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Unchained Links

Place

Linkery

3794 30th Street, San Diego




The Linkery "We don't take reservations, we're just a neighborhood bistro," said the voice on the telephone. "But if you tell us how many there are in your party, we'll make sure we have a table for you." We were headed for dinner at the Linkery, North Park's newest eatery. A culinary near-wasteland just a year ago, the southern part of this neighborhood has begun sprouting restaurants faster than my lawn grows dandelions. "Five and a half," I said, and the guy on the phone immediately got the joke. (In addition to my partner and me, our group included our delightful next-door neighbors, Laurie and Francisco, and their eight-year-old son Frankie, who would devote the entire evening to vividly re-enacting The Revenge of the Sith. )

The Linkery is a hip café that features made-from-scratch artisan cuisine just a tofu-cube short of organic. Costly certified-organic foods mean higher menu prices, so the chefs here use local, sustainably raised products whenever possible. According to what's fresh and seasonal from that day's market, you're likely to encounter variations in some dishes from the printed menu.

Befitting the restaurant's name, each day the chefs make three unique types of links, all fresh (uncured) and nitrate-free. The array typically includes two meat sausages and one chicken, plus chorizo on weekends, with spice levels running from mild to hot. Some are traditional ethnic recipes (e.g., weisswurst, linguiça), others are original creations. You can sample them four different ways, ranging from a single link added to another dish ($4) to a picnic plate ($13) with two links and two cheeses of choice, plus mustard, tomatillo salsa, and hearty peasant-style bread (from Bread on Market).

Check out the chalkboard to your left as you enter -- it lists the day's sausages, the three farmstead cheeses, and the entrée special. The main dining room, around the corner from the entry, is trim and modern with a stone-tiled floor, pine-patterned plastic paneling, and terra cotta-colored walls hung with oil paintings. Conversations echo against the hard surfaces. There are blond-wood tables of various sizes and heights, with the tallest up against the front windows -- the better to show off the buff young patrons who prefer those altitudes. The ambient music is cool and eclectic -- Elvis, Fess Longhair, Lady Day, Dino, and gringo Tex-Mex conjuntos sing in turn.

A roaring gas grill turns out dishes as flavorful and unfussy as at a fine cook's back-yard barbecue. The appetizers center on seasonal veggies, grilled and dressed. Blistered green beans were so delicious in their ginger-soy sauce that Frankie the Kid fell on them like one of those starving children of China our moms always cited to make us clean our plates. I particularly enjoyed the asparagus spears in a delicate rosemary-chili oil.

An exuberant "Herb Salad" featured rocket (arugula), spinach, mint, cilantro, and tangerine sections, topped with pine nuts, Cotija cheese, and balsamic vinaigrette. Piquant, sweet, nutty, and creamy, this complex of flavors is worthy of an entrée -- it also wasn't lost on Frankie the Kid, who interrupted his movie re-enactment for several (blissfully silent) minutes to gobble it down.

The all-around favorite entrée was a thick "natural" pork chop (not precious Niman, but from a swine raised without hormones or antibiotics). It arrived charred, yet pinky-brown inside, topped with a grilled "apple salsa" of chewy-crisp, smoky chunks of caramelized fruit. Alongside were thin slices of yam and leaves of grilled Belgian endive stuffed with blue cheese. (Boy, did I love that.) Its rival was an airline cut of chicken (a half-breast with attached wing drumette). "Wow!" my partner said at first bite. "Is this a free-range chicken?" he asked the waitress. "No, it has no pedigree at all," she answered. "It's just plain chicken, but the chefs here know how to cook it." The bird came off the grill moist and tender, its crackling-crisp skin glazed with apricot. Its companions were arugula with a fierce, flavorful honey-mustard dressing, and a mound of coarsely mashed celeriac (celery root), which needed more peeling and would have benefited from a dab of butter and/or cream to fulfill its potential as an alternative to mashed potatoes. (Incidentally, vegetarians can substitute grilled tofu or portobellos for the flesh.)

In "Surf and Turf, Linkery Style," the surf consists of tender shrimps swathed in a tingly chili-lime-cilantro foam that dances on the tongue. The turf is a charbroiled flatiron steak (a relatively tender cut of the shoulder chuck) from Omaha Meats -- the famous butcher whose higher-end steaks have lost so many food-mag comparison tests due to their blandness. The flatiron tastes pretty flat, too, especially for a hunk o' chuck. The menu says that the meat comes topped with pineapple butter with a side of corn-mint purée, which might have helped. That evening, it was served with avocado slices and arugula.

"Link and Choucroute" proved a minimalist gesture in the direction of Alsatian choucroute garni, which usually includes cured meats and sausages arranged on wine-cooked sauerkraut. Here, the sauerkraut is cooked in Alsatian wine and garnished with sausage bites and bacon bits, plus one whole link of your choice. A nice touch is a topping of melted Gouda cheese, but close your eyes and you're still not in Strasbourg.

Before committing to a dinner, I'd scouted the restaurant at a couple of sausage-tasting lunches, and so for this dinner, we ordered the day's trio as side dishes. Oddly, up until a week ago, sausage seemed to be the kitchen's weakest link. Two out of three of the critters were typically dry or bland, with the third a lipsmacker -- the only way to tell which was which was by tasting them all. The original inventions and the Latin-origin links fared better than the traditional German wursts. (Happily, at a later visit, the links scored 100 percent. The restaurant is still evolving, and that includes its sausage-making technique. See "Pick Hits" above for some successes.)

The beverage list at the Linkery is a joy. For the little and big Frankies of the world, there's Mexican Coca-Cola, made with real cane sugar instead of corn syrup. The flavor will take boomers back to babyhood -- it has a cleaner sweetness, and perhaps a higher proportion of cola syrup. The low end of the wine list is a casual drinker's "Little Jar o' Wine" for $3.50, a six-ounce pour of boxed Cabernet. The serious wine list is great fun, offering some 40 bottles from all over, including local San Diego and Baja vineyards, with more reds than whites, as befits a sausage emporium. Bottles run $20 to $150, with plenty of under-$30 choices; glasses are $6 to $12. Beer drinkers will find 13 brews from seven nations, plus a partridge in a pear cider (hold the bird).

All desserts are house made (except for a Bread on Market carrot cake), and the coffee is full-bodied French-press. The mango cheesecake is very Midwestern, smooth and cream-cheesy -- neither too light nor too heavy. An order of grilled pineapple and strawberries arrives as a kebab on a rosemary-branch skewer, the pineapple chunks naked and the strawberries doused in sweet balsamic vinegar. This comes with creamy vanilla gelato (store-bought) drizzled with sexy balsamic syrup. Laurie chose orange-balsamic house-made ice cream, with an airy texture and subtle flavor -- a grown-up sweet. Frankie the Kid, exhausted by his epic Sith recitation, tasted of each but was too sleepy to react much.

My most recent meal at the Linkery was a weekend breakfast -- indeed, weekends are the only times the restaurant serves breakfast. We began with fresh-squeezed orange juice, foamy and pulpy from the restaurant's new electric juice extractor. (You throw in whole peeled oranges and out comes this terrific liquid fuzz.)

Eggs Benedict were revisionist to the max, changing everything but the eggs. The dish includes two cubes of weighty artisan bread, a sausage of your choice (cut lengthwise) in place of Canadian bacon, and a hollandaise that tastes vaguely like curry, with cilantro and ginger offering hints of Asia. The eggs were exquisite, each with a translucent membrane of cooked white coddling the liquid yolk. The bread monoliths were useless. (I suspect that the house-made biscuits might be an apter substitute for the traditional English muffins -- lighter, anyway.) There were fingerling potatoes alongside, sliced avocados, and a flurry of arugula. A juicy chicken curry sausage, its interior moistened by yogurt, is a perfect match for this dish, every bit as "awesome" as the waitress described it.

My partner chose the breakfast burrito. It's dinosaur-sized, stuffed into a whole-wheat flour tortilla that's grilled on one side. The filling includes -- take a deep breath -- avocado, queso fresco, salsa, house-made chorizo slices (full-flavored and grease-free), onions, red and green peppers, and three beautifully soft-scrambled eggs. And beneath all that, potatoes -- loads and loads of potatoes -- with more potatoes (the ubiquitous fingerlings) on the side. You also get a ramekin of sour cream plated yin/yang with excellent fresh tomato salsa. The combination is more than enough to stuff two eaters for a whole day, so long as both are spud lovers.

The final measure of a restaurant is: Would you go back? Laurie and Francisco said they would. My friend Sam -- known to you from past reviews -- discovered the Linkery on his own and enjoyed the neighborhood-bistro atmosphere and the neighborhood prices. He'd go back, too. And my partner and I would be there right now, if I didn't have to sit here scribbling.

ABOUT THE STAFF

Jay Porter is the owner and founder of the Linkery. This is his first venture into the food business. "I wanted to start a neighborhood restaurant," he says. "Having lived in North Park for a while, I felt there was a need for something like this -- a café with reasonably healthful food, not too expensive, with a good wine list. I knew how to make sausages -- that was my contribution when we first opened -- and I had friends who knew how. My general manager, Mike McGuan, had worked in a sausage factory in Philadelphia." At first, links were the major part of the menu. "We wanted to feature handmade sausage as an expression of the kind of food we serve. We believe in handmade, artisan food. We make almost everything ourselves."

The menu began to expand when Mars Wasterval came on as chef. "She found us. She's from Houston, a graduate of Johnson and Wales [culinary school], and worked in a hotel in Mexico City. When she came back here, she moved in across the street. She came by one day and said, 'Hey, you're starting a restaurant? You should hire me.' She had the exact grasp of our kind of food -- fresh produce, lightly marinated meats, spices that are appropriate for our latitude. That's how she likes to cook and how she thinks of food. We didn't want to get involved in a lot of sauces and sautéing. We're more like a back-yard grill.

"Our sous chef is Tara Pelletier. She came to us from Café Cerise. She was eating here, and she told us she could make sausage -- she'd been doing it at Cerise. She began working at both places and ended up here as our sous chef.

"When Tara came, we switched our kitchen around. Carrie Whealy, who was our sous chef, is now executive baker and breakfast chef. She went to CIA [Culinary Institute of America] and worked as garde-manger at Chez Panisse. She developed our breakfast menu, she's taken charge of our cheeses, and she does the baking -- the cakes, éclairs, the desserts, the biscuits. (I like our biscuits and gravy breakfast the best because we make the biscuits, we make the gravy, and we make the sausage in the gravy.)

"The sausages now -- we have some that established recipes, like the bratwurst, that Michael [McGuan] knew from his sausage-factory experience. Some recipes we researched, or we'd eaten them at other places and worked on them until we got them right. Some, we just make up. Right now we're running Tara's black currant/pine nut/Parmesan, and I think that's gonna come back. We try to mix a group of standard recipes with more creative ones. We've run about 30 types of sausage since we began."

I asked whether the sausages were lower-than-normal fat. "They start out at the normal fat level," Jay said, "but because they're grilled over an open flame and they're fresh, the fat drains out a little. Some of them really lose a lot of fat. And when we first opened, it took us a few weeks to get the poaching down. The way we make them, after they've aged overnight, we poach them, and it's a delicate operation. You have to do it just right, to get them cooked but still keep the moisture in there.

"In the last month or so, we've also really gotten going with the specials. The way the chefs decide on specials is, they call our produce company, our meat company, our seafood company, see what's out there -- or the companies call us when they get in something unusual. We had some amazing Kurobata pork last week. The last special we had was a sea bass. We called up Catalina [a premium local seafood company], and they told us what they had fresh. Mars did a vanilla sauce on it, and it was awesome. With the specials, we can pay for a really high-end product and charge for it. You can still come in and get the regular dishes affordably, but the specials are something unusual, a treat. We can also make our own ice creams here in really small batches, which is nice, because we can do different ones every night.

"About 10--15 percent of our customers are vegetarians. We had a lot of struggle to come up with vegetarian items, since the grill is our main way of cooking. We've finally come up with some items that are really satisfying, complete entrées, rather than the kind of vegetable medleys we'd been doing. For a while we made our own tofu, but it turns out that you need a lot of specialized equipment to make it solid, and our kitchen is too small for that. We tried making 'cottage cheese' tofu, and it was tasty, but you couldn't grill it. We finally had to go back to buying it.

"The thing I really feel good about is the staff. They're all local, they all live nearby. The staff is great, and I think we're establishing a good relationship with the community."

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These kids do as good a job of hiding food as Otto Frank did his family
Place

Linkery

3794 30th Street, San Diego




The Linkery "We don't take reservations, we're just a neighborhood bistro," said the voice on the telephone. "But if you tell us how many there are in your party, we'll make sure we have a table for you." We were headed for dinner at the Linkery, North Park's newest eatery. A culinary near-wasteland just a year ago, the southern part of this neighborhood has begun sprouting restaurants faster than my lawn grows dandelions. "Five and a half," I said, and the guy on the phone immediately got the joke. (In addition to my partner and me, our group included our delightful next-door neighbors, Laurie and Francisco, and their eight-year-old son Frankie, who would devote the entire evening to vividly re-enacting The Revenge of the Sith. )

The Linkery is a hip café that features made-from-scratch artisan cuisine just a tofu-cube short of organic. Costly certified-organic foods mean higher menu prices, so the chefs here use local, sustainably raised products whenever possible. According to what's fresh and seasonal from that day's market, you're likely to encounter variations in some dishes from the printed menu.

Befitting the restaurant's name, each day the chefs make three unique types of links, all fresh (uncured) and nitrate-free. The array typically includes two meat sausages and one chicken, plus chorizo on weekends, with spice levels running from mild to hot. Some are traditional ethnic recipes (e.g., weisswurst, linguiça), others are original creations. You can sample them four different ways, ranging from a single link added to another dish ($4) to a picnic plate ($13) with two links and two cheeses of choice, plus mustard, tomatillo salsa, and hearty peasant-style bread (from Bread on Market).

Check out the chalkboard to your left as you enter -- it lists the day's sausages, the three farmstead cheeses, and the entrée special. The main dining room, around the corner from the entry, is trim and modern with a stone-tiled floor, pine-patterned plastic paneling, and terra cotta-colored walls hung with oil paintings. Conversations echo against the hard surfaces. There are blond-wood tables of various sizes and heights, with the tallest up against the front windows -- the better to show off the buff young patrons who prefer those altitudes. The ambient music is cool and eclectic -- Elvis, Fess Longhair, Lady Day, Dino, and gringo Tex-Mex conjuntos sing in turn.

A roaring gas grill turns out dishes as flavorful and unfussy as at a fine cook's back-yard barbecue. The appetizers center on seasonal veggies, grilled and dressed. Blistered green beans were so delicious in their ginger-soy sauce that Frankie the Kid fell on them like one of those starving children of China our moms always cited to make us clean our plates. I particularly enjoyed the asparagus spears in a delicate rosemary-chili oil.

An exuberant "Herb Salad" featured rocket (arugula), spinach, mint, cilantro, and tangerine sections, topped with pine nuts, Cotija cheese, and balsamic vinaigrette. Piquant, sweet, nutty, and creamy, this complex of flavors is worthy of an entrée -- it also wasn't lost on Frankie the Kid, who interrupted his movie re-enactment for several (blissfully silent) minutes to gobble it down.

The all-around favorite entrée was a thick "natural" pork chop (not precious Niman, but from a swine raised without hormones or antibiotics). It arrived charred, yet pinky-brown inside, topped with a grilled "apple salsa" of chewy-crisp, smoky chunks of caramelized fruit. Alongside were thin slices of yam and leaves of grilled Belgian endive stuffed with blue cheese. (Boy, did I love that.) Its rival was an airline cut of chicken (a half-breast with attached wing drumette). "Wow!" my partner said at first bite. "Is this a free-range chicken?" he asked the waitress. "No, it has no pedigree at all," she answered. "It's just plain chicken, but the chefs here know how to cook it." The bird came off the grill moist and tender, its crackling-crisp skin glazed with apricot. Its companions were arugula with a fierce, flavorful honey-mustard dressing, and a mound of coarsely mashed celeriac (celery root), which needed more peeling and would have benefited from a dab of butter and/or cream to fulfill its potential as an alternative to mashed potatoes. (Incidentally, vegetarians can substitute grilled tofu or portobellos for the flesh.)

In "Surf and Turf, Linkery Style," the surf consists of tender shrimps swathed in a tingly chili-lime-cilantro foam that dances on the tongue. The turf is a charbroiled flatiron steak (a relatively tender cut of the shoulder chuck) from Omaha Meats -- the famous butcher whose higher-end steaks have lost so many food-mag comparison tests due to their blandness. The flatiron tastes pretty flat, too, especially for a hunk o' chuck. The menu says that the meat comes topped with pineapple butter with a side of corn-mint purée, which might have helped. That evening, it was served with avocado slices and arugula.

"Link and Choucroute" proved a minimalist gesture in the direction of Alsatian choucroute garni, which usually includes cured meats and sausages arranged on wine-cooked sauerkraut. Here, the sauerkraut is cooked in Alsatian wine and garnished with sausage bites and bacon bits, plus one whole link of your choice. A nice touch is a topping of melted Gouda cheese, but close your eyes and you're still not in Strasbourg.

Before committing to a dinner, I'd scouted the restaurant at a couple of sausage-tasting lunches, and so for this dinner, we ordered the day's trio as side dishes. Oddly, up until a week ago, sausage seemed to be the kitchen's weakest link. Two out of three of the critters were typically dry or bland, with the third a lipsmacker -- the only way to tell which was which was by tasting them all. The original inventions and the Latin-origin links fared better than the traditional German wursts. (Happily, at a later visit, the links scored 100 percent. The restaurant is still evolving, and that includes its sausage-making technique. See "Pick Hits" above for some successes.)

The beverage list at the Linkery is a joy. For the little and big Frankies of the world, there's Mexican Coca-Cola, made with real cane sugar instead of corn syrup. The flavor will take boomers back to babyhood -- it has a cleaner sweetness, and perhaps a higher proportion of cola syrup. The low end of the wine list is a casual drinker's "Little Jar o' Wine" for $3.50, a six-ounce pour of boxed Cabernet. The serious wine list is great fun, offering some 40 bottles from all over, including local San Diego and Baja vineyards, with more reds than whites, as befits a sausage emporium. Bottles run $20 to $150, with plenty of under-$30 choices; glasses are $6 to $12. Beer drinkers will find 13 brews from seven nations, plus a partridge in a pear cider (hold the bird).

All desserts are house made (except for a Bread on Market carrot cake), and the coffee is full-bodied French-press. The mango cheesecake is very Midwestern, smooth and cream-cheesy -- neither too light nor too heavy. An order of grilled pineapple and strawberries arrives as a kebab on a rosemary-branch skewer, the pineapple chunks naked and the strawberries doused in sweet balsamic vinegar. This comes with creamy vanilla gelato (store-bought) drizzled with sexy balsamic syrup. Laurie chose orange-balsamic house-made ice cream, with an airy texture and subtle flavor -- a grown-up sweet. Frankie the Kid, exhausted by his epic Sith recitation, tasted of each but was too sleepy to react much.

My most recent meal at the Linkery was a weekend breakfast -- indeed, weekends are the only times the restaurant serves breakfast. We began with fresh-squeezed orange juice, foamy and pulpy from the restaurant's new electric juice extractor. (You throw in whole peeled oranges and out comes this terrific liquid fuzz.)

Eggs Benedict were revisionist to the max, changing everything but the eggs. The dish includes two cubes of weighty artisan bread, a sausage of your choice (cut lengthwise) in place of Canadian bacon, and a hollandaise that tastes vaguely like curry, with cilantro and ginger offering hints of Asia. The eggs were exquisite, each with a translucent membrane of cooked white coddling the liquid yolk. The bread monoliths were useless. (I suspect that the house-made biscuits might be an apter substitute for the traditional English muffins -- lighter, anyway.) There were fingerling potatoes alongside, sliced avocados, and a flurry of arugula. A juicy chicken curry sausage, its interior moistened by yogurt, is a perfect match for this dish, every bit as "awesome" as the waitress described it.

My partner chose the breakfast burrito. It's dinosaur-sized, stuffed into a whole-wheat flour tortilla that's grilled on one side. The filling includes -- take a deep breath -- avocado, queso fresco, salsa, house-made chorizo slices (full-flavored and grease-free), onions, red and green peppers, and three beautifully soft-scrambled eggs. And beneath all that, potatoes -- loads and loads of potatoes -- with more potatoes (the ubiquitous fingerlings) on the side. You also get a ramekin of sour cream plated yin/yang with excellent fresh tomato salsa. The combination is more than enough to stuff two eaters for a whole day, so long as both are spud lovers.

The final measure of a restaurant is: Would you go back? Laurie and Francisco said they would. My friend Sam -- known to you from past reviews -- discovered the Linkery on his own and enjoyed the neighborhood-bistro atmosphere and the neighborhood prices. He'd go back, too. And my partner and I would be there right now, if I didn't have to sit here scribbling.

ABOUT THE STAFF

Jay Porter is the owner and founder of the Linkery. This is his first venture into the food business. "I wanted to start a neighborhood restaurant," he says. "Having lived in North Park for a while, I felt there was a need for something like this -- a café with reasonably healthful food, not too expensive, with a good wine list. I knew how to make sausages -- that was my contribution when we first opened -- and I had friends who knew how. My general manager, Mike McGuan, had worked in a sausage factory in Philadelphia." At first, links were the major part of the menu. "We wanted to feature handmade sausage as an expression of the kind of food we serve. We believe in handmade, artisan food. We make almost everything ourselves."

The menu began to expand when Mars Wasterval came on as chef. "She found us. She's from Houston, a graduate of Johnson and Wales [culinary school], and worked in a hotel in Mexico City. When she came back here, she moved in across the street. She came by one day and said, 'Hey, you're starting a restaurant? You should hire me.' She had the exact grasp of our kind of food -- fresh produce, lightly marinated meats, spices that are appropriate for our latitude. That's how she likes to cook and how she thinks of food. We didn't want to get involved in a lot of sauces and sautéing. We're more like a back-yard grill.

"Our sous chef is Tara Pelletier. She came to us from Café Cerise. She was eating here, and she told us she could make sausage -- she'd been doing it at Cerise. She began working at both places and ended up here as our sous chef.

"When Tara came, we switched our kitchen around. Carrie Whealy, who was our sous chef, is now executive baker and breakfast chef. She went to CIA [Culinary Institute of America] and worked as garde-manger at Chez Panisse. She developed our breakfast menu, she's taken charge of our cheeses, and she does the baking -- the cakes, éclairs, the desserts, the biscuits. (I like our biscuits and gravy breakfast the best because we make the biscuits, we make the gravy, and we make the sausage in the gravy.)

"The sausages now -- we have some that established recipes, like the bratwurst, that Michael [McGuan] knew from his sausage-factory experience. Some recipes we researched, or we'd eaten them at other places and worked on them until we got them right. Some, we just make up. Right now we're running Tara's black currant/pine nut/Parmesan, and I think that's gonna come back. We try to mix a group of standard recipes with more creative ones. We've run about 30 types of sausage since we began."

I asked whether the sausages were lower-than-normal fat. "They start out at the normal fat level," Jay said, "but because they're grilled over an open flame and they're fresh, the fat drains out a little. Some of them really lose a lot of fat. And when we first opened, it took us a few weeks to get the poaching down. The way we make them, after they've aged overnight, we poach them, and it's a delicate operation. You have to do it just right, to get them cooked but still keep the moisture in there.

"In the last month or so, we've also really gotten going with the specials. The way the chefs decide on specials is, they call our produce company, our meat company, our seafood company, see what's out there -- or the companies call us when they get in something unusual. We had some amazing Kurobata pork last week. The last special we had was a sea bass. We called up Catalina [a premium local seafood company], and they told us what they had fresh. Mars did a vanilla sauce on it, and it was awesome. With the specials, we can pay for a really high-end product and charge for it. You can still come in and get the regular dishes affordably, but the specials are something unusual, a treat. We can also make our own ice creams here in really small batches, which is nice, because we can do different ones every night.

"About 10--15 percent of our customers are vegetarians. We had a lot of struggle to come up with vegetarian items, since the grill is our main way of cooking. We've finally come up with some items that are really satisfying, complete entrées, rather than the kind of vegetable medleys we'd been doing. For a while we made our own tofu, but it turns out that you need a lot of specialized equipment to make it solid, and our kitchen is too small for that. We tried making 'cottage cheese' tofu, and it was tasty, but you couldn't grill it. We finally had to go back to buying it.

"The thing I really feel good about is the staff. They're all local, they all live nearby. The staff is great, and I think we're establishing a good relationship with the community."

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