Pekarcik worked in San Francisco when chef George Morrone was pioneering a major trend (now carried on by his more famous protégé Michael Mina) of offering several versions of an ingredient on the same plate, an exploration of the varied tastes offered through different cuts and different treatments. The first San Diego restaurant to follow this fashion was Blanca in Solana Beach (whose chef worked with Mina). I think it's a great idea, lending intellectual rigor to the sensuality of eating. Arterra is now offering the same explorations with pork, jidori chicken, and beef entrées.
A duo of Four Story Hill Farms pork (the pedigree must indicate it's free-range) pairs a house-made sausage with a slice of spice-rubbed loin (served medium-rare by default, as it should be). The sausage is fine, slightly spicy from black pepper, and not that far from one of the artisanal house-made links at North Park's Linkery. The loin is tender and pleasant. The combination comes with a riotous sweet hash of diced beets, sweet potato, cabbage, onion, and bacon, plus a potatoey-tasting biscuit.
Beef gets a similar treatment -- sliced grilled rib eye (unfortunately, I was outvoted by a posse that preferred medium-rare, rather than very rare) is paired with braised short ribs, quite nice if not quite to die for, with various elaborate garnishes involving corn, cheese, and roasted veggies. Normally I love to eat "family-style," sharing every dish (a smart strategy since nobody gets stuck with the "bad dish" and everyone gets to taste everything), but here, any single entrée offers more than enough flavors for one diner to handle at a meal. It's all wonderful, but again, perhaps a bit too much at one time. Even with gently reheated doggie bags, one per night, a certain palate fatigue recurred.
Arterra, as a restaurant, has several annoying features: a noisy dining room and lighting so dim at certain tables that you need a flashlight to read the menu, plus exorbitant wine and cocktail prices. After a wearying workday grappling with the previous review, I needed seriously frivolous alcohol that night. A round of cocktails for four came to $64. Wines are just as high, with glasses running $12 and up and hardly any bottles under $50 (most are at least $70). By sticking to California Rhones (Beaucastel Blanc white and Qupé red), we managed to keep the wine to a third of our total bill; it could easily have outpaced the food costs. Full of "cult" boutique bottlings, it's a great California list, but most suitable for, say, a military contractor trying to seduce a corrupt congressman into an earmark. Other hotel restaurant sommeliers (e.g., at Molly's and at Azzura Point) have devised more merciful but equally excellent lists. In these parlous times, when the Dow shivers with every flutter of Ben Bernanke's eyelashes, few people have unlimited expense accounts.
Desserts were near fabulous. My favorite was the relative simplicity of an almond cake with poached pear, honey cream, and Moscato d'Asti essence -- that is, something small, light, and craftsmanly. Plum clafouti is not the homey custard but a more elaborate deconstructed version, the plums standing alone on the plate. Valrhona chocolate caramel crème is so sweet and gooey that even Jim, the Chocoholic Samurai, found it a bit much. There's also a sampler of artisanal American- made cheeses, with options for port or Madeira accompaniments. If I ate at Arterra on my own bill, I'd probably just feast on appetizers and then fast forward to the cheeses -- or perhaps I'd nibble "small plates" and the cheese sampler on the lovely new outdoor patio. I'd miss some deliciousness, but I'd feel calmer.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Brian Pekarcik (pronounced Peh-KAR-chick) was born in Korea and adopted by a Slovak family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "I grew up with my grandmother's strong Eastern European flavors and aromas, like chicken paprikash. My mom, as a job when I was growing up, would cook for the priests at the rectory, and I'd be dragged along, and she'd also help out at her friend's bakery making wedding cakes, and I went with her there, too. So I always had an interest in having fun in the kitchen and making my own meals, so to speak. I was the youngest of four children, and I was extremely involved in sports during high school. By the time I got home from practice, what was food for the family had become reheats and leftovers for me. So I liked to put things together in my own way -- making French-fried cheese melts with tomato, which I later called my first experience of making 'French-American fusion cuisine.'"
An injury on the baseball field during his freshman year at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio, ended his involvement in sports and left him with free time. His parents urged him to get a job and help pull his financial weight, so while studying he worked as a prep chef in a local Italian restaurant. "Cooking filled the void for me that baseball left," he says. "I found the intensity, passion, and teamwork of working in a kitchen was very similar to baseball. I loved how the chef orchestrated the line and was thoroughly involved in striving for a common goal -- perfection!"
He graduated in 1997 with a major in psychology and a minor in business. "After I graduated, I said, 'Know what? Cooking is what I love to do,' and I moved out to California and pursued that full time." In love with the idea of California, he found work in a Sacramento restaurant.
He quickly discovered that Sacramento isn't anybody's California Dreaming. Visiting a college friend living in San Diego, he decided to relocate and targeted Mille Fleurs as the restaurant where he wanted to work. He called and "pestered" chef Martin Woesle until he was hired. Then he and Carl Schroeder worked together as sous-chefs at its then-new spin-off, Bertrand at Mr. A's. "Carl and I worked together so well there, we always knew we'd work together again." Then came Brian's great leap upward. "A friend of mine who worked at Gary Danko in San Francisco told me a position was opening up. This was right after they'd won the Mobil Five Stars and the James Beard Best New Restaurant award -- so the opening crew was still intact. This was still within their first year of opening. I called Gary and eventually got through to him, and he offered to let me stage [to work in an unpaid learning position] at the restaurant for a few days. After I staged for the three days, I was offered the position.