The menu is divided into multiple mini-sections (sounds like Ono, no?), and one of them is devoted to Japanese Kobe beef, the most marbled, tender meat you can imagine. I've read raves about the restaurant's Kobe sirloin slices, cooked by diners on a hot stone at the table. It costs $18 an ounce, minimum four ounces. That's beyond my budget, given that four of us would probably want eight ounces ($144), so we ordered Kobe carpaccio instead ($28). As some anonymous food savant has observed, "Raw is the true rare." The paper-thin slices were buried under a heap of baby arugula, shallots, and Parmesan cream. My friends complained about the garnishes obliterating the meat, and so when the plate finally reached me, I pushed the greenery to the side to eat alternately with bites of straight-up beef. The meat was soft as room-temperature butter, the (now-separate) garnishes tasty. You don't get a lot of beef, but I was glad to taste Kobe raw to finally experience its essence. (There's also a Kobe tataki, lightly seared, for $26.)
Yet another appetizer group, labeled "Enough to Share," highlights upscale pub grub. Along with popcorn shrimp and BBQ lamb ribs, it includes two publicity-grabbers to lure young scenesters: One is a quartet of sliders -- two miniature Wagyu (American Kobe) beefburgers and two mini-lamburgers. The other is a 20-inch Kobe beef hot dog at $1 per inch (made especially for the restaurant by their meat company). We weighed these possibilities, quietly chorusing the old R&B hit "Big Ten Inch" (halving the hot dog). Ultimately, though, we passed in favor of appetizers that would show off more cooking creativity than media-grabbing skills.
As at so many other restaurants, the mains are minor compared to the starters. A lobster pot pie was far better than other local versions I've suffered, loaded with succulent hunks of real lobster meat (not trash "knuckle meat") in a tarragon-spiked lobster-cream sauce under a light, well-made crust. It somewhat resembled a crusted lobster thermidor, minus the sherry. Its root vegetables (parsnips, pearl onions) were toothsome, although softer species (e.g., asparagus) sogged out. But we all felt that the sauce's near-slutty richness called for a touch of one more darker flavor to focus it and balance out all the cream -- Hoisin? Soy? Maybe even thermidor's retro sherry? (But I'm not the chef; it's his job to come up with some smart solution.)
"Blackened" hamachi was gorgeously done to a tender, pearly opalescence -- a rarity around the Gaslamp, where even fishhouses often end up defaulting to Zonie preferences for fish cooked "through" (and through). The sweet-hot red miso glazing sauce divided our table between the spice-heads and the mildies. Fred and I loved it, while Lynne and Kent thought it overwhelmed the delicacy of the yellowtail filet, which was plated over a heap of wok-fried vegetables that pleased us all sufficiently, if none ecstatically.
Having just enjoyed El Comal's $8 chicken mole, we decided to pass on the deluxe version for $28, no matter how much research and talent the chef brought to it. But after the summer, when heavy fowls like duck tend to vanish from menus, the honey-glazed roasted half duck with local orange marmalade sounded attractive. The marmalade was earthy and interesting, but the Muscovy duck, normally a fine little bird (if not so fatty as the Long Island Pekin), failed us. It arrived in two pieces -- one of them dry, tough, and overcooked, the other medium-rare but still dry and excessively chewy (possibly a result of roasting too fast at high heat). Along with a tiny patch of spinach, the duck came with an abominable little potato cake that tasted as if it had flunked the quality-control patrol for a frozen Salisbury steak dinner. Bad dish, bad! Heel!
Since steakhouses are rampant locally, we didn't really want to order a steak, but we did, because a large menu section is devoted to them and we wanted to cover the bases. "The Prime New York strip is the chef's favorite," said the waitress. (Had the menu mentioned that all its steaks are genuinely dry-aged, I'd have said "the heck with the chef" and chosen the rib-eye for its deeper, gamier flavor.) The strip was fine, tender, rare to order, with a pleasant, thick deglazing sauce. Better yet, we ordered a side of truffled fries for it. They arrived slim, soignée, and piping hot -- the irresistible highlight of our entrée chapter. "It says something -- and not something good -- when a steak is the best entrée," Kent reflected. "Steak tells you nothing about a chef's skills. Anybody can buy a good piece of Prime, and unless they're an idiot and overcook it, it'll always come out good."
Negotiating the thick wine list was a chore -- lots of exorbitant boutique bottlings I've only vaguely heard of and very little that was affordable (i.e., under $50). I lucked into a terrific New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Sacred Hill's "Sauvage" ($37). It was typically crisp and very dry, with a fresh-grass aroma, but a richer fruit undertone than usual for the Marborough region, which normally runs straight to grapefruit. For the entrées, we wanted a Pinot Noir, and a California winery called Lynmar furnished a well-balanced bottle for $56. (It even went with the hamachi.) But the best strategy, considering those interfering wire chargers, is to pore over the wine list on the website before you go. Deep into its pages, there's a group of undervalued whites from the Loire region (Muscadets, Vouvrays, etc.) and another group of reasonable reds among the Côtes de Rhones (which oddly enough, cost less than California and Aussie Syrahs and Petite Syrahs of the same general taste profile).
All desserts are made in-house, and under the influence of owner Mike Kelly the list is rife with kiddie treats -- warm donuts, s'mores, cotton candy cones with bubble gum ice cream, frozen PB&J ice-cream sandwiches coated with Rice Krispies. Bypassing the baby food, we chose a cherry cheesecake on a chocolate crust. It was rich and dense, good if you like heavy cheesecake. A baked Alaska flamed at the table with Malibu coconut rum had mango ice cream coated in coconut cake and shredded-coconut meringue that tasted oddly like that commercial marshmallow goop in a jar. The best ending was my strong, slightly bitter, very Italian-tasting decaf espresso, and Kent liked his decaf cappuccino so well, he decided to skip his customary sugar. Compliments to the skilled barista -- he keeps his machinetta very clean.