660 K Street, Downtown San Diego
Oh, so embarrassing! I’ve known for a long time that Soleil @ K had changed chefs (the opening chef moved on to another local restaurant), but it took an abominable snow job by Wolfgang Verkaaik (restaurant-ad manager and soi-disant “food critic” for the daily paper) to spur me to action. Last fall, chef Eddie Fincher arrived from the Grand Hotel and the Del Mar Country Club, and his menu claims to focus on natural proteins and local produce. Well, these may be near clichés of the new San Diego cuisine, but, hey, they’re a lot better than old SD cuisine — or even the spotty cooking I ate when I reviewed the restaurant shortly after its opening. Sweetening the pot, current offerings include a three-course prix fixe (no choices) for $30. Little as I trust Verkaaik (whose culinary literacy displays itself in at least one misspelled dish nearly every column), I thought I’d give Soleil a shot.
Turns out, yet another downtown hotel restaurant is coming through with fine ingredients, intelligent preparations, and sensitive, expert cooking. The guys in this kitchen are all obviously seasoned pros. How rare is that?
The dining room is chic, with a glassed-in open kitchen visible through an inner wall and walls of windows facing the street. There are a few leather(ette?) booths sized for two or three, but it’s mainly tables and punishing chairs with hard, lacquered woven-rush seats. (Oddly, the patio chairs have cushions over those seats.) In the center are two long wooden communal tables, for parties or, presumably, singles willing to party with strangers. That Thursday night, about half the seats were occupied, but the noise level was minimal, even with a large family group in the middle of the restaurant, including a few exuberant kiddies.
The cocktail list is heavy on martini and cosmo variations, but I’m not a cosmo gal. While posse regular Samurai Jim and I awaited his squeeze Michelle and singer-songwriter “Emmy” (real name, M.E.), he tried a mojito and I sipped a “perfect” margarita. Both were too sweet. Odds are, the mixologist creativity center is upstairs at the rooftop Altitude Lounge.
The slightly stale bread (from La Vache Bakery) resembled Solunto’s heavy white Italian loaves, served with balsamic vinegar and a superb old-gold extra-virgin olive oil — nutty and flavorful (an Italian brand called First Cold Press Supreme, and good luck finding that at Vons).
The starter on the prix fixe was a mound of smoked-salmon shreds sprinkled with chopped chives, accompanied by shredded mild cheese and chopped raw sweet onions served on the side, along with a heap of pita triangles. Not mind-blowing but tasty — that traditional Eastern European onion garnish was the key.
The dinner’s first sensational dish (of two) was tempura lobster. Since there’s no lobster entrée on the menu (and fearing more awful “knuckle-meat”), I inquired about its ancestry before ordering: It’s cold-water lobster from Canada. The lightly battered crustacean meat proved tender, seductive, and generously garnished with creamy-gooey wild-mushroom risotto enriched with truffle butter. This substance, tasting exactly like the high-priced spread made by New York’s great D’Artagnan French food emporium, was loaded with genuine truffle flavor, the very stuff that drives Périgord’s truffle-snuffling pigs (and yours truly) wild with desire. “I would rather eat one appetizer portion of this for $18 than a whole dinner at Tom Ham’s,” said Jim (who’d been on the latter excursion). “It’s big enough for a small entrée and flavorful enough for a whole dinner’s worth of entrées.”
Now, I wished I’d gambled on the lobster cream soup with lobster dumplings — no such thing as too much lobster, if it’s good lobster. Instead, I’d hedged my bets with bouillabaisse — a tomatoey broth filled with slices of mahi, bass, salmon, scallops, and shrimp, none overcooked. A thick slab of lightly toasted bread (no discernible rouille, alas, merely a waft of red pepper) lounged at the rim of the pool, dangling its ankles in the liquid. It wants to be pushed in and dunked; it won’t squeal. Not a great bouillabaisse — short on fennel flavor, saffron, and shellfish — but mildly pleasing as a starter.
The kitchen includes a wood-burning oven, and about a third of the starter choices consist of artisan flatbreads (think pita) with various interesting toppings. That evening’s special featured pesto, mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, mozzarella, Parmesan, and Italian sweet sausage — hey, a mini-pizza! The sausage was the spoiler: neither sweet Sicilian fennel sausage nor Neapolitan hot sausage, as I’d hoped, but some bland thing cut in rectangular slices that looked and tasted like gyro meat. There are better topping choices, such as heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. Or turn to the plethora of imaginative salads.
Starter portions (along with entrées) are generously sized for sharing. Jim was by now set on bringing his boss here for an appetizer-grazing meal, which might include filling choices such as a rib stack, lamb lollipops, or duck-confit spring rolls.
The wine list is odd. There’s top-shelf supermarket favorite Edna Valley Chardonnay (regularly $10, retail) selling for $36, and Clos du Bois Chard ($9 a bottle at supermarkets) selling for $9 per glass, even if they’re both three years old (BFD). But you’ll find loads of these familiar bottlings running about $36 here, plus a few “special occasion” aged reds and bubblies priced a great deal higher. Our St. Supéry Sauvignon was crisp, clean, swell with the starters; the Bridlewood Syrah for the entrées was mellow and user-friendly but shallow for a Rhone grape. Give me a mulligan and for a few bucks more I’d order the Wild Horse Paso Robles Merlot ($40) or the organic Raymond Reserve Merlot ($52).
The knockout entrée was the Sea Ranch grass-fed rib-eye steak ($34), a triumph of animal husbandry and cooking. Semi-coherently I’d ordered it “very rare — not actually dripping-blood-raw but really red, y’know?” Charming waitress Ashley relayed this to the kitchen, and the cook seemed to read my mind. The steak was thin but flawless, well seared outside and rich red inside, and the soulful flavor of grass-fed meat took it to a different realm from just more boring beef. Here was an atavistic thrill rarely encountered in these days of Cryovac-aged, corn-fed couch-potato cattle — pure, deep beef flavor. I almost wanted to kiss the cook and the rancher who raised the animal, and even smack a big wet one on the steer himself, but for the fact that his canoodling days were done. The red-wine reduction sauce reemphasized the intense flavor. Garnishes included fried leeks and a cake of creamy au gratin potatoes, plus a few baby carrots and broccoli. The table talk turned to how most steakhouses are overpriced disappointments, compared. “This just wipes out the beef at Ruth’s Chris,” said Michelle.