Jeff Smith 6 p.m., Feb. 27
Prepkitchen Standards Survive Little Italy Jaunt Intact
Good, uncomplicated food and a level of consistency necessary for a quality chain is what’s impressed me about Prepkitchen since my first taste of their home-style cuisine back in 2009. That was after the opening of their first store, a tiny spot in La Jolla with only a handful of tables. As displayed in my pre-open sneak peek of their third spot in Little Italy (which opened for business on January 30), the newest link in the chain is the exact opposite. Large even by Little Italy standards, it will serve many more diners than either the La Jolla or Del Mar locations, which made me wonder if the standards and continuity I so appreciated could be maintained . Last week, I headed out to PKLI to see how they were holding up.
I started my meal with a terrine consisting of duck liver, brandy and pork (including the pig part of the moment, the fatty belly). Though it’s billed as the “Terrine of the Day,” this is the only version that has been served at PKLI so far. It exhibited a nice, homogenous texture broken up by coarsely chopped nuggets of pork that were studded throughout. It was extremely tasty, but what really made this starter shine was the plethora of house-made accoutrements that accompanied it.—mostarda, tangy bread-and-butter pickles, thinly sliced sweet-and-sour shallot rings, some truly delicious house-brined olives, and a salad of dressed greens that looks like, but is far more than filler garnish. The most fun aspect of this dish is making bite-sized sandwiches - mixing and matching all of these on lightly toasted and properly neutral crostini with the spreadable meat to find the flavor combo that most matches one’s personal tastes.
I also ordered an appetizer of bay scallops served “crudo” style in a mixture rife with sweet overtones from kumquats and fennel alongside crisp free-form crackers dusted with sea salt. The dish is tasty, if not a bit too citrusy. I also discovered that getting the correct ratio of scallop to cracker is essential. Not loading up enough scallops makes for an overly salty bite bound to burn the roof of your mouth. In other words, go heavy on the shellfish, and don’t go in expecting to finish all of the crackers.
While doing the aforementioned food math, I spotted PKLI’s flatbread being delivered to the table next door. It’s interesting to say the least. Made from a semolina flour-based dough, the finished bread is flat beyond wafer-thin description. It’s about as thick as a bible page, allowing it to quickly crisp up without burning around the edges while providing an anything-but-bready mode of conveyance for the toppings they serve it over. On this day, it was a combination of aioli, prosciutto, cioppolini, and greens that seemed to mimic a ham sandwich. Definitely something I’ll be trying on future visits.
For the main event, I sampled two dishes most fowl, starting with Mary’s chicken. On my first visit to La Jolla’s Prepkitchen, I proclaimed it to be one of the best, most approachably, uncomplicatedly delicious chicken preparations I’d ever had, and I was excited to dig into this one. While a bit more complicated than the plate from over two years ago, this in no way disappointed. The chicken was plump and juicy with a wonderfully seasoned, crispy skin—a deft restaurant interpretation of home-style perfection. A restrained silken purée of apples and celeriac provided a nice flavor bridge for well-cooked winter veggies, Brussels sprouts and turnips.
My second dose of poultry (and pork) came via a leg of duck confit served with a sizeable link of sweet pork sausage over a white bean “cassoulet.” The sausage may be described as “sweet” (only by Italian standards, where “sweet” is merely the opposite of “hot”), but this dish is epitome of savory fare. In fact, while tasty and so filling I had to box up over half the dish, its only flaw is that it is so one-note. The duck is cooked nicely, the sausage tastes great and has a nice grind, and the cassoulet tastes better than most bowlfuls of beans. It just seemed the dish could have benefitted from something sweet, acidic or cuttingly herbaceous versus the sprinkling of duck fat soaked bread crumbs that took the savory factor over the top and added a crumbly Shake-and-Bake quality that I wasn’t digging.
Like a walking contradiction, I read the dessert menu with my elbow on my to-go box and determined I couldn’t leave without trying their bread pudding. It's a hefty block of brioche that, unlike most versions of this classic, isn’t soaked beyond an inch of its crust with royale (a mixture of cream, milk, eggs and sugar used to make custard). Some bites toward the center were a bit drier, but in a way that made for nice variety versus a lacking morsel. Every bite delivered the decadence one would expect from a good bread pudding, especially one incorporating flavors of banana, coconut and dulce de leche. The crispy corners also came across as big plusses in my book.
It was nice to see that, despite a heavier workload, this kitchen is soldiering on unaffected and bringing it with the elements and food that make the Prepkitchen brand one San Diegans can rely on. PKLI is located at 1660 India Street.