The Guild occupies an out-of-the-way location, but don't even think about sneaking there for a secret tryst. Not if you're a foodie, an academic, or any other sort of creative or intellectual type -- you'll be spotted by somebody you know, or who knows you. This odd little restaurant feels like a clubby hangout for artists and artisans, with a high ratio of intelligent-looking faces and vaguely bohemian vibes, hairstyles, and outfits. At my first "scouting" visit, when the Guild had been open a mere five weeks, I noticed chef Michele Coulon at one table, Bread & Cie boss Charlie Kaufman at another, and big-time restaurant consultant Pam Wischkaempfer at a third, doing lots of table-hopping. The second visit, with the Lynnester and posse, we didn't encounter any culinary celebs, but old friends of Samurai Jim were sitting at the next table. Feels all warm and cozy to find such a community scene in sprawling San Diego.
The restaurant began as a joint project of architect/metal sculptor Paul Basile (who designed the dome on Hotel Solamar, among other awesome projects) and businesswoman Linda Karp. Paul has transformed a former industrial space into a colorful, artisanal café, with a bar-lounge in one room, a warren of intimate dining rooms, and, through the back window, a view of his sculpture workshop, where you may see sparks flying if he's at his labors. Unclothed acrylic-topped tables, ranging from little two-tops to banquet seating for a dozen, display stylish, heavy metal rings around black napkins and weighty forks and knives. Alongside are corked bottles of water (help yourself) and medium-size white salad plates, which you'll be using to eat on from the portions served on central platters. If you're not sitting on a banquette, you'll be occupying a Basile-designed one-armed wooden chair, complete with purse hook in back, resembling a college lecture-hall chair (but with its arm too narrow for note-taking). "International lounge music" (as the chef calls the genre) plays softly over the sound system. Conversing is no problem.
Chef Melissa Mayer is a professional artist (painting and photography) who fell into food as another compelling art form. Her succinct menu (about 18 items long) features worldwide cuisine, with some emphasis on Asia and Mexico. The dishes offer modest portions, designed for sharing and nibbling. For the most pleasure, figure on ordering two to three dishes per person -- and bring one or more companions to eat with.
Quite a few of the dishes are topped with poufs of extraordinary "foams," and these are reliably the highlights of the menu. To the best of my knowledge, "foam" was invented in the '90s by genius chef/mad scientist Ferran ("molecular gastronomy") Adria at El Bulli, his fabled restaurant near Barcelona. Since then, it's spread through the culinary world, such that American cooking-school students now all seem to graduate with a minor in foams and froths. Trendy chefs in America's foodie cities have taken up the technique mainly to provide amusing, tingly textures (and to show off their culinary hipness). But Mayer takes foam seriously, as a way to vary and intensify tastes. Her full-flavored creations imbue the dishes with fresh shadings and complementary flavors, taking the role that heavier sauces, gravies, and reductions play in more conventional "fine cuisine." But unlike simple gravies, foams combine complex mixtures of ingredients that open up in the making to become more distinct. They're great fun, too, of course -- but there's nothing frivolous or arbitrary about them. They belong to Mayer's food the way paint belongs on canvas.
"Caprese -- A Study," for instance, is a remarkable molded version of the Italian classic of fresh mozzarella, tomato, and basil, poured out of a glass cylinder into a stack on the plate. The layers of mozzarella and tomatoes (amazingly ripe for early spring) benefit from an infusion of blended, strained pesto. The crowning touch is the tall, intense layer of basil foam on top. It not only tastes like fresh basil, it tastes better, embracing all the other ingredients in a sensual fuzziness. Not only does the texture literally tickle the tongue, but its flavor bestows the gift of life to a nice but overly familiar Italian restaurant staple, transforming it into manna fit for sportive Roman gods. Yes, it's really that good.
"Unexpected Greek Salad" enjoys the same pattern -- instead of a clichéd platter piled with romaine, tomatoes, and cuke slices, it arrives as a neat cylindrical stack topped by a completely different blessing of foam. The salad, featuring baby arugula, is intense, green, and pungent with fresh herbs (mint, oregano, and dill) and topped with a fluffy white tzatziki foam made of puréed cucumbers, goat yogurt, goat feta, and egg-free mayo. (The lactose-intolerant can order it safely, thanks to the substitutions of goat products for cow's milk.)
"Tres Queso Stuffed Roasted Pasilla" has a large, semi-mild roasted, skinned chile filled with a trinational combination of feta, gorgonzola, and Mexican queso fresco cheeses, napped with a creamy Mexican-style red sauce. On the side is a steel ramekin of serrano--lime soda foam to slather on top. (The soda takes the place of the customary water in the foam recipe, adding another flavor note.) This foam is more creamy than bubbly, and the chile serrano in it is well tamed. Wild as it sounds, it's comfort food.
"Toyo Ito," tuna sashimi, is another froth-topped palate-pleaser. It arrives as a cocktail in a large glass, filled with cubes of silky crimson yellowfin tuna (from the prized belly) mixed with avocado, spicy Asian chile-sesame oil, and red Hawaiian sea salt. On top is a generous fluff of fresh-grated wasabi root foam with a powerhouse kick. This is the opposite of comfort food (make sure to fill your water glass before tackling it), packing a punch that stops just short of overwhelming the sensuality of the fish.
But not by the foam alone can you find good food here. The chef also has a fine palate for cheeses. My gang loved the chèvre brûlée, rounds of grilled goat cheese over grilled artichoke hearts, dressed in thyme-citrus vinaigrette, each plated over a dainty round of toasted artisan bread from Bread & Cie, the grand bakery that furnishes all the house breads (and the breakfast pastries). It's deceptively simple, deeply satisfying.
We also reveled in "Farm + Vine," a mutable selection of three cheeses with an optional flight of matched wines. This is a great way to start your first dinner here, if for no other reason than to sample some of the obscure boutique wines on the list. At one visit, the cheeses were a full-fat cheese studded with black truffle, a Humboldt fog chèvre, and a firm, nutty cheese resembling Emmenthaler (without the holes). The wines were a Zolo Torrontes from Spain (a lively, mouth-filling white), a Barrel 27 Viognier (a bit sweeter but equally lush), and a tannic red Tempranillo. On future visits, both those whites are in my sights. Incidentally, one of the special joys of eating here is that most wines are not only available by the glass, but by the half-glass -- perfect for designated drivers, inquisitive tipplers, and commitment-phobic personalities. (Say, what a way to check out your date before you get too serious! Does he or she order a half or full glass?)
A certified organic flatiron steak came properly rare with a mini-ramekin of melted butter and a tablespoon filled with Gorgonzola cheese. The small-town Midwesterners at the table (Lynne, Mary Ann, and brother Tom) adored it, but the Chicago and California factions were less sold -- even in shared portions, Sam picked at it, Jim left most of his, and I needed the cheese to boost the flavor. Alongside came lukewarm frites (which were also tepid at my first visit, accompanying several other dishes described in the next paragraphs). They may be good when they're hot, but they're not.
These weren't my only reservations. Two dishes that didn't quite live up to their promise involved Maine lobster -- not the whole, luscious arthropod, just its skinny legs. The dark coral-colored meat is extracted from those dangling swimmerets, the parts crunched through the shells with your teeth and hoovered up when you really, really want every last taste of lobster. Alas, the meat has only a hint of lobster flavor. It's used here in lobster crabcakes, wherein the mixed sea meats are shredded (no seductive crab lumps), given a coating of pistachio nuts and a swish of Brie crème fraîche sauce, and served with arugula leaves and garlic-mashed potatoes. The whole Michigan contingent loved the cakes. Crazed for Maine lobsters since childhood, I wanted to taste more seafood and felt that the mashed potatoes only got in the way.
The other lobster-leg dish is the "New Haven BLT." The chef named the sandwich to celebrate the avant-garde architecture scene rising in New Haven, Connecticut, but to an ex--East Coaster it brings to mind something they might serve in the New Haven Railroad club car carrying Masters of the Universe home from Wall Street to Darien. (Such people would probably take lobster in their BLTs for granted and keep tapping on their laptops as they chomp.) In any case, the sandwich is a BLTAL including avocado, arranged as a pair of piled-high cubes between slices of crustless artisan toast, dressed with gentle wasabi mayo. "Cute food," I murmured.
You get fries with that, and also with Kobe beef sliders, which sorry to say sound better than they work, involving Humboldt Fog, avocado, tomato, basil, and arugula aioli arranged between slices of the same hearty, grainy toast. Here, the bread is a problem, not a plus. You can't easily lift these sliders up like burgers and bite through all the ingredients -- the toast constantly threatens to shimmy off on its own. And I'm not the lone voice in the wilderness on this issue -- both sets of dinner companions tried this dish and agreed that sometimes -- as in sliders -- you just need a soft mainstream bun. Brioche bread might do nicely, if you want to get arty.
Sesame-seared yellowfin has a spicy chile sauce and sesame-oil dressing, but our tuna was a bit overseared, and in any case, the dish has become ubiquitous to the point of ennui. Nothing new or thrilling in this rendition. Fish tacos feature dry-grilled mahimahi and shredded red cabbage in soft mini-tortillas. Alongside come three interesting sauces, including a spicy pale green one -- but in this "sharing menu," diners get no individual spoons among their silverware. The only way to apply sauces is to pour them on, and the only way to taste them before deciding how much you need of each is to rudely dip a finger into the shared ramekins and slurp it off. These were the first taste of San Diego's signature dish for Mary Ann and Tom, who were disappointed. The rest of us strongly recommended that they try again at Blue Waters, Tin Fish, or even Rubio's.
Desserts change from week to week. An apparent mainstay is the chocolate sandwich, which French kiddies eat for breakfast as pain au chocolate -- crisp white artisan toast spread with melted bittersweet chocolate, here accompanied by a mound of chocolate gelato and a "mini espresso martini" that tasted as if it was smoothed with milk, not cream. It struck me as the sort of dessert made by a chef who's more into savories than sweets. My companion that evening thought the espresso martini tasted like instant -- but the real coffee and espresso served here are excellent. At the second dinner, we did much better with a "Piña Colada Study" -- pineapple upside-down cake with a daub of rum coconut ice cream and a small "key lime martini." The cake is flawless, the martini amusing, and the ice cream heartbreakingly delicious (melting too quickly, like all homemade ice creams without stabilizers). It's a fine dessert for those who like a final bite of sweetness but hate to walk out waddling.
In fact, the Guild is that rare restaurant where you can enjoy numerous distinctive tastes without feeling glutted. You can bond with your friends over shared bites and not blow your diet -- almost all the dishes have a lightness, an elfin spirit, that's all about flavor and fun and quality, not excess quantity. This would be an ideal lunch spot, since it offers pleasures that don't require a nap afterward. And if you're still dawdling over your 1040, you can take a breather here and enjoy some good vibes and vibrant food at a price that doesn't break the bank.
ABOUT THE CHEF
"I've been cooking forever," says chef Melissa Mayer. "I've always had a gift for combining flavors. I was always cooking for groups, and my friends urged me to take it up professionally. Then I went to a catered wedding, and they let me into the kitchen. I was amazed by what I saw. The caterers urged me to go to cooking school, and I went through a huge search to find one that would fit me. Most of them just seemed to be after my money -- I'd visit them and find the students cutting up chickens and chopping carrots, things I already knew how to do.... Then I had the good fortune of meeting chef Ann Bryan about two years ago. She'd worked for the Robert Kennedy family, at Roy's in Hawaii, and in a restaurant in Argentina, where they're so passionate about their food. She'd been all over the world -- and she was looking for someone to mentor. She taught me everything she knew."
I asked how Mayer learned enough about the restaurant business to go professional and how she got her first restaurant job starting as head chef. "I've worked at restaurants since I was 20, from fine dining to extremely high volume, so I understand how restaurants work," she said. "Then a friend of mine who knew Paul Basile told me he was opening up this place in Barrio Logan and urged me to call him. I got the job by cooking for him and Linda [Karp] -- by executing instead of just talking. It turned out, this is what they'd been wanting to do all along. During the months it took to get it open, I engaged in really intense research in what it takes to make a restaurant successful.... Sometimes I feel like I'm leading this marvelous life where things just come to me. I feel so privileged to be able to use my talent."
I asked about her philosophy of foam. "I never liked the fact that foams were airy and light but didn't provide much flavor," she said, "so I put in a lot of ingredients to give them flavor as well as texture. My foams are a little heavier. I think it's about being able to push the chemistry further. I use lemon juice or lime soda in place of water. Most have some cream. Then I add whatever the main flavor ingredients are -- a lot of them, like six or eight ounces of the primary flavor -- purée it and pass it through a fine-mesh sieve. Then I put it into a charger container and charge it with nitrous oxide and chill it.
"A lot of people still think that foams are just a novelty, and I already know that San Diego is the culinary cul-de-sac of America. But here in Barrio Logan, people are really serious about what they do. At night the streets are empty, but during the daytime the neighborhood is bustling, with these great little Mexican restaurants where everybody is working so hard to make the best food they can. That's what we're about, too.
"We serve small dishes, because I think it's better to eat in smaller amounts and pay more attention to flavor. In America, quality so often gets compromised for quantity. With our menu and our wine list, you don't have to commit to a dish or a wine, you can sample a range of tastes. It's really about enjoying an experience with friends, the way food has been enjoyed historically."