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Quarter Kitchen is clearly a restaurant aiming to be everything to every taste. That's why the buzz is so dissonant. At its core, there's some really good stuff when you wipe away the cobwebs of glitz. So -- what would I order here for an affordable light dinner for two (or perhaps a ménage à trois)? I'd start with two portions of caviar tacos ($48, worth every cent). Next, I'd choose any two of the following: East Coast--West Coast raw oysters (six for $16), a shared bowl of spicy crab soup ($16), Kitchen Sink salad ($18) and/or salmon tartare ($18). Finally, a filler-upper of the mini-burger quartet ($24) along with those luscious truffled fries ($10). That comes to about $116 for a couple or a threesome (before wine, tip, and tax). Feeling a little more flush, substitute four ounces of the legendary stone-cooked Kobe ($72) for the sliders, for a total food bill of $164, or split the hamachi ($38 or so), if you like spice. You wouldn't need a big, pricey red for any version of this menu; a Vouvray, Muscadet, or New Zealand Sauvignon would do the job. You'd eat remarkably well for much less than we spent and dance out lightly. If you choose the lavish over the large, Quarter Kitchen can richly reward you.

ABOUT THE CHEF

Executive chef Damon Gordon grew up in Ipswich, a medium-sized town (about the size of Escondido) near London. His chef aspirations started early. "It's a bit of cliché, but I always remember my mom baking," he says. "She was a very good cook, I remember watching her do that, and that's where the love affair started. I wanted to be a professional soccer player, which most kids do when they're growing up in England, but I wasn't good enough, so I turned my attention to cooking. I went to a local cooking school, did two years there, worked in a couple of local restaurants, and once I graduated, I moved to London, which is where it's happening, of course."

Early in his career, the chef he was working under recommended Gordon for a position at chef Michel Roux's famed three-star (Michelin) restaurant in Bray, the Waterside Inn. "I spent three days in a stage, a trial period, and they offered me the job," Damon says. "Obviously that was the real turning point in my career. Once you go to work in a three-star, you learn something new every day. Use the best ingredients, the best techniques, the 100 percent dedication every day when you work in a place like that.

"After that, I moved back to London, spent a little time working for Marco Pierre White, then I...got to work for Alain Ducasse at Spoon in London. I got transferred to the U.S., and I went to Miami first, Claude Troisgros's Blue Door at the Delano Hotel, and then the hotel management company transferred me to the Royalton Hotel in New York City in July 2001, just before 9/11. I consider New York my home. New York either pushes you away, or you want to be there forever...I was there for about 18 months, until a close friend asked me to go back to the Delano to fill in, and I went back for just over a year -- you always learn there -- but I still wanted to come back to New York City. I came back to run Mix in New York for Mr. Ducasse for a year, and after that I spent 18 months running the Gansevoort Hotel [Ono]. I learned a lot about contemporary Japanese cuisine. Always loved Japanese cuisine, I finally learned about the cooking side of it. It was a real eye-opener.

"But all this time I'd been under the same management company, called China Grill Management. I thought it was time to look and see what else was out there. I met a headhunter working for a search firm in Beverly Hills, and a week later he called and told me about the project at the Ivy. After several meetings in various cities, I had a fantastic meeting with the owner, Michael Kelly. His passion, his vision for the property -- I was pretty much offered the job on the spot. I came to San Diego for a weekend, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

"We want to give people a broad scope -- of simplicity, of sophistication. We don't have everything and anything on the menu, but if someone wants to have a Caesar salad and a grilled steak, we have that. Or if you want to go more decadent and have caviar, we have that. For people that are health-conscious, we offer a sashimi of the day. We wanted to bring something new to San Diego. That was the whole plan of it."

Damon is not one of those executive hotel chefs who hides in an office writing menus. He's still out on the line nearly every night. "I'm a cook first. Me and my executive sous-chef plate everything. We touch everything before it goes out." His philosophy of food? "I like simple things -- I don't like nine, ten ingredients on a plate. I don't like to mask things. I like to accentuate the ingredients we have on hand. I like tradition, but to execute things in a little more contemporary way."

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