Cabernet-braised, balsamic-glazed short ribs were tender, too, but oddly dim in flavor — which goes against the grain, since this is usually a meaty-tasting cut, and the Cabernet and balsamic should have deepened its allure. Instead, this rendition seemed more like Mom’s, if Mom had bought the short ribs only because they were on sale.
The house specialty (fittingly enough, given the Log Cabin food ethos) is old-fashioned prime rib roast beef, for a bargain price of $23 — a rarity on current restaurant menus, and usually much more costly if you do find it. It’s the most popular dish of all with the regulars at the Inn. Back in December or wet January, we’d probably have jumped on it in a New York minute.
Instead, I quizzed the waiter and learned that the grade of the roast beef is middling choice — a necessary compromise to keep the price reasonable. Jim and Jonathan asked me what the question was all about, so I figure you might also like to know: prime rib is a cut of meat (the center rib roast), whereas USDA Prime is a grade — so “prime” has two very different meanings. The USDA meat grades are determined according to how much fat-marbling there is in the meat — the fat makes it tender and adds deep meat flavor (what the Japanese call umami). Japanese Wagyu, as fatty as foie gras, can be cut with a fork. USDA Prime has the most marbling of American standard beef. Two grades lower, USDA Select is your typical supermarket beef, with little fat and a tendency toward toughness. Choice grade covers a wide range between Prime and Select — the higher realms of Choice are terrific, rivaling Prime, but lower Choice is only a bit tastier and tenderer than supermarket beef. The restaurant’s cooking method is dead-on right for middle-Choice: It’s roasted slow, low, and long at 225 degrees to emerge rare and juicy. Wish we’d ordered it — but we were more attracted to other dishes.
Desserts cover the waterfront between American comfort, Continental, and newfangled. Skipping the chocolate extravaganzas, we gravitated to the simple American blueberry crumble and the fusion-y key lime coconut crème brûlée. The crumble had a few blueberries and a whole lot of mushy granola. No, just no. The crème brûlée was highly acidic and lively with a strong lime flavor and a fine hard slick of caramelized topping. It’s a wake-up call at the end of dinner.
So, okay, the food’s nice (but for those weird glitches), if nothing to write home about. But the scene is sweeter than a hot cornet. The show tunes bring people together — the crowd around the piano sometimes singing along with classic lyrics of wonderfully jaded irony and lechery (Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart), or of romanticism so intense, it grows campy at the edges (Oscar Hammerstein, et al.). Even diners hum along when they’re not chewing. There’s nothing like it for creating a spontaneous community spirit, a fundamental harmony amid the diverse individuals in the crowd. Reminds me of Ned Kelly’s, the legendary Aussie dive piano bar in downtown Kowloon — possibly the happiest piano bar on the planet. Never tried eating there (what, with all of Hong Kong to choose from?), and I hate to imagine the Aussie-expat pub grub they may serve — Marmite on white toast? Liver spread? But you don’t go to Ned Kelly’s for cuisine, you go for a whoppin’ good time, mate, and you don’t need to be Aussie to feel welcome — they take all comers, recognizing that sentient beings want, above all, to have music, fellowship, fun. Joyous, inclusive places like these are worth cherishing for their own virtues, anywhere on earth. It’s a treat to find one right here in town.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Executive chef Anthony Wilhelm slid into his profession via a high school dishwashing job. “I was about 17, and I was working in a place in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was kind of an upscale bar-pub, and I was just very, very intrigued by the kitchen. I was intrigued by the food. I went to the culinary program at Cincinnati State University, and then I worked in La Maisonette in Cincinnati, which was the longest five-star-rated restaurant in U.S. history.
“My ex-wife was in the Navy, and that’s what brought me to San Diego. She ended up moving back to Chicago, while I stayed here, working at the Inn at the Park for about four and a half years. I was here for almost three years as a sous-chef and then was promoted to executive chef.”
I asked how bound he was to the proverbial gay taste for comfort food. “I like to take each menu progressively,” he says. “But I also have a clientele here that I have to appease. So I have to take baby steps to introduce new flavors — they like their steak and mashed potatoes and their roast beef. But I’m starting to do some special wine dinners upstairs with pretty innovative menus, although we’re still sticking mainly to the meat, the filet — but we are actually having some fun here. I spend a lot of my time upstairs doing banquets.” (Note: The hotel is a prime venue for weddings and other special occasions. Chef Anthony oversees the food at all those functions, as well as lunches at Top of the Park, often working seven days a week, 12 hours a day.)
Asked his philosophy of cuisine, he says, “I love to use the best ingredients I can afford. Farm-to-table, preferably. It’s the new hot thing. I do have a limit here as to what I can spend, being a hotel restaurant, but I love to use the freshest ingredients that I can get and put love into it.” After five years in San Diego, he has a certain yearning to move to the burgeoning food scenes of Vancouver or Seattle, but meanwhile, he’s a fan of the farm-to-table cuisine of Market Restaurant, Bianca, and the Better Half.