Sofia Hotel, 140 W. Broadway, Downtown San Diego
The current may have swept away the Currant I reviewed glowingly a year ago, but it hasn’t drowned the restaurant’s civilized atmosphere. Last spring, big-shot chef Jonathan Pflueger departed (assisted by a gentle kick in the rear) for reasons that were top secret for all of two minutes, until the online communiqués spread from foodie to foodie and from blog to blog: At the California Restaurant Association annual gala awards banquet, said chef and his girlfriend weren’t just pixilated — they were obnoxicated. Not only were they seen out of the banquet, but the next day, the chef was tossed out of his gig. He was a terrific cook, but embracing his demons in front of the whole local restaurant industry was a tad indiscreet, no?
An interim chef was swiftly found, and the restaurant’s focus changed from Cal-Continental to “American brasserie.” By now, that chef has also left, replaced a little over a month ago by Michael Rubino, most recently executive chef of the local branch of Napa Valley Grille. “He’s so talented and was so stymied there by corporate restrictions, I was thrilled to get him,” says restaurant manager Sanjay Parekh. This review is actually terribly premature — I didn’t know until the day before my deadline that Michael was such a newcomer. In this short time, he has changed the kitchen organization and the breakfast and lunch and bar menus but has only begun to remake the dinner menu — where the three best appetizers are his own. He’s been fiddling with the interim chef’s entrées but hasn’t had time yet to thoroughly revise or replace them. No surprise, then, that the new appetizers are better than the old entrées.
I was drawn back to Currant by two reports: The Lynnester (always first on the scene, unless Ariana beats her to it) had eaten there recently and liked it enough to urge me to try it. And the local “newspaper of record” reported with total inaccuracy that the restaurant was offering a weeknight three-course menu for $30. Well, sorry, it isn’t. Once opera season starts, they’ll have a three-course “early bird” discount dinner, but it’s not there yet. On Monday nights, selected wines are half price, but the bad news is that most of the wines on the half-price “Bon Marché” list are very expensive — like $200. We did dig up a few interesting under-$50 bargains, but in general, if you’re on a budget, you’re better off with the regular wine menu, which has lots of affordable choices.
Yet, Currant remains one of the most pleasurable eating places in town, handsome and well run. The visual style is deliciously Parisian Art Deco, with high ceilings, black-and-white flooring, a well-populated but mellow center bar, and comfortable banquettes at most of the tables. The ambient music offers classic ’50s and ’60s jazz played softly, the mellowest of bebop, with lots of meditative alto or baritone sax, all in perfect tune with the decor. The restaurant had me at “Moanin’.”
Our waiter was a paragon, not just competent but kindly. He knew most of the answers to our questions, and when he didn’t, he’d ask somebody rather than try to snow us with BS. He seemed to share our enjoyments, making us feel as if we were collaborating to make the best possible dinner, as though money weren’t even involved.
Currant is one of a few local restaurants to serve absinthe, now that it’s legal again. The myths about the fabled potion, nicknamed the “Green Fairy,” were that it was mildly hallucinogenic, slightly poisonous (due to a substance called thujone, a component of wormwood, from which the drink is distilled), and rapaciously addictive. It was famously a favored intoxicant of Paris bohemians, including Oscar Wilde, poet Charles Baudelaire, artist Amedeo Modigliani, et al. In Edgar Degas’s famous painting, L’Absinthe, the subjects look like nodding junkies — haggard, sickly barflies. You could say the painting was exaggerated tabloid reportage: According to Wikipedia, the male model was drinking coffee, and the woman may have just eaten some bad lobster pot pie. Absinthe is no more hallucinogenic or poisonous than any other distilled liquor, although it is quite strong (45–75 percent alcohol by volume). However, the lore about its inspirational and destructive powers and its popularity with the artistic class inspired France (and soon afterwards, the U.S.) to ban it around 1915, when the country needed more healthy cannon fodder for World War I, not happy poetic drunks getting blotto in cafés. If hipsters love a recreational substance, however benign, repressive governments are sure to take up arms against it. (Absinthe did remain legal in other countries, including the British commonwealth — perhaps because it was not that popular there.)
It’s still powerful and tastes exotic. One glass sufficed for our foursome — we quickly learned that absinthe dothn’t make the heart grow fonder. A sugar cube in a small slotted spatula is set over a cocktail glass under a slow-dripping “absinthe fountain” of ice water. The brand they’re serving at Currant isn’t very green; it’s what’s called white absinthe. When the liquid turns cloudy, drink at will. You can see why hipper-than-thou would-be addicts (in thrall to an earlier version of 1970s-’80s “heroin chic”) loved it, since the procedure is as ritualistic as cooking junk in a spoon and tying off veins — something to provide ceremonial order and structure to the chaos of real life. The flavor is crisply herbal, anise-like, but less resinous than I expected. It’s not a liqueur but liquor.
It was fun to taste the myth at long last, but once our wine arrived, we abandoned the last few sips in favor of a lively $38 half-priceable white called “G-Licious” from G Cellars in Napa, a Chardonnay-Sauvignon blend. It certainly hit the, uh, spot. For the entrées, we chose a Santa Barbara Cabernet Franc from that list, called “Vixen.” Sounded sassy, tasted sassy, and proved extremely food-friendly, fruity, and fun to drink.
Dinner began with yeasty warm rolls and too-chilled butter that was sprinkled with coarse red sea salt from Hawaii. Our first course — all dishes from the new chef — was our best course. In the heirloom beet salad, the marinated red beets are just an excuse for the main attraction, an alluring, melted leek tart garnished with a big white pouf of fromage blanc (France’s version of queso fresco), all lightly touched with basil oil and balsamic reduction. For posse newcomer Micki Two (real name Michelle, but not the same Michelle as Jim’s regular squeeze), this was the evening’s best dish.