Ken Leighton 7:59 a.m., May 22
After eating through four of Brian Malarkey’s restaurants, I’m finishing out by revisiting the one that started it all—Searsucker (611 Fifth Avenue). Many would have started with the Top Chef finalist-turned-restaurant king’s flagship, but I see it as the perfect subject for a final chapter, especially since it’s the concept being rolled out for Enlightened Hospitality Group’s sixth venue in Arizona.
Elements of Searsucker have been carried over to all of the EHG restaurants. Despite different locations, themes, design concepts, chefs, and menus, all of these eateries are, in reality, retooled versions of Searsucker. There are certain universal, common threads linking them. We’ll get to those momentarily, but for now, let’s start with the most important item at Searsucker…or any restaurant—the food.
I’ve been to Searsucker many times over the past two years. In the beginning, the dishes on the extensive menu were very hit-and-miss. There were a couple I remember in particular that were ill-conceived and have appropriately been eighty-sixed. Other dishes made sense and sounded good, but were poorly prepared. A kitchen struggling to settle in amid huge crowds and the glow of a bright hot spotlight seemed to blame for those shortcomings.
Over time, the menu has tightened up and the quality of the dishes on it have consistently risen. In the past year, I haven’t had one dish that wasn’t cooked exactly as it was meant to be, so clearly the kitchen overcame the paparazzi-induced PTSD of their high profile opening period.
Scallops that were once rubbery and served with mind-bogglingly unharmonious condiments are now cooked to perfection and served with earthen components that take them to new heights. Fish is seasoned far better than it ever was in year one. Steaks and poultry are prepared to spot-on temps. Efficiency and tastiness can now be expected from this restaurant…and they should be given high prices that, try as I might, I’ve never been able to fully justify.
Even given the glowing review of the food I just presented, there simply isn’t enough of it per plate to add up to the rates one must pay for them, especially when so few of the dishes include sides. If you purchase the duck three ways, that’s exactly what you get…three types of duck sans starch or veg…for $26. If you order scallops, you get a trio of scallops (which, to be fair, are some of the largest I’ve ever seen) nestled atop tasty, but minimal spoonfuls of condiment…for $34. Some dishes get piles of dressed greens or fried garnishes, but that’s as close as they come to secondary components.
It’s a shame, because some of the most crave-worthy items on the entire menu—at Searsucker or the other EHG restaurants—are their sides. When I go to Searsucker, I have to order the zesty, lip-smacking good chorizo corn. And in a town overrun by unfathomably trendy Brussels, their vinegar-bathed sprouts stand out. Problem is, a small shared dish of either costs seven dollars. Seven dollars!
I get it. Searsucker is built to make money…lots of money. And that’s OK. Unlike so many who like to think chefs should be like starving artists—dedicated to food and their craft to a level of altruism so overblown that profits, success, and a comfortable lifestyle are afterthoughts—I don’t fault Malarkey or partner James Brennan for hiking up their prices. Even if it means that, frankly, I can’t really afford to eat there recreationally.
Business owners can charge what they want for what they provide. In reality, one is purchasing more than food when they go to Searsucker. They’re paying for the real estate; a seat in the Fifth Street epicenter of awesomeness where pretty people abound and cool is king. From the get-go, even though I watched firsthand as Malarkey spend months working his menu over and over, trying to find the right mix of fun, modern American cuisine to serve at his first restaurant—his baby—it’s never been just about the food.
Searsucker was meant to be exactly what it’s become—a place where the elite converge after a day spent navigating San Diego’s social labyrinth. Let’s be straight. The majority of the people at Searsucker look like they hardly ever eat, much less desire the finest the food world has to offer. What they do appear to be very interested in is being a part of the scene, and Searsucker provides them with just that—plus really good cocktails!
My point—if you’re going to charge outrageous prices because you give your patrons food and a little something extra, that something extra better be real. At Searsucker, that something extra is the cool social experience and, like it or don’t, they give it good. Unfortunately, adherence to this type of culture naturally detracts from the perceived legitimacy of a culinary operation to those who care little about social standing. It can also cause problems a diner doesn’t encounter at restaurants where the hip factor is non-existent.
While the food has escalated in quality, the service at Searsucker remains some of the worst I’ve encountered anywhere in San Diego. Once you’re seated, you’ll probably be alright. The wait staff has always been courteous, attentiveness is up, and they’ve finally memorized that exhaustive menu. The real problems lie at the gateway to the restaurant—the hostess station.
Always manned (or should I say womanned) by cute, young ladies, it’s one of the most attractive parts of the entire space—until you need something from them. I’ve been to Searsucker six times. I’ve been ignored and forgotten by staff at the front of the front of the house four times. Keep in mind that, three of these times, I’ve had appointments for meetings or meals and still been left to linger unspoken to for five to twenty minutes (even after checking back in to ask about the delay) until some kindly waiter or member of management finally starts to wonder who the loiterer near the doorway is and helps me out.
The latest cause for exasperation from the hostess clan came last weekend when I went in for one more undercover meal before writing this series. My party of four arrived to a half-occupied dining room and asked for a table. We were immediately whisked to a portion of the restaurant by the bar on the opposite end of the building that was separated from the dining room and completely devoid of any other patrons. I even brought two attractive people with me, but they mustn’t have been comely enough to compensate for the two normies in our party.
We were seated at a high round table with backless chairs. Problem was, one member of our party had their back go out earlier in the day. I went to the front, explained this, and asked if they could take that into consideration. Rather than just take our party to a table with more lumbar-friendly chairs in the (again, half-empty) dining room, they brought a chair from that hallowed ground to our bar-adjacent wasteland and traded it out. They did fix the problem, but it could have been handled better and, considering nobody ever came in to fill all those empty seats in the dining room, we could have been handled better, too.
Equal treatment is a big deal to me as a food writer. Everybody’s money spends the same (especially when you’re spending lots of it), and anybody who steps into a restaurant should be treated well or at least the same as everybody else. The big downfall of being at a venue that’s as much about image as it is eats, is that the former can ruin one’s pursuit of the latter.
Fortunately, while Burlap is a bit Searsucker north, the other three links in the EHG chain are more restaurants than social centers. That’s a good thing, because one-by-one, they’re slowly augmenting the Group’s brand into something better than it was when Searsucker was their only horse in the race. No matter your opinion of Malarkey, Brennan and they’re rapidly reproducing empire, it’s an exciting one that manages to maintain common threads while rolling out varying concepts.
Are they perfect? No. But they are getting better, and it’s important to note that none of them are over two years old. Heck, two are less than six months of age. In reality, five kids and a baby on the way in so short a time is probably a case of too much too soon, but signs of maturity are already evident and that’s good. The fact they’re all run by different chefs with unique personalities and culinary styles that are legitimately their own is pretty cool.
This was merely a check of the state of the EHG. Now, I’ll close the oven door and give this young bird some more time. It’s far from done, but starting to look really good.