795 J Street, Downtown San Diego
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
Of all the gastropubs opening this year, Proper Gastro Pub seems to have the most extensive and ambitious menu, along with an especially rich selection of English pub-food classics, jiggered by chef Sean Magee into, well, something better than most British pub-grub. It’s a spin-off from Wine Steals and occupies the adjoining premises. I’ve been waiting months to try it, until the Padres were done for the year, so as to secure easy parking, because the pub is on a pedestrian alley next door to Petco. (See “Need to Know” for directions — you will need them.)
Proper is in a heritage building (erected 1912) and much care has gone into making its interior look both pubby and old-timey American, with dark wood on floors, chair-backs, booth-backs, tables, and the heavy wooden framework around the open kitchen’s window to the world, which faces a bar with a black-and-white mini-tiled floor and tall, bar-table dinner seating. The
dining room, windowed on two sides, offers three massive, magnificent raised booths of pincushion brown leather with large round tables. At the regular tables, the chairs have black leather cushions on backs and seats; utensils are wrapped in black linen napkins. The staffers exude sheer niceness.
Alas, there are several huge flat-screen TVs, and on Monday “Football Night” they were blasting out a Jets game, albeit not loudly enough (at our table) to drown out conversation. Unless you’re really interested in the game, you’re better off choosing any other night because Football Night is the opposite of Foodie Night — the chef hasn’t yet done his weekly or semi-weekly shopping at the fishmongers’ for the night’s seafood special, or for fresh organic produce at Suzie’s Farm, near Imperial Beach. To my severe disappointment, all the roasted bone marrows had been consumed over the weekend.
I arrived first of my posse that evening, and while waiting, amused myself with a sample of the mixologist’s magic, a frothy, lightly tangy Pear-Fect Fizz ($7). There’s a lot of fun on the specialty cocktail list, ranging from the 1840 Pimm’s Cup, the 1860 New Orleans Sazerac, the 1901 Floradora, to new inventions by bartender Rich Easter.
I had just finished my lovely quaff when Ben, Lynne, and Ryan all filtered in within a few minutes of each other. It was still happy hour, so the dudes enjoyed half-price craft beers and Lynne went for a glass of Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc, which I liked enough to buy a screw-top bottle ($19) of to start off our grazing orgy. Later, moving to the heavier dishes, a Jardin Côtes du Rhône ($18) was smooth, food-friendly, unpretentious, a right red for gastropub grub.
A half-size “cheese and fruit board” held a cornucopia of mainly unseasonal fresh fruits that would make militant locovores cry “Anathema!” — small, seedless red grapes, strawberries, chunks of melon and pineapple along with orange and apple slices and golden raisins, plus bread and lavash. The cheeses — brie, bleu, gouda, havarti, Swiss — were plebeian, supermarket quality rather than artisanal. These choices are not what you’d get in those idealized English pubs planted in my brain by Reginald Hill’s brilliant British policier series, where copper “Fat Andy” Dalziel gobbles ploughman’s lunches on the fly in Yorkshire, enjoying cheeses that are as richly flavored and staunchly regional as his character is.
Next listing on the menu is “local mussels” (i.e., Carlsbad-farmed), which come in three versions: cooked in Guinness stout, Belgian style, or with Danish bleu cheese and bacon. We chose the version cooked in Belgian beer with roasted corn in a creamy pink sauce colored by oven-dried tomato. It was pretty good. (It was also served in a cramped small bowl, with a larger ceramic bowl for shells — Ryan quickly solved the problem, upending the mussels into the shell bowl so we could enjoy them and their sauce.)
For the “bites” and “small plates,” I’ll describe them in order of pleasure, the best three first. Piquillo peppers (skinned, lightly smoked mild chiles) are a staple of Spanish tapas, with a full flavor and sensuous mouth feel. Here, they’re stuffed with ungreasy Spanish-style chopped chorizo, black beans, and creamed corn, the plate filled out with baby spinach, Kalamata gelée, and cilantro purée. This may sound heavy, but the stuffing proved light and mousselike, the composition of flavors fascinating.
Crispy cocoa pork belly is spectacular, all the more so for pub grub, offering a complex array of complementary flavors in one small dish. It combines tender pork with a crisp surface, flavored by cocoa dust that lends a subtle chocolate flavor, accompanied by a small, delicious portion of cavolo nero, an Italian dark-colored kale, and an airy pouf of coffee crème mousse, with a sweet sauce of reduced pork juices and black currants. Whoo-hoo!
We also loved the pork cheek “lasagna” of braised pork cheek with interesting mushrooms, roasted garlic, baby spinach, and more, topped with a few desultory, excessively al dente pasta pieces, with a hard cider and pork jus reduction.
These three dishes are triumphs of the gastropub over the everyday pub, an array of ingredients working together to create fulfilling, intriguing flavors. In some other grazes, though, ingredients trip over each other’s feet. A tiny “terroir tartlet” of mushrooms and herbed cheddar was terrorized by a haystack of wild arugula and balsamic dressing under which the tart was buried. Marinated grilled artichoke had a good aioli dip well hidden under a salad, and a sharp, unadvertised second sauce (horseradish?) similarly concealed. I really like food better when I can actually find it.
A stack of diced raw ahi with steamed edamame over ultra-sweet pickled cucumber slices, proved a do-it-yourself number, with a fierce wasabi sauce and spicy hoisin sauce on the side, and a topping of delightful fried wonton skins. It’s up to the diner to discover that the sharp blasts of wasabi and hoisin aren’t casual garnishes, but necessary flavor components. Without one or both, the other elements are sickly sweet. Sorry, I don’t want to excavate ingredients that complete the flavor — chefs are supposed to do that.