3925 Fifth Avenue, Unit A, Hillcrest
The Snooty Asian (3925 Fourth Avenue) showed a lot of promise during its soft opening period. Making it work in the cut-throat restaurant quarter of Hillcrest is no easy task, and Snooty has yet to garner much attention. Despite six months of operation (excepting some downtime for a remodel), the restau has received a paltry ten Yelp reviews. Yelp may be a poor way to judge a restaurant’s quality, but it certainly does a good job of indicating popularity. By that metric, the bistro with the monocled and mustached tiger logo is virtually unknown. That’s a shame, because the attractive restaurant, with its friendly and engaging staff, is a true departure from the neighborhood’s standards. It could be one of the most significant restaurants in Uptown San Diego, if the stars aligned.
Time has given Snooty some degree of organization, and the menu has gotten some structure. Dishes are divvied up into their respective countries of origin, and the menu has a wider range of fare. Prices have surprisingly come down, but there’s a clear division between salad/starter plates ($5-$9) and more substantial entrees ($9-$14).
The titular snootiness is meant to imply high standards in flavor and authenticity rather than the pomp and theater of fine dining. Because of that, most of the preparations are fairly simple, as if ripped from the home kitchens of Asian grandmothers.
Take gado-gado, for one. The salad of steamed cabbage, green beans, and sprouts is little more than a pile of toothsome vegetables. The saving grace is the sauce, a zesty variant of the sweet, ubiquitous peanut sauce for dipping spring rolls.
The delightful Hainanese chicken remains on the menu, as do the addictive garlicky rice crackers, which the kitchen sends out to diners just because.
For now, sushi is a strongpoint at Snooty. They use an extra-sticky (not gummy!), dry rice with a wonderful mouthfeel that’s fun to eat, though not as flavorful as some high-end spots. Temperature and moisture control on the fish is excellent, as are the subtleties of preparation. Buttery hamachi gets left in peace, while sweet scallops receive a light touch from the blowtorch and a dash of yuzukosho. Aji mackerel awash in (slightly too much) soy sauce gets a piece of candied ginger, fresh ginger, and scallions. The overall sushi service is very good, and relatively affordable given the quality.
Certain dishes, notably kung pao chicken, have been added to the menu in a deliberate attempt to give uncertain white people a familiar touchstone, whence they might venture forth into bolder territory.
Snooty’s biggest struggle remains getting things 100% dialed in. Consider the simple beef noodle soup, or the braised pork over rice, both Taiwanese comfort foods. While the basic flavors are there in the dishes (strong star anise flavors evoke pho broth, only deeper, while pickled mustard greens with the soup provide a vital sharpness), the exactitude in preparation isn’t.
An informed guess as to why? The restaurant isn’t busy enough and the cooks aren’t getting the practice they need, which is a bummer, because Snooty still has the potential to be a pan-Asian destination.
But, there’s the rub. San Diego already has a perfect pan-Asian destination. It’s called “Convoy Street.” Most anything on the menu at Snooty is for sale somewhere along Convoy, and probably for cheaper. Of course, a trip to Convoy takes some driving, and it’s unlikely to find everything under one roof with craft beer, wine, and tasty cocktails in tow. In order to compete with the variety and quality of Convoy, Snooty needs to up the ante. The restaurant has a lot to offer — the wonderful people running it and the good sushi alone make it worth a trip. It stands out as something different in Hillcrest and if the restaurant can play to its strengths, it could blow up. It deserves at least one look from everyone, just to learn something new.