Oh, boy, has Paris Hilton ever left the building! Khloe Kardashian (as they say in N’awlins, “Who dat?”) may or may not show up at the Ivy Hotel’s nightclub, Envy, but Quarter Kitchen’s celeb hangout era is so over.
Restaurateur Michael Kelly had a glorious glitzy vision that came true for a few months here — and then didn’t. That is, now it’s one more sleek hotel dining room with lowered ambitions and relatively affordable prices for the recessional holiday and weeknight delectations of local diners. After hotshot English opening chef Damon Gordon fled (don’t they all?), in came local favorite Nathan Coulon, formerly of Modus (scion of the Belgian Lion OB restaurant family, son of La Jolla fine pâtissière Michele Coulon). Bargain early-bird dinners appeared; other prices came down. Most of my posse regulars have already eaten here several times, drawn by Coulon’s signature succulent braised short ribs.
I ate at Quarter Kitchen shortly after the opening, but neither my friend Sam nor I had tried its post-glam incarnation yet when, finding ourselves lone and lorn on T-Day, we headed out for an affordable turkey dinner. The opener was divine: chestnut cream soup with tender-crisp fried sweetbreads on the side, to use as “croutons.” One of the most sensual things I’ve sampled all year, this soup deserves a regular place on the winter menu. The “holiday plate” of turkey roulades, stuffing, mash, et al. — nice, merely nice.
The soup was an inducement to return for a regular dinner, a reminder of how good Coulon can be when he lets loose. I invited another pair of Quarter neophytes, Deborah and Debbie, behind-the-scenes movers and shakers at Cygnet Theatre. (Regular readers may recall that Cygnet auctioned me off for a benefit last spring: “Oh Tempura, Oh Morels,” 7/8/09.)
I meant to concentrate on the “Fashionably Early” $30 three-course prix fixe but also had a coupon for a free entrée with another entrée at full price, and of course the half-price deals on bottled wines before 7:00 p.m. (Sunday–Thursday) played a major role in deciding our dinner hours. But when Sam tried to reserve for 6:30, the management wouldn’t let him rez until 7:00. (Wonder what that’s all about?) We showed up at 6:30 anyway and were promptly seated by a beautifully garbed hostess in the near-empty dining room.
That night, there came into that hostelry full nine and twenty from some company (or if not precisely 29, maybe 26 or 28 but noisy enough for 30). Maybe a software-company party, since the men all wore wrinkled cotton shirts and mainly khaki slacks, with the few women in either corporate-dress or skanky-glam. Despite the unpopulated hinterlands, where they could easily have been segregated from smaller groups of diners (including some fun seats near the kitchen, where they could have watched the chefs at work), they were put right next to us — a second strike against the way this room is managed. They probably had a pre-arranged menu, but still they were a direct danger to our dinner, as well as our enjoyment of it. “We’d better get our orders in fast,” said Sam, “before these guys monopolize the wait-staff and the kitchen. The half-price wine discount expires in 16 minutes, along with the prix fixe.”
Mission accomplished. From the “early” menu we chose the lobster bisque and the aged French goat-cheese appetizer over a brioche crust. (The third starter is plain green salad, a masochist’s pick at any restaurant.) The bisque proved light and thin, with little cream and only a hint of lobster flavor — not unpleasant but lacking in both identity and lavishness.
The goat cheese, served not quite hot, was lean and near-dry over a desiccated hard crust that resembled not an airy brioche but a day-old Georgia drop-biscuit, with a bare bit of moisture alongside from tapenade and oven-dried tomatoes. Time hardens all breads; microwaves stiffen all yeast doughs. (I assume any big hotel kitchen must be nuker-armed.) Was our tartlet ruthlessly zapped — or was it just born too soon and warmed too late?
For the à la carte starters I tiptoed into luxury (skipping, of course, the cook-it-yourself Kobe strips requiring a minimal investment of $75 — bah, humbug!). The enduring signature of the original English chef is caviar “tacos,” five ultra-crisp wafer-thin shells of Yukon Gold potato slices cradling horseradish crème fraîche, parsley, and top-notch paddlefish caviar ($30, or $125 with Iranian Osetra). I’ve been haunted by longings for a second sampling ever since I tried it two years ago. But it’s changed. I still love the combination, but now there’s so much less roe, you can barely taste it in the mix. (I verified the changed proportion by checking my review from two years ago.) Cutting the caviar, the balance is upset, the unforgettable reduced to a cute cocktail-party snack.
Ordering the Coastal Waters Tower ($50 for “small,” up to $125 for “large”), I hoped for something like the brilliant seafood assiette I’d enjoyed at the Gaslamp’s Royale Brasserie, before that restaurant turned into the current Lou and Mickey’s and lost its soul. The “small” was huge but lesser. Over a pile of ice, it held six East-West oysters (three briny Atlantic Malpeques, three near-sweet Pacific Kumamotos), jumbo Mexican shrimps, raw hamachi slices, and ample quantities of cracked King crab legs and the best parts (claws and tailmeat) of a whole Maine lobster, topped by the lobster’s upper shell. Alongside were lemons and four dips: mignonette, fresh housemade cocktail sauce (with coarse-chopped tomatoes), something called “tarragon aioli” that was a dense but civilized tartar sauce (with no nasty pickly stuff), and a soy-scallion mixture accompanied by a tiny spoonful of grated horseradish.
For such an extravagant array to sell for $50, there had to be a catch — and not just the daily catch. The oysters, hamachi, King crab (nearly always flash-frozen on shipboard in Alaska) were all fine, but the jumbo Gulf shrimps (so stunningly sweet at Vela a few weeks ago) were overcooked neutral nothings. And the near-tasteless lobster seemed to have all the buttery life chilled out of it. (Next day, served cool from the doggie bag, rather than frigid, the texture was softer and richer, but only the coral fingertips of the claw meat held true, deep lobster flavor.)