741 West Washington Street, Mission Hills
When chef Amiko Gubbins left her pioneering eclectic-fusion restaurant Parallel 33 to go cook for a rock star, local foodies gasped. She finally shut Parallel 33 down permanently after taking a gig with Specialty Produce (which supplies veggies and gourmet products to local restaurants), and its physical replacement turns out to be nearly an opposite sort of restaurant. Where Parallel 33 was at the vanguard of a new trend, the Red Door is anything but “trendy,” even as it epitomizes the dominant current trend in recession-eating — looking backward. It’s what everybody seems to want right now, a neat little neighborhood restaurant serving comfort foods at comfortable prices.
Restaurateur Rick Libiran (who owns Market Street Café downtown) seems to be creating his own little “restaurant row” in the western stretch of Washington Street. He moved wine-bar/bistro Urban Bleu from Hillcrest to a block away from the new restaurant, while next to the Red Door, he just opened a miniature steakhouse and cocktail lounge called Wellington (which thumbs its nose at snooty steakeries with a price of $32 for a steak with two sides). Wellington shares the kitchen with the Red Door, and local chef Brian Johnson (fondly remembered from his stint a decade ago at Star of the Sea) presides over both.
Renovated and expanded into the surrounding space, the Red Door is larger, calmer, and more comfortable than claustrophobic, boho-chic Parallel 33. It’s not chronically noisy like its predecessor (no noticeable music track), but there’s nothing to soften the ambient sound, either: At our visit, a sextet of stentorian alpha males (business-class travelers) overrode all other conversations until they finally drank up and went home.
Posse-regulars Mark and the Lynnester live nearby and have eaten here before. Lynne’s lively mom, Mary Ann, joined us; she’s here for her annual escape from the snows of northern Michigan. Lynne had fallen in love with the Red Door’s rendition of Wedge Salad — one of those small-town “nice restaurant” shibboleths of the late ’50s, along with shrimp cocktails, clams casino, Parker House rolls, etc. Now it’s a retro fad on a rapid route to local ubiquity, soon to join fried calamari, crab cakes, and Caesar salad in the ranks of Universal Standard Appetizers. (Perhaps its secret charm is that we’ve learned that it’s sinful — unlike green or red leaf lettuces, iceberg has almost no nutrients; and that bacon — ooh, bad to the bone!) Well, having tried several other restaurant versions, I agree with Lynne — if you love the dish, this version is as good as it’s likely to get. Dressing the pale-green hulk are an outpouring of savory applewood-smoked bacon crumblings, minced and sliced ripe-enough tomato, pickled red-onion slices, and house-made croutons to swish around in the delicious buttermilk dressing. I suspect it may be addictive; I’d never wanted it before, but next day I craved more.
The showiest starter is a braise of pork cheeks in white wine and veal stock baked in a puff-pastry shell, served with onion marmalade and herbed braising jus. It’s rich and meat-sweet the way only pork is, and the delicate pastry wrapping dignifies it in the way that serious French chefs flatter “off-cuts” and offal — an outstanding Gallic bistro dish amidst the menu’s Americana. But if you eat the whole thing yourself, you’d better forsake hope of downing an entrée unless your appetite is prodigious. The trade-off may well be worth it.
Our other starters were equally generous in size and flavors. Shrimp Creole — no, nothing like that scarlet slop your mom ladled over Minute Rice — offers sweet, tender Mexican white shrimp sautéed with the authentic Creole Holy Trinity (onion, celery, green pepper — plus garlic) finished off in a thick white-wine-and-cream sauce, colored coral with semi-mild red-chili powder and other spices. (Hey, it’s not “shrimp Creole” — better, it’s more like étouffée!) The back of my palate caught a sweet-tart flavor, maybe a splash of sherry vinegar, maybe an illusion. And the whole posse fell in love with the crispy polenta wedge in the center, which tasted as if it had the same seasonings cooked into the cornmeal, though it doesn’t — it seems merely to have drunk up the vibrant sauce. Next day, the leftover shrimps tasted even sweeter at room temperature, without heat to obscure their delicate flavor.
A gutsy bowlful of tender Manila clams were garnished with finely minced chorizo, minced parsley, and a joyous horde of fine-chopped garlic in a thin white-wine tomato sauce, served with crostini. The fearlessly flavorful garnishes permeate each clam shell. It’s Carmen on a plate, the Spanish-Gypsy seductress dedicated to sensual pleasures. (Two cautions: hang on to your soft-roll table bread if you order this, because you’ll want to keep dunking up sauce after the crisp crostini are gone. And, if dating, you really must share this dish or you’ll hate each other later.)
These starters, shared among a foursome, were more than enough for dinner. And the atmosphere (along with the wine list) seems to encourage grazing dinners among friends. For a sextet, you could add the crab cakes or spinach-artichoke dip or perhaps try the “artisan salumi plate” of selections made by local craftsman Ray Knight, with cured meats, cheeses, olives, and crostini. Food costs for a grazing meal will average about $12 apiece. (The clams may recall Carmen, but the prices bespeak La Boheme.)
The adventurous wine list inclines toward carefree experimentation, with not merely full glasses for most selections, but half-glasses to taste. With Mark in the posse, I chose a bottle of Sauvignon from his home country, Suisun Valley, called Picnique PQ ($22), supposedly tasting like the orange-lemon-lime fusion of Starbursts (whatever those are). It was pleasant but no star- or sunburst, merely fun. Plenty of better whites on this list (including, in the same price range, a Chilean Chardonnay, an Argentine Torrontes, and — a bit pricier — a white Bordeaux, plus something I missed entirely, a Monterey “Grigio e Bianco” mystery-quaff the menu calls “exotic”). A better guess for our meaty second course (no foolin’ around desired) was a Château de Montfaucon Côte Du Rhone ’06 ($30), medium-bodied but mouth-filling, complex, sunshiny. Rhones are still miraculously underpriced, easy-drinking dinner wines that are perfect with meaty comfort food. “This wine is really our best main dish,” said Mary Ann.