After dinner, we were tired but merry, so we took the elevator to the roof-level Jsix Lounge, with its bar, swimming pool, and not-very-exalted views of Petco Park, construction cranes, and the boring boxy buildings of E-ville. Samurai Jim, designated driver, drank something clear, bubbly, and probably virgin; Michelle had something golden. Fred and I both went for a rum, coconut-rum, and pineapple juice concoction called Bad Attitude, which proved light and bright. Fred ate his maraschino cherry, I left mine so as not to mess with the lingering aftertastes of the meal. Guess you could say that the food left me with an awesomely good attitude.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Christian Graves was born in the South and automatically says “ma’am,” but his family moved to San Francisco when he was a teenager. After-school dishwashing jobs in local restaurants evolved into prep-cook work, and from there it was on to cooking school, where Graves realized that this was what he wanted to do. Before coming to San Diego to become top toque at Jsix, Graves cooked in several of San Francisco’s most highly reputed restaurants, including Farallon (under Mark Franz), Aqua (Michael Mina), One Market (Brad Ogden), and Roti. When the Kimpton Hotel Group offered him the Jsix position, he and his wife moved to San Diego, partly to be closer to her parents while raising their own two small sons.
I asked Graves about the leap forward in his cooking. He remains modest, but his evolution seems to be a matter of growing self-confidence: “I think it’s that the people who work at Jsix, and those who want to eat here, do want to see the artisanal side of cooking. And we’ve also, over time, discovered better ingredients to purchase.”
What’s his explanation for the collegiality among chefs here, compared to San Francisco? “I think people down here are really trying to make the food scene survive, as opposed to a thriving food scene where people are trying to get their names out there more. Maybe the egos down here aren’t quite as large. And when it comes down to food — it’s just food. We want to make it something momentous, and there are moments when it’s magical — but it’s just food.
“And most of us here have good relations with the local farmers, so we’re all using the same ingredients. That’s one of the most appealing parts of San Diego, that everyone is encouraging each other.” His own favorite farms include Crow’s Pass in Temecula, which also delivers produce from nearby Cunningham Farms, Peterson Greens, and Sage Creek. In addition, Amiko Gubbins, now a chef liaison at Specialty Produce, heads a division that purchases fresh produce at the farmers’ market in Santa Monica. (Then, too, farmers sometimes come in to Jsix to eat, and this can evolve into a relationship with the restaurant.)
Graves’s interest in charcuterie was sparked even before he became a chef, when as a teenager he’d eat at Oliveto in Oakland, where chef Paul Bertolli was beginning his now-famous forays into salumi. He began experimenting with doing it himself while still in San Francisco. “It’s intriguing to me. It’s something classic, a tie to the past — which is what I like about cooking as well,” he says. “And it’s one of those really cool things where you get to watch this beautiful transformation. And then a lot of it is trial and error. A lot of my chef friends around the country are into [salumi] as well, so we like trading tips, ingredients, ideas. It’s a good way of communication with everybody else. And it’s good from a cook’s point of view, because they learn what the whole animal looks like, where particular muscles come from, and they realize that not everything is a prime cut, so…what are you going to do with the rest of it?”
He sums up his approach: “I think the food that we do should be fairly simple in concept and not totally overdone. I very much believe in slow food, in doing artisanal cooking, in using interesting ingredients. Not everything has to be the ABCs we get from the produce company; we can work with less-overused flavors.”
Hotel Solamar, 616 J Street (at Sixth Avenue), downtown, 619-531-0744, jsixsandiego.com.
HOURS: Breakfast 7:00–10:30 a.m.; lunch and weekend brunch 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner Sunday–Wednesday 5:30–10:00 p.m., Thursday–Saturday to 11:00 p.m. J-Bar upstairs: 11:30 a.m.–midnight.
PRICES: Appetizers, $8–$13; “share” appetizers for two or more, $12–$24; entrées, $12–$39 (most in high $20s); desserts, $7–$10.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: California “slow food” with wild or sustainably raised and mainly local ingredients, showcased in bold, creative combinations that highlight natural flavors and from-scratch artisanal preparations. Rather pricey wine list, mainly California bottlings, with serious reserve list, plenty by the glass. Full bar. Corkage $20, often waived.
PICK HITS: Just about anything — especially roasted asparagus salad with poached egg; “simply raw” fish array; trio of house-smoked fish; Baja scallops with corn; braised short ribs with crab fondue; rib-eye with porcini aioli; special of guinea hen; strawberry panna cotta. Chef’s choices: halibut with pea risotto; lamb porterhouse with spicy lamb sausage, stuffed squash blossoms, and sheep’s milk yogurt.
NEED TO KNOW: Validated valet parking $10 at hotel porte cochere. Dinner reservations advised. Attire runs from jeans to date dresses. Not too loud. Kiddie menu includes games to play and foods unfit for grown-ups. Party rooms available. One lacto-vegetarian entrée, at least six appetizers. One vegan salad, plus seven sides (and kiddie menu PBJ). Rooftop J-Bar lounge (elevator to fourth floor) offers light food and drinks outdoors with views of Petco and E-Ville.