see a "Triste Tropiques" mango-and-durian combo on next summer's menu?)