This restaurant is closed.
I suspect that all middle-class (and up) native San Diegans have dined at Rainwater’s on Kettner at least once — for a birthday, a graduation, an engagement, an anniversary. According to its website, the restaurant is currently celebrating an anniversary, of its 20th year in business. But it’s actually more like the 23rd year. Last summer it acquired a new executive chef, Julian Quinones. The mere possibility of change at this bastion of tradition gave me an excuse to end my status as the last middle-class Rainwater’s virgin in San Diego.
You could say that chophouses are urban America’s version of the French bistro (a genre that is burgeoning again here), offering simple but well-sauced traditional dishes and fine wine lists in a congenial, faintly in-groupy atmosphere. But unlike bistros, chophouses are usually rather large, luxurious in atmosphere and pampering service, and they’re almost always forthrightly expensive. And, of course, they are focused above all on the joys of red meat — a characteristic stemming more from English first-class hotel restaurants and clubs than from France’s more eccentric eateries.
Rainwater’s spacious second-floor dining room resembles an English men’s club scaled to New World proportions, coziness spread large, with dark wood, leather booths, gentle lighting, white tablecloths. This is where the downtown power elite lunches. (Of course, I’ve heard the same about Chuey’s in Barrio Logan — but I guess Chuey’s is for working lunches and Rainwater’s is for impressing-somebody lunches.) It’s reportedly hectic at noon, but at a midweek January dinnertime, we found it sparsely populated.
The appetizers include retro steakhouse choices (shrimp cocktail and its colleagues), and there seemed to be fewer choices on the printed menu than on the website. (The lighting is dim, but had I spotted steak tartare, I would have ordered it.) We began with six flawless Washington State oysters, big, fresh, and juicy, arriving with a very decent house cocktail sauce as well as a mignonette, with Tabasco sauce offered on the side. A fine crab cake offered large hunks of crab and little filler. The crab is Eastern blue, but it tasted so buttery I thought it might be Dungeness. The breads were irresistible: First came a round of delicate, moist cornbread cylinders, followed by fluffy sourdough French, both accompanied by high-quality unsalted butter.
We lucked into an exceptional “special”: beef Wellington is new to the menu. Normally, it’s $42, all by itself, but that evening it was part of a package deal that for the same price included choice of a salad and dessert. For the salad, I chose a baby spinach and Belgian endive mixture strewn with Roquefort cheese and caramelized pistachios in a light vinaigrette. Loved it.
Beef Wellington reminds me of the old movie joke, “We call our company Miracle Productions. If it’s a good picture, it’s a miracle!” If it’s a good Wellington, it’s a miracle, too, because this is a dish difficult to pull off perfectly. It consists of beef tenderloin topped with foie gras and mushroom duxelles (minced and sautéed), surrounded by a buttery pastry shell. The miracle: baking the pastry until done, without overcooking the beef. Everyone at my table had, at some point, attempted it and flopped; it’s really something to choose at a restaurant instead of suffering over at home. (The chef later told me it takes a really hot, consistent oven. When he cooked it at home for his sister’s birthday, in 30 individual portions, just as the Wellingtons are served at the restaurant, many portions came out overcooked, to his great embarrassment.) I’ve even seen serious French chefs brought to their knees by the dish.
Rainwater’s’ chef did as fine a job on it as I’ve ever tasted: The pastry shell, rolled out thin, emerged deliciously crunchy, while the beef was a perfect medium-rare. Surrounding this marvel was a dark red-brown Bordelaise sauce based on veal demi-glace and red wine, dotted with small turned potatoes, carrots, and onions. Diehard traditionalists often serve Wellington with Madeira sauce (based on a heavy, flour-thickened traditional sauce brun), but frankly, I preferred this lighter, thinner potion, which doesn’t overwhelm the other flavors. Sometimes, as a special, the chef serves it with a sauce Perigourdine, dotted with black truffles. If you ever see this on the specials board, don’t even think of not ordering it, whatever the cost. That cashmere sweater you lust for will be 70 percent off in a month, but this sauce won’t be here then.
The beef at Rainwater’s is Cryovac-aged by their meat wholesaler for three weeks (that is, “wet-aged” inside Cryovac packaging, a kind of heavy plastic wrap). This style of aging makes the meat tender but doesn’t change or improve its flavor. (It’s less expensive than dry-aging, a process rarely attempted even by steakhouses now, which does intensify the beef flavor — at the cost of shrinking the meat and forming a thick, dry crust that needs to be trimmed off.) The beef is sent to Rainwater’s uncut, still in its Cryo shrink-wrap, in large sections (known as sub-primal cuts), such as the short loin and the rib rack. Usually the chef at Rainwater will give it another week of wet-aging onsite. Then he or another expert chef-butcher will band saw it into smaller pieces and cut it into the individual steaks, roasts, and chops that appear on your plate. The beef cuts that will become steaks and roasts are all USDA Prime Midwestern corn-fed beef. The braising cuts (such as the short ribs) are certified Angus, the equivalent of USDA Choice.
Kent’s entrée preference was the restaurant’s traditional specialty, “pepper filet,” known to Francophones and Julia Child followers as le steak au poivre. Although the meat was very tender, none of us found it that big a deal, especially for its $49 price tag. If we had to do it again, we’d be more likely to go for a rib-eye steak or the roast prime rib and revel in pure, simple carnivorousness with these more flavorful cuts. (Or, for a filet, we might go with the version that comes with Béarnaise sauce — although it’s easier than Wellington, Béarnaise is another dish usually best left to professional chefs, who can stay calmer than palpitating home cooks as they beat the butter into the egg yolks.)