The Curse of Samurai Jim struck again — third time in a row. We were heading for a new Caribbean place in the Gaslamp, but when we called for a res, the phones were disconnected. Restaurants are a risky business. Zip, off we headed for the month-old Crescent Heights, still so new I meant to wait another month. But again the Jinx of Jim proved lucky after all. The Caribbean place would have been cheaper, but it couldn’t possibly have been better.
Many of the personnel at Crescent Heights are veterans of Wolfgang Puck’s Spago Beverly Hills, where chef-owner David McIntyre fell so madly in love with Chino Farms vegetables (according to restaurant manager Mark Wheadon, who stopped by our table to chat) that he determined to relocate to San Diego to be closer to his Mecca. (Actually, David and his wife/restaurant partner just liked our laid-back lifestyle better than L.A., but Mark tells a good story.) Now David lives in the Santaluz area and stops at nearby Chino regularly on his way to work. A few other local farms also contribute, along with a specialty wild-mushroom grower in Washington state.
The spacious, comfortable restaurant features walnut paneling, amber lighting, a “wall of wine” with 1700 gleaming bottles, and plenty of sound baffles on the ceiling to keep the noise to a minimum. Behind a divider wall is the bar and lounge, with large, handsome red sofas and a view of the 1500-square-foot glassed-in kitchen (which will have space for catering in the future). The wall keeps the bar babble down to a quiet background sound in the dining room.
The hospitable touches start immediately with the bread and butter. The bread — onion, sourdough baguette, and the incomparable olive bread — is from Bread & Cie, and the ramekin of butter is at spreadable room temperature, sprinkled with delicious coarse sea salt. A class act to start your dinner.
We began with a salad of Chino Farms beets and mozzarella, dressed with 25-year-aged balsamic vinegar and pistou (the French version of pesto, sans pine nuts). A wondrous heap of Burrata (mozzarella so young and creamy it’s not yet fully solidified) sprawled sensually on the plate like Manet’s “Olympia” on her divan, surrounded by delicate, intensely sweet quarters of small golden beets (milder than red ones), cherry tomatoes, roasted peppers, and sheets of silky, salty Prosciutto di Parma. I found myself humming, “These are a few of my favorite things” — so many great flavors in one dish, including the resiny sweetness of the balsamic.
Prime steak tartare offers top-quality raw beef, chopped as it should be (not ground), mixed with seasonings, including mayonnaise, parsley, shallots, and minced chives. It comes with ramekins of coarse-ground Dijon mustard and horseradish-cream sauce, with toasted baguette slices for spreading. This was the favorite of “Yoda,” Jim’s business mentor and partner, a mellow, silver-haired charmer newly inducted into the eating posse. (Doesn’t look a bit like Yoda, Jim only dubbed him that for his computer savvy.)
Bouchet mussels arrived in a heavy black ceramic casserole, très South of France. The black Atlantic mussels sat over a rich, reddish sauce (the menu calls it “saffron beurre blanc,” but it was more liquid than butter) punctuated with bits of roasted garlic, tomatoes, and chorizo, with more baguette toast on the side for dipping. Dipping was the best part, to catch all the goodies in the sauce. The mussels weren’t quite as exquisite as our home-grown Carlsbad mussels (the chef, new to town, didn’t know about them until we talked), and I regret the menu misnomer about the sauce, as it led me to expect a satiny butter bath, rather than this tasty but more conventional treatment of the bivalves.
Another Jim-jinx struck for the third time — we were stood up once more by our friend the chef-turned-realtor. (Had to show a house, he said.) So, reduced to a mere threesome, we had to skip the vegetable and lentil soup with duck confit and chanterelle mushrooms. Hated to miss a chance at chanterelles. (They’re also on the halibut entrée and part of the sautéed mushrooms side dish.) There’s also an ahi tuna tartare distinguished by jalapeño-ginger aioli, and “The Crescent Heights Salad,” a version of the classic French bistro frisée salad, with poached egg, confit bacon, and fingerling potatoes, plus an autumn squash soup with apples and cranberries, and lots more — it’s one of those menus where you really want to try everything.
With some menus, I order by the best-sounding proteins. Here, I ordered according to which vegetable garnishes sounded most enticing. We’re now in the harvest season of slow-growing roots, and a good chef can turn these non-glam autumnal veggies into the kindest of comfort foods. The menu changes frequently with the seasons, to include only the freshest produce and seafood. “We don’t even have a walk-in freezer,” our skillful waitress Eva told us in her lilting Slovakian accent. (How swell to encounter such cheerful professional service in San Diego, land of spaced-out “I’d rather be surfing” servers. Staff were trained properly at a series of gala “VIP-style” dinners the chefs cooked for them, so they could taste all the dishes — and lots of the wines.)
The newest menu addition is a pan-roasted Muscovy duck breast, its perfectly cooked if somewhat sinewy pink meat plated over an earthy vegetable assortment. Under the duck slices is a parsnip purée of startling sweetness, and surrounding them is a mélange of chopped butternut squash, rutabaga, and Hen of the Woods mushrooms. Yes, a good cook can make even rutabaga as sexy as Madonna. Surrounding them all is a sauce of herbed, reduced duck stock that echoes and intensifies the natural flavors rather than disguising them.
Second-newest dish is sautéed wild striped bass, and in an attempt to avoid rhapsodic hyperbole, I’ll just say that this is the first time this particular fish has ever thoroughly captured me, thanks to a rigorously crisped skin over very tender flesh. (We left the plate so clean it barely needed washing.) Once again the crowning touch was the vegetable bed — an enchanting Jerusalem artichoke purée, made from a sweet-nutty root (aka girasoles, or “sunchokes”) of a species closely related to sunflowers. (Voice of experience: Bury a few roots, even from a grocery, in a fertile spot in your garden in March, and six months later you’ll have 70–80 pounds of roots anchoring seven-foot-tall flowering stalks — and any root-bit you miss at harvest will come back to re-enact this not-always-welcome miracle next year.) Small Jerusalem artichokes, cipollini onions, and baby carrots in butter completed the array.
[June 2009 Editor's Note: Crescent Heights Kitchen & Lounge has since closed.]