4204 Voltaire Street, Ocean Beach
My posse-mate Lynne, queen of the food-blog scouts, discovered Sessions Public via a detailed, positive review on Chowhound, one of the most honest and sophisticated local food boards. (Oddly enough, the blogger was reporting on a meal he’d enjoyed with the Reader’s own Barbarella. Yup, I looked at the name at the bottom, and it was her husband Dave.) “Looks interesting,” Lynne emailed. When it turned out that the menu included Nueske bacon “lollipops” and — ta-da! — tempura chicken oysters, I was sold. I adore chicken oysters (I’ll describe them later), and any restaurateur with so fine a palate and so bold a temperament as to put them on the menu was already on my good side.
As Dave’s useful posting indicates, Sessions is the first restaurant venture of owner Abel Kaase. Before opening, Abel brought in a consulting chef (obviously a good one) to develop the menu to satisfy Abel’s personal tastes and for easy execution by any food pro in his kitchen. He made sure that his wait-staff got to taste every menu item, which is an important part of training, from a diner’s point of view.
We met up with posse-newbie Ryan and were immediately seated along a comfortable, roomy banquette in the front dining room. (Poor Ryan got the chair, for the crime of gentlemanliness.) The restaurant is a long, narrow space with a small dining room, a long bar, and more tables. There’s also a single two-top on the front patio, with a view of the scenic 7-Eleven across the street, though you can peek from the porch through the left-hand front window and spy on the kitchen. The ambient music was very loud, and everybody had to raise their voices to converse, but I found the music choice amusing — neo-retro, brass-heavy post-WWII-style jive, sounding like the soundtrack to a late-’40s film-noir, a scene where a crumbling straight-arrow hero (Glenn Ford, maybe) ends up in a lowdown juke joint full of frenzied, athletic jitterbuggers. Moral doom is surely at hand.
My moral doom lay in spending an extra $28 on a round of creative cocktails, but I’ve promised myself to try and catch up with this hot new trend. Lemons of Sessions (citrus vodka, Cointreau) was dry and boozy. Caribbean Mule (two rums, ginger beer, lime) was slightly sweet, pleasant. Dark N Stormy (dark rum, ginger beer) was so sweet and mild-tasting, inexperienced drinkers may guzzle up repeats until they wake up violently hung over — maybe with fuzzy memories of drinking heavily at a juke joint. Well before the cocktails were gone, we switched to the nice, affordable wine list, with a clean, lively William Hill Central Coast Chardonnay ($22).
The menu is divided into small plates, shared plates, sandwiches, salads, and desserts, plus a few entrées. We started with small plates of blistered tomatoes, Alsatian onion tart, and Nueske bacon lollipops.
The tomatoes were red and yellow cherry tomatoes, adorned with fresh basil and garlic, served with lightly toasted baguette slices from Con Pane bakery — simple and tasty if short of sublime. The superbly satisfying Alsatian onion tart was far from the fancy-dancy custard tart popularized at Lutèce in Manhattan, but a peasant version, two small wedges of thin tart crust topped with a heap of thoroughly sweet caramelized red onions.
The bacon “lollipop” consists of three skewers of tempura-fried Nueske bacon, one of America’s greatest artisanal bacon-makers. Alongside was a powerfully spicy chile-lime dipping sauce. “I taste fish sauce in this,” said Ryan. I did too. “Nguoc manh!” I said. “A Vietnamese friend in San Francisco taught me how to say it — it rhymes with ‘Look, Mom!’” The dipping sauce was a harsher variant on nguoc cham dip, minus the latter’s sweet notes.
Among the shared plates, the astonishment was the roasted-beet salad with goat cheese, sherry vinegar, and pine-nut brittle. This took a 35-year-old cliché and revitalized it. The young, sweet beets, red and yellow, were cut into firm-tender bite-size pieces and set on a long rectangular plate, interspersed with puffs of mild, creamy cheese and a generous portion of brittle, which changed everything with its crackly brilliance — a new texture and a new and alluring taste combination.
“Chicken oysters” consist of the succulent bits of flesh (resembling much softer chicken liver) nuzzled into crevices on both sides of the spine in the lower chicken back. The oysters are swathed in tempura batter, deep-fried, and served like Buffalo wings with Frank’s hot sauce, celery sticks, and “RLL sauce,” a thick blue-cheese vinaigrette invented by the owner’s grandfather. I’m not sure tempura is the ideal way to showcase these delicate morsels (the batter tends to obscure their creamy texture), but it’s a great way to introduce them to San Diego restaurant eaters.
One of the entrées (that we didn’t try) offers duck confit in mushroom broth with udon noodles. This means there’s duck confit in the kitchen, and the summer rolls are a way to use some of it. The rolls are inch-thick cylinders cut into inch-long pieces, filled with fine-chopped romaine and julienne carrots — minced basil leaves are tucked inside, just under the softened rice-paper wrappers — served with a sweet-tangy dip. Duck shreds and bits occupy one quadrant of each circle, but some pieces have more duck than others. The main problem is that the duck confit doesn’t do much for the taste, in whatever quantity. We’ve got failed fusion-food here — the confit demands some sort of Asian glaze, tangy-sweet or salty, to bring life and contrast to the austere veggie-riot rolls.
From the sandwiches, we chose short-rib sliders and the “sausage of the week.” “This tastes a little tinny,” said Lynne of the short ribs. I didn’t taste tin, only somewhat tough meat and total boredom from yet another trendy short-rib concoction in yet another trendy slider. It was served on a nice small white roll topped with sesame seeds and included sautéed onions and one or two arugula leaves. Sliders come two to a plate; the three of us shared one plate, and after each taking a nibble, one and a half sliders remained.