As corporate theme restaurants go, the Royale Brasserie was pretty fabulous. The art-deco windows around the wine cellar and the sign for the Parisian Metropolitan would have been enough to charm me, but there was more. All those pictures of fish dressed in Louis XIV garb, the foyer displaying the day's oysters on beds of ice to hungry arrivals, the elaborate tower of shellfish. I dined there once with my in-laws, and the staff made a fuss over the '83 Riesling from J.J. Prum I had bought minutes before at the Wine Bank. Very gratifying.
But Royale didn't flourish, and when the sentence of "steakhouse" was passed upon the restaurant -- now Lou & Mickey's -- general manager John Alongé decided it was time to leave. Alongé had been recruited for the job because "they needed somebody who spoke French and who knew about French wines." He fit the bill well enough: "I've worked in a lot of vineyards in and around the Loire Valley, and then I was a partner in two restaurants in Paris." The restaurant business seduced him, and he eventually opened five in San Francisco and one in Santa Barbara before getting headhunted for Royale. By the time of Royale's demise, however, the affair had cooled. "I got into it for all the right reasons, which are that I love good wine and good food. But you sit down at the end of the day and take stock, and you've spent ten minutes on food and wine issues and the rest of your time on employees and broken equipment and product deliveries. After 20 years, I was burned out" -- not on food and wine, but on the details and the day-to-day sameness of running a restaurant.
Wine seemed to provide a way out. "I started doing corporate wine events when I came down here -- they would hire me to come in and do a tasting or a blend-your-own-wine seminar. I worked with local wineries, doing marketing for them. There are some spectacular wines in this county, and nobody knows it. I do classes, and I say, 'Okay, who's had a local wine? Raise your hand.' A whole bunch of hands go up: 'I've been to Temecula!' Temecula is in Riverside County. Maybe a couple of people have heard of Orfila, or somebody's been to Witch Creek. That's about it." Nothing about J. Jenkins, or Fallbrook, or Shadow Mountain, or even Las Piedras.
Alongé decided he wanted to help change that. "It's a very young industry here, and there are a lot of inconsistencies," he grants, "but if you take the time and the effort, you can find some real gems. Somebody would call and say, 'We want a tasting on the roof of the Natural History Museum,' and we would do it with exclusively San Diego County wines."
"We" refers to Alongé and Hans-Trevor Gossmann, a chef and fellow former Royale employee. Gossmann went to school in San Francisco and worked at a Michelin three-star in Munich, but he didn't fall in love with wine until landing a job as a sous chef for New York's Cellar in the Sky restaurant. "Andrea Immer was the master sommelier in charge of the cellar at the time. She would sit down with the chef and me every couple of months and go through all the wine that she wanted to serve for the next three menus. We'd taste them together, she would guide us through what components she perceived in the wines, and we would make our recommendations on food. We put together seven-course menus with six wines that would rotate every two weeks." That job led to the Vegas incarnation of Le Cirque, and that led to Royale. Gossmann began to work with Alongé, and when Alongé came to him with a proposal, Gossmann listened.
It started out as a plan for a tasting bar, a showcase for local wines. Says Alongé, "I started thinking, 'Nobody can get local wines in this area. I wanted to help the wineries build critical mass, raise awareness, get their product out there. I teach some wine classes at SDSU, and they have a Senior Seminar in the hospitality department every year in which they do a case study. We got them to do a study on how to make the San Diego County wine industry successful. I was part of the panel that rated the final presentations, and some of the vintners were there. What came back, over and over, was that they needed a downtown facility to focus on so that people could get exposed to the wines. That was the building block for the whole thing."
As the two kept talking, Gossmann suggested adding local foodstuffs. Alongé agreed and decided to stock "locally produced olive oil, balsamic vinegar, hot sauce, coffee, spices, chocolate -- the whole 'Made in San Diego' thing. We went to this place that grows basil hydroponically and makes 28 kinds of pestos and sauces. There are lavender fields up in Valley Center, and they make lavender honey and all these different products -- they actually distill the lavender onsite. You've got this network of cool local products. People are going to be amazed at what's here in the county."
Foodstuffs led to food prep. "We said, 'If we could do a little wine and cooking school, that would kind of tie it all together.' Then it was a short step to say, 'We need banquet space.' So the project grew from a 1000-square-foot tasting room to the 4000-square-foot facility that it is now." Or almost is. At the moment, the space at 200 Harbor Drive, right next to Galileo 101 restaurant downtown, is something short of finished. But the money is in place, the lease is set, and the plans are promising: a tasting room, a demo kitchen/classroom, a production kitchen for banquet work, and two separable banquet rooms. It's a choice location -- across the street from the convention center, walking distance from the Hyatt, the Marriott, and the Omni.
The two have been meeting with event planners, pitching their baby, the San Diego Wine & Culinary Center. "It's going to look like a wine cellar, with stacks of barrels and antique wine presses. We can have things like Hans doing a chef's live demonstration in the middle of an event. We'll do a barrel tasting as part of an event -- all these little twists that take it outside the realm of a regular banquet facility."
The biggest twist will be the "educational elements," says Alongé. "One thing we're going to do is grow grapevines outside and trellis them. We'll have plaques that explain pruning and trellising and all these things. We'll have a big wine-country mural inside, with plaques that explain what the winemaker does every month of the year, month by month. I've discovered late in life that what I really like to do is teach. What I really like to do is go in every day and be challenged by new circumstances."
More plans are in the works -- a possible excursion business, leading tours to Baja wine country and elsewhere. And the project is gathering buzz. "Already, we've been approached by investors looking to replicate this in Santa Barbara and Sacramento. I think the model -- if you have the right demographic and you're near a wine-producing area -- could be replicated. So it's very exciting. But so far I've just said, 'I've got to make this one work first.'"