“Mickey Two” (Samurai Jim’s friend, not his squeeze) put out the word: James Beard award–winner and Michelin two-star New York chef Christopher Lee (currently seen in magazine ads for Swanson’s new canned stocks) was working as executive chef at the new Suite & Tender in San Diego. Even though this Christopher Lee isn’t as charismatic as the darkly brooding, same-named actor who played Dracula and Fu Manchu in England’s Hammer horror films of the ’70s, I decided to check the restaurant out ASAP. I wanted to taste Lee’s food before he, like so many celebrity chefs who’ve touched base here (Wolfgang Puck, Jimmy Boyce, Damon Gordon, et al.), discovers native San Diegan food preferences and runs for his life.
Suite & Tender is the restaurant at the new Hotel Se, just south of House of Blues. The “suite” refers to the pricey penthouse lodgings, the “tender” to the steaks. The hotel had trouble getting built and even named (it was the Setai until just before opening), but downtown construction dramas aren’t my beat — just the food, ma’am. All I knew was that early Yelp bloggers were penning raves, claiming that at last San Diego had its first world-class restaurant. (So 1500 Ocean, A.R. Valentien, Addison, Blanca, El Biz, George’s, Marine Room, Market, Mille Fleurs, etc., are all chopped liver?)
Restaurant architect Dodd Mitchell’s decor is both chic and comfortable, with lots of natural materials, chairs that are kind to your keister, banquettes that would probably feel even better, and spacious tables, all in blacks, browns, and creams, facing a putty-colored wall-size lighted relief map of downtown San Diego, with a tiny bright white bulb at the restaurant’s location, silently signifying that “You Are Here.” With brown tops and black pants, the server and busser uniforms match the furniture.
However, the restaurant’s development company (and co-owner), Société Hospitality, is based in Las Vegas, and they just couldn’t stop themselves from importing a touch of Vegas vulgarity. You’re led to your table by one of a bevy of buxom hostesses bursting out of skanky low-cut stretch mini-dresses that expose way more cleavage (and stray bits of undergarments) than any of us wanted to see. The dresses look cheap, and so do their wearers. This identity conflict between class and crass lays a heavy Hooters vibe over what should be a “fine dining” restaurant. What happens in Vegas oughta stay in Vegas.
Once seated, presto change-o, you’re back in a real restaurant. Our server, Lygia, was a paragon — sweet and warm, but neither over-friendly nor intrusive, attentive to all the fine, tiny details that can make so much difference to the pleasure you take in your meal. A real pro, one of the best any of us has encountered in San Diego or anywhere else.
When a restaurant lists its signature cocktails at the start of its menu, attention must be paid — it signals that the bartender (or “mixologist”) is a creative chef, too. We passed our drinks around as we do with plates. Steve’s “Energy” cocktail was the most exciting — a cucumber-margarita mutant spiked with spicy chili paste and lemongrass. That’s a happy wake-up call. Samurai Jim’s “Painkiller” was thrilling, too, a mix of Pusser’s rum, pineapple and orange juices, and a scooch of cream of coconut, all lightly sprinkled with nutmeg. Micky Two’s “Grace” was a pretty mix of champagne and Cointreau, with berries floating up and down on the bubbles, like a lava lamp, but it was a bit too sweet for me. My “Passion” mingled vodka, champagne, passionfruit, and a crew of extras. Also rather sweet, but fun. Later, when we got serious, we found a Chapoutier Côte du Rhône for $32, a decent buy.
The table bread consists of clover-leaf rolls, a nostalgic throwback to “nice” restaurants of my childhood (and to family dinner parties, after refrigerated ready-to-bake rolls came on the market). An amuse-bouche involved a gussied-up bit of brussels sprouts in a tablespoon.
A sense of consideration extends to the menu format: the loose pages can be slipped from their frames, while the table holds a cup full of pencils, inviting you to mark your choices directly on the pages. That means you’re free to keep the pages at hand, to consult if you need a reminder about what’s on your plate. And if you order meat, you get to choose your own steak knife from an assortment of powerful, expensive blades. I zeroed in on a handsome, hefty bone-handled Laguiole, while Samurai Jim naturally chose an all-steel Shun, and Steve and Mickey found blades equally to their liking (a Wüsthof and a Henckels, I think). Too bad they don’t let you keep them as souvenirs.
In many ways, the restaurant coddles the hang-loose California mindset. The management’s aim, says the website, is to give diners plenty of choices, regardless of standard restaurant “rules” — to allow you, at least on paper, to create your own dinner to your own tastes. As you’ll see, that’s overstating the case considerably.
One of those “diners suit themselves” features is a raw bar where you can order as little or as much as you like of any seafood on offer. (It is not cheap, however, so we didn’t indulge.) The appetizer menu, in contrast, is as restricted as a radio-station playlist — it’s a compendium of California cuisine’s top dozen hits. Restaurant developer Kelley Jones (of Société Hospitality) told a reporter that, to fine-tune the concept for Suite & Tender, he ate at 30 of the better downtown San Diego restaurants, taking notes on what was available at what prices. Perhaps he and chef Lee then devised the menu by making an Excel chart of all the appetizers and selecting the 12 most frequently served dishes. Your Caprese and frisée and Caesar salad variations? Yup. Your crab cakes, fried calamari, tuna tartare, fried wings, lobster bisque, and (not house-made) charcuterie plate? Yup. Oh, but one difference: instead of the ubiquitous beet salad with melted goat cheese, there’s a starter of maple syrup–glazed bacon, the sole nonstandard choice.