This pause between courses — a deep sigh — was occasioned by the typical (of most restaurants) drop-off in flavor once we hit the entrées, which ranged from reasonably good-but-forgettable to not-so-hot-at-all.
In the first category were seared sea scallops with saffron risotto and lobster tomato fumet. (There are no lobster dishes on this menu to furnish spare carapaces to make a really rich lobster stock.) The scallops were nicely cooked, the saffron risotto pleasant, with the correct texture, and any lobster flavor was subtle to the point of imperceptible.
The catch of the day is authentic Greek cooking: a pan-roasted whole small fish (currently loup de mer) garnished with baby field greens and light tomato sauce (which the menu calls “so-vou” — another word absent from the indexes of my Greek cookbooks). The skin is terrifically crispy, the meat tender. But we’re not actually hanging out with Greek fishermen on a beach, sharing the literal catch of the day in its pristine state — we’re in an urban restaurant eating fish caught a few days earlier. It needs a little something more. (At Chinese seafood restaurants, even when the fish is scooped live out of the tank and cooked on the spot, it still comes with flavor enhancers like ginger, garlic, scallions.) This would be a good dish to coat with a host of those caramelized lemon slices from the calamari, or perhaps to serve with avgolemono (egg-lemon sauce) alongside, or even a dip of lemon aioli. Simplicity is good, but it can be oversimplified.
Moussaka ravioli turns out to be ethnologically fascinating, although we found it disappointing in the eating. It consists of yogurt-dough pasta pockets with thick, chewy skins (there’s the rub), containing a combination of minced roasted lamb and vegetables (e.g., eggplant), finished with an ouzo-tinged béchamel sauce. (Its theme song could be “Béchamel Mucho,” but in fact it’s not that thick a coating.) This could be terrific were the faintly sour and flavorful pasta rolled out much thinner. The moment I tasted the dish, I recognized it as a far-flung relative of an Afghan dish called mantu, lamb-stuffed ravioli with yogurt sauce. (You can get a fine version of the latter at Chopahn, across the street. A spicier version called chuchwara is the national dish of Uzbekistan, just to the north.) Plunging into my Greek cookbooks, I discovered that Exy’s chef has accidentally recreated and gussied-up an ancient Cretan dish called manti — lamb ravioli with garlic-tinged yogurt sauce. If there are any gastro-anthropologists out there who can explain how, despite the huge geographical separation, Crete and Afghanistan could end up with nearly the same dish called by nearly the same name, I’d really love to hear from you.
A tender braised lamb shank had a nice mint orzo cake alongside and a Cabernet demi-glace but was otherwise nothing special. It came with tough, bitter greens (“braised horta”) — not Swiss chard, but one of those field greens that soul-food cooks simmer for hours with the smoked-pig product of their choice and finish off with lashes of vinegar and hot sauce. The soul-food cooks have a better formula than Exy. Roasted halloumi chicken was an airline breast with halloumi cheese stuffed under some of the very crispy skin, but the meat was overcooked and direly dry. It too came with those tough greens, along with some good moist rice. “Care to try some of tomorrow’s chicken salad?” I asked as I passed the plate along to the next victim.
The menu also includes crispy codfish, an Atlantic (farm-raised and artificially colored) salmon dish, and those San Diego requisites for all local menus, a rib-eye and a filet mignon.
There are none of the expected Greek desserts here. Far as I’m concerned, that is probably a tactical error. Chic or not chic, when you think Greek, you start to yearn for those honey-dripping sweets, whether made of filo or fried pastry dough. Instead: halloumi cheesecake. It looks pretty, with a frizz on top of sweet preserved lemon, and comes with Mission figs, walnuts, and ouzo crème anglaise. It’s a good try but thuddingly heavy. Pear Napoleon has crisp filo pieces for its layers, and honey-raspberry chantilly (whipped) cream, but somehow isn’t very vibrant. Best dessert: fresh berries in sweetened yogurt. That, at least, embodies absolute clarity about what it is and what it’s made from.
When we first arrived and gathered on the patio, an army of young males in ball caps was fiercely double-timing it down the street to Petco. When we were leaving, they were heading rapidly the other way. Padres must’ve lost; they looked teed-off. They never even looked at Exy. “Do you think belly dancing…?” Sam asked. Rebecca said, “Maybe that would work. It goes against what they’re trying to do here, but maybe belly dancing and bouzouki would catch all these young guys.” But we needn’t have worried. When I phoned two nights later at opening time on a weekend night, in hopes of interviewing the chef, the kitchen was already slamming with a full house to feed. Given that prices are about half those at most restaurants a block to the west, and the atmosphere is so relaxed and comfortable, maybe Exy is plenty sexy enough.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Carter Shuffler is a local boy who’s gone far — around the world and back, in the U.S. Navy, which also helped finance his cooking-school tuition at the CCA in San Francisco. “I’ve wanted to be a chef since I was a child. I was always in the kitchen with my mom and grandma. Starting in junior high school, I became interested in cooking. I started working in kitchens as a dishwasher, busboy, became a waiter. In high school, I wasn’t really the brightest kid in the class. I had other things I wanted to do, and I thought, ‘I really want to open a restaurant of my own someday. I really want to know about this.’ I started doing a little research and decided to join the Navy, see the world. It was the complete opposite — didn’t cook at all, just scrubbed pots and pans for a few weeks, like everybody does. But I did have a chance to go into the marketplaces of Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states. Huge spice mounds, and they give you foods to taste for free, and you leave full — and then you go back the next day and buy the foods you tasted.
[2009 Editor's Note: Exy has since closed.]