7510 Hazard Center Drive, Mission Valley
Food can be a deeply political issue, but in this case it’s the merely skin-deep question of the restaurant’s name that’s bugging me. (Didn’t Shakespeare say, “A grill by any other name would smell as yummy”? I’m writing 100 times on the blackboard: “Do not judge a restaurant by its title.”) The phrase “all American” ought to imply a roster of the country’s top athletes, but the badge of patriotism has been flaunted by politicians turning “all American” into code for “If you’re against me, you hate your country.” When I was a little kid, drunken demagogue Joe McCarthy accused President Eisenhower and the U.S. Army of being “pinkos.” Plenty more of that on your TV and radio. That sort of patriotism hurts.
But, okay — change, hope, all that, the world’s most beautiful Bill of Rights and Constitution and amazing scenery sea to shining sea, and We the People just won the Nobel for voting with poet Maya Angelou’s cogent prayer: “Let America be America again.” So, let’s go, chef Timothy Au — let’s see what you can do with your American ingredients out on your all-American wood-fired range!
I loved Au’s work at Molly’s at the downtown Marriott (before the restaurant was replaced by the more profitable celeb-chef chain Roy’s). Finding Tim “Au-some” at the stove again was a kick (although his name’s actually pronounced more like “ow”). A Chinese-American chef trained in French culinary technique — that’s a union of the greatest cuisines on the globe. Nearly three years later, I still cherish the memories. I hope that eventually he’ll put his vibrant ceviche on the menu here, call it by its all-American Hawaiian name, ahi poke.
There are two ideas behind this restaurant. One is to use in-season, American-grown and -crafted ingredients to the max, local-sourced when possible. The other is, in a former Trophy’s space, to create a revolutionary new phenomenon — would you believe a sports pub with seriously good food?
Much of the giant, suburb-shiny space is filled with tight four-top booths (better fitted to gymnasts than to linebackers or channel-surfers), presided over on high by numerous muted TVs tuned to sports — of course. (On Sunday game-days, the sound is turned on.) A patio out back offers al fresco dining, but that night’s weather was too brisk to consider it. A remarkably inclusive variety of fellow diners included old couples, old singles, collegian daters, young families with babies on board — every race, age, type, size, all of today’s Americans. And nearly all seemed to share a benign good mood the evening I ate there — the new food was evidently working its magic.
The first task of owner Mark Oliver and chef Au, in both the kitchen and dining room, was to retrain a staff largely inherited from Trophy’s. Our delightful waitress was a new hire, but she’d eaten at Trophy’s before the handover. “The turnaround in the food is amazing,” she said. Those kitchen and service staffers who couldn’t or wouldn’t convert to the new regime of quality were being replaced, she confided. The process is ongoing, so this review may be a trifle premature, but after waiting years for Au to resurface, I was chomping at the bit.
The specialty cocktails are creative but affordable, about the same price as a glass of ordinary wine, and they’re mainly made with American booze, good liqueurs, and fresh fruit juices, rather than cheap bar mixes or “simple syrup” (sugar-water). You can instantly perceive the difference in the “All American Margarita,” which is bright, lively, with just-right tartness from fresh lime and Triple Sec orange-peel liqueur. There was no hint of the bland high-fructose corn syrup sweetness of the carb-loaded big-brand mixes. Lynne’s sprightly Pomegranate Lemonade (citrus vodka, fresh pom juice, fresh-squeezed lemon, etc.) was a hit, too. Ben’s Bloody Mary, which comes Midwest-style with a beer back, was vibrant and spicy. (Designated driver Mark was the sole taster of his iced tea, so I can’t comment on its gourmet qualities.)
The menu is flexible, with dishes of every size for every preference and price. It evokes a lower-caste version of the bill of fare at the jam-packed new Cucina Urbana. (As we were nibbling a great pizza at AA, the Lynnester boiled over about the impossibility of getting into CU anymore. The voice-mail reservation line is nearly always too full for more messages, and you could starve waiting for an unreserved chair at the bar or the communal table.) Neither the food nor the atmosphere is as flamboyantly hip and “sceney” as CU, but the chef’s concepts are slyly sophisticated, and the space is an easygoing, affordable potential hangout if you’re not measuring your hipness quotient by the restaurant’s decor.
The first thing I noticed about the menu was that numerous seasonal dishes (e.g., those involving fresh corn) listed on the website menu were absent from the printed bill of fare — evidently Au is taking seasonality seriously. The killer starter, which can serve as an entrée, was a dinner plate–sized wood-oven–roasted individual pizza with a light, puffy crust. Our unsauced “Wine Country” version was topped with mild, lush goat cheese, a generous count of thick prosciutto slices, fresh black Mission figs and seedless red grapes, and (strewn on after heating) a heap of crisp arugula. Ben doesn’t love goat cheese, Mark doesn’t love figs, I’m not mad for red grapes, and all of us went ape for this exhilarating combination on a craftsmanly crust.
A substantial heap of Carlsbad mussels, local and hence ultra-fresh, were quick-roasted (not steamed), turning their shells dark and crackly and permeating their meats with the flavor of the garlic butter in the bottom of the roasting dish. “So-o-o good,” said Lynne, “but I wish there were some bread to soak up that slick of sauce underneath.” “Yeah, garlic bread!” said one of the guys. (You get no table bread.) Well, per the menu, Parmesan garlic bread is supposed to come with this dish — somehow omitted. (Yup, staff needs more training.) It was a treat, even so, generous enough to make an entrée for a singleton. In fact, a shared pizza and the mussels (or another starter) and a small salad or a six-buck dessert would furnish a substantial and delicious dinner for two for under $30 (plus drinks, tip, etc.).