Liz Swain 4:24 p.m., May 24
When Brian Malarkey and business partner James Brennan opened their fifth restaurant in May, it seemed the flurry of activity surrounding their Enlightened Hospitality Group might finally die down for awhile. That assumption was proven wrong in a matter of weeks.
First, news broke that Chad White, the executive chef at EHG’s Point Loma seafood eatery, Gabardine (1005 Rosecrans Street), had been sacked less than six months after being announced as a masterful free agent pick-up. The restaurant was struggling to draw in the crowds they’d hoped for to the eastern commercial expanses of Rosecrans.
One of the very things that first attracted Malarkey to White and inspired the former Top Chef finalist to make the Sea Rocket Bistro chef/partner an offer—his daringness to lead with creative dishes centered on lesser used ingredients—turned out to be the chef’s undoing.
Food writers and enthusiasts lauded White for having the stones to put out items like swordfish bone marrow on a mammoth pink Himalayan salt brick, sea urchin ice cream, cod liver seared up a la foie gras, and a dessert featuring salty cured olive brittle. Even when they didn’t work, they displayed a forward-thinking, experimental, and fun approach to food that no other spot in San Diego had going for it.
But, alas, food writers and fans that adventurous make up but a small percentage of the populous. Except in the rarest of cases, restaurants must cater to the masses enough to stay afloat and generate reliable revenue and repeat business. White’s food wasn’t built to do either. Time to go another direction.
For Malarkey, that means a return to the kitchen. Since White’s departure, he’s been at Gabardine, touting it as his “test kitchen.” During the day, he and his kitchen staff will work up new dishes for the four other EHG restaurants, draw up specs, and send them out to each eatery to be recreated. During business hours (Malarkey says they open at 5 p.m., but are generally done with service when Point Lomans turn in around 9:30 p.m.), they’ll be serving up a new menu of more approachable food geared toward Gabardine’s new identity as a “friendly neighborhood restaurant.” That will include reimagined versions of popular dishes from the other restaurants (e.g., pork shank “wings” lathed with barbecue sauce from Gingham in La Mesa).
Apparently, he’s sharing the kitchen as a center for R&D for his cocktail consultant colleagues from Snake Oil Cocktail Company. Specialty drinks will be conceptualized and refined in the same manner as the dishes for the EHG restaurants.
The cold bar that used to keep all that swordfish marrow chilled is still there, as is the Catalina Offshore Products-procured uni White was such a champion of. But now, it houses more common items, including oysters and several crudo options.
The restaurant has also started holding themed weekend brunches. Two weeks ago, an abalone Benedict with uni-brown butter Hollandaise sauce over focaccia was served up amid retro clothing and disco music.
Great, but what about White? Hard to say. When making the jump to Team Malarkey, he maintained his stake as a partner at Sea Rocket Bistro, promoting his right-hand man, Tommy Fraioli, to the head chef post. He also has his side business, EGO Culinary Trends, to fall back on as he has between gigs in the past. The world can never have enough packaged bacon jam, after all.
Outcasts from EHG tend to land on their feet. Mike Mitchell, the former GM for Gingham and Del Mar Highlands’ Burlap was let go earlier this year and recently resurfaced as the GM for the newly retooled Donovan’s Prime Seafood. Former Burlap sous Ben Lieberman recently landed at Bali Hai on Shelter Island, where he’s created an entirely new menu as their executive chef.
Both of the aforementioned castoffs have plenty of talent. Say what you will, but Malarkey has a good eye as a culinary scout. Insiders have used hushed voices when voicing near universal approval of shrewd hires, only to point and snicker when some prove unsuccessful.
Truth is, generating the type of “success” that EHG not only aims for but, due to the size and demands of their grand scheme operations, requires, is extremely difficult and takes staffers that are not only good, but a perfect fit for Malarkey and Brennan’s family of restaurants.
EHG is a machine that’s pumped out five restaurants in less than two years—some in locations most restaurateurs would have passed on, feeling they were completely unviable. In doing so, the duo has been willing to take chances, but has proven both willing and able to cut bait and recast completely different lures when fish aren’t biting at particular venues.
This week, they officially confirmed a rumor that’s been swimming around for the better part of a year. EHG is hitching their boat to a trailer and rolling it out to a completely different set of waters—Arizona. Malarkey and company are introducing the concept behind their flagship restaurant, Searsucker, to the Scottsdale community.
The aesthetic will be very much the same as the original Searsucker in the Gaslamp, but with the indoor trees of resto numero cinco, Herringbone in La Jolla. That project is set to debut in October of this year. It will be interesting to see how it’s embraced, especially since, almost two years after touching down with the thunder and intensity of an atom bomb in San Diego’s downtown core, most are still trying to sort out the dining public’s opinions about the always-packed, status quo-bucking eatery.
With this in mind, I’m spending this week combing over notes from months of overt and covert research to touch on all of the restaurants in the EHG empire. Where are they now? How have they changed? Who’s at the helm? And, most importantly: How’s the food?
Gabardine down…four more fabrics to go. Consider this Fashion Week.