611 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego
Searsucker’s chef Brian Malarkey became a celeb when he got to the finals on one of those TV chef contests. He didn’t win, but his roguish style and outgoing personality made him famous. At the time, he headed the kitchen at Oceanaire, the Gaslamp branch of a high-end seafood chain. I liked his crab cake and the oyster bar and the simplest fish but wasn’t much impressed with his fancier “creative” seafood dishes. (I remember especially disliking the laughably inauthentic “Cajun-rubbed shrimp,” which brought to mind the image: “Eh, Fontenot! C’mere, let me rub these shrimp on you.”)
At Searsucker, partnering with nightclub entrepreneur James (Stingaree) Brennan, he gets to show what else he can do when he’s free to be Malarkey. An email from a trusted, good-palate reader recommending the restaurant (“much better than Oceanaire”) inspired a visit.
Designed by Thomas Schoos, it’s a vast space with numerous subregions — a big bar, of course, but also a central lounge where people can sit on couches to eat. (Reserving for an early hour might help you score one of these.) The large-table party spaces have comfortable padded chairs. Regular diners at four-tops are consigned to hard, small, wooden chairs that will make your tushie sore during a long meal. The open kitchen is genuinely open, not glassed-in, and includes stools to sit on by the “open window” and schmooze with the chefs. (Sit there, and Malarkey may even give you a taste of a new dish he’s working on.) One pre-opening report claimed there’d be a 60-seat patio, but all I saw were two little tables in front.
One blogger has described the overall look as resembling a country inn, but once the lights go down, it’s closer to a sports pub (minus the TVs) — neutral colors, and music blasting at such high volume, it kills conversation. “I think this must be the loudest place since Region,” said my buddy Samurai Jim. “If they just lowered the sound by a quarter or a third,” said our friend Fred, “this could be a much more pleasant place to eat. And — what’s that awful music? The place sounds like a disco!” Now, I may be a crotchety old Boomer, but Jim and Fred are both Gen-X, so if they think it’s too loud — it’s too loud.
Nonetheless, the place was booming both literally and metaphorically on a Thursday night, with a full range of fashions on display, ranging from Yumans in shorts on up to club kids in soft-core porn dresses, but mainly that midrange of casual “restaurant clothes.” The scene and the famous chef are part of the draw — but so is the food. It is, indeed, much better than Malarkey’s work at Oceanaire.
First, a basket of devastating little rolls — crisp outside, soft and eggy inside, like brioche, and startlingly salty. (Quick, grab a cocktail!) We began with “fennel ribs” from the “Bites” menu section — tempura-battered fennel stalks with a pale-green dip of revisionist aioli flavored with something sharp and a little sour (maybe it’s yogurt, not aioli). “Mushrooms, truffles, and burrata” exceeded my expectations; although I didn’t see anything like fresh truffles, the array included several varieties of Asian mushrooms, not all of them easily identified, topped by a glorious melting blob of gooey burrata cheese.
“Carb-free crab cake” was a mound of flavorful crab flakes with no starch filler or coating — more a salad than a cake, but with a slightly glutinous texture from the binding sauce. A caprese of mozzarella, basil, prosciutto and arugula was surprisingly unexciting. And the “marrow bone” (in the singular) with sea salt and peach had much chopped peach on top, very little marrow inside the single large segment of bone. We ordered two to make sure all three of us got at least a taste of marrow (not enough). Jim’s beautiful blonde housemate, Ginger the Wonder Dog, would have a truly happy night later on with her doggie bag of emptied-out bones. Ginge was the lucky one. When dinner was done we asked our waiter for our half-eaten entrées to be boxed up, too. It didn’t happen. (Somewhere in heaven my mother is wailing, “Throwing away good food! Think of the starving children of Africa!”)
Fred had car trouble and arrived late, so while we were waiting, Jim and I tried a couple of the cocktails, produced by a mixology team called Snake Oil — for me, Lullaby, with premium vodka and rosewater (reminiscent of a great prosecco cocktail at the late Bite, but harsher, boozier), and for Jim, Treaty of Paris, which I tasted and promptly forgot. It was (as it usually is for me) a great relief to move on to wine, a Marilyn Remark meritage of white Rhône grapes (Viognier, Marsanne, Rousanne) from Monterey. It was rich, lively, totally right for the food. (The Faury Northern Rhône for the main courses disappointed me; it was rougher than I wanted, okay for beef cheeks, harsh for duck. Alas, the only Merlot on the list cost a big fat hundred bucks. The Pinots were pretty steep, too — the one I liked was $95. Ditto the Grenaches. I should have gambled on a Rioja Tempranillo, I guess — one of the few reds I could afford aside from some Malbecs and unknown Sangioveses.)
Scallops Baja are named for their origin: they’re large, thick, succulent manos de león (lions’ paws) from the Ensenada region. While not as delicate as Atlantic sea scallops, they arrive here fresher and no less delicious, if in a different way. Here, they’re garnished with foie gras — a teeny-weeny itsy-bitsy bit of it at the edge of the plate — and figs, in excess, both as a thick sweet sauce and as a few small pieces of fruit. The scallops themselves were cooked perfectly. “Medium-rare okay?” the waiter had asked, and met with resounding assent.
Duck was another triumph of perfect cooking, if not saucing. The portion included sautéed breast, served as we specified, not medium-rare but slightly rarer, and leg confit. “This is the tenderest duck I’ve ever tasted,” said Fred. “Yeah, it’s usually sort of dried out, but this isn’t,” said Jim. The only flaw (as with the scallops) was too heavy a sauce. The “pomegranate with pistachios” specified on the menu wasn’t merely the promised light gastrique but a thick reduction. The dish was evidently inspired by Persia’s great fesenjan, duck with pomegranate sauce and walnuts, but this is very much a Yankee version, with its blatant sweetness overpowering the tart natural flavors of the pom.