1337 India Street, San Diego
For author Marcel Proust, the taste of a madeleine, a beloved pastry of childhood, evoked nostalgic memories that subsequently unleashed thousands of pages of prose upon the literary public. Most of us don't get quite that excited about our food.
Yes, flavors (and aromas) have a unique ability to bring back recollections of lost times, and sometimes even a tear of joy. And yes, at its best, cuisine is an art form, however evanescent the artworks. But if you eat at Anthology, your dinner may have to compete for your attention with jazz -- another evanescent art, much of it freshly created out of improvisations on old recipes (that is, standard melodies).
Good jazz can not only evoke past scenes, it provides them with a haunting soundtrack -- moving music turning into movie music. In my case, the memory movies (with my jazz-loving teenage self as the protagonist) are shot in black and white, in the fluid style of the New Wave filmmakers of the time, with a backdrop of glorious, bohemian Manhattan in the early '60s, jazz capital of the universe.
Our group began dinner at Anthology, present era. "I love this place!" said James, a handsome ex-chef-turned-realtor and Samurai Jim's neighbor. (We'd met previously over dinner at Kensington Grill.) "It's the perfect destination for a first date -- if the girl likes jazz." This splashy new nightclub-with-food at the south end of Little Italy has a menu overseen by celeb chef Brad Ogden and cooked by local toque Jim Phillips. We deliberately chose to go there on a Tuesday night, when there's no cover charge and the music is usually the house jazz band. I'm paid to review food, not music. "Eh, house band," I figured, "I won't have to pay attention." This particular evening, however, the band turned out to be a small combo led by sax player Jason Weber.
We were seated at a four-top in a slightly sunken area (let's not call it "the pit") close to the stage. The decor is glam and gorgeous, from what you can see of it in the atmospheric lighting. The ivory-colored leather(ette?) chairs look luxurious but aren't really all that comfy (at least for shorties). You can also sit at the banquettes lining the walls, but we chose a table because it's easier to converse. There are higher levels to the place -- a balcony-style second-floor mezzanine with a full menu, and a third-floor stratospheric lounge with only a bar menu, also balcony-style, from which you can look down on the groundlings and, I guess, throw popcorn on them. There's another bar at ground level (it was packed that night) for drinkers and single diners. There's a $20 food/drink minimum on the first floor, $15 on the mezzanine -- easy enough to meet with a glass of wine and a bowl of soup. No jazz-loving paupers allowed, I guess, except on the top floor.
"San Diego really needs a steady venue for jazz like this," James continued, "but it registers as a little too mature for San Diego audiences. Most people here want to eat and run, go dancing, go someplace else..." "Too shallow to settle in and enjoy the music," said Fred. James nodded and said, "But I'd be here every night if I could."
A page at the back of the wine list is devoted to cocktails devised by the head bartender -- most are slight variations on classics; others get creative with fruits and sweet liqueurs. I was the sole creativity-risker, choosing the tartest-sounding creation: a "Basil Limoncello" was as crisp and refreshing as I'd hoped. The gents went with classic booze. Meanwhile, the band struck up, and we ordered our dinner accompanied by its opening notes.
I have to admit up front that I'm long familiar with Brad Ogden's work (from the Bay Area) and that I'm not especially a fan. I've always found his food likable but underwhelming -- good, sound, user-friendly, but lacking in some dimension of passion or intensity. I think Ogden's greatest contributions to restaurant cuisine are probably his house-baked bread assortments. A server equipped with tongs duly brought around a bread tray and ramekins of soft butter. The Anthology choices mirror those at Arterra, where Ogden also consulted -- fabulous miniature corn muffins, mini-seeded baguettes, tiny blimps of sweet soft rolls. Be not ashamed, pig out at will: The bread server comes but once, to return nevermore. You want two breads at the least, but you should brazenly choose even more. (Purses are made for stealing fine restaurant rolls -- just ask my sainted mother, stepmother, or mother-in-law, if you can distract them from their harp-playing gigs in heaven.)
The best dish of the evening was an appetizer "duet of Maytag blue cheese soufflés." Two tiny puffed circles shared the plate, one a mild cheese, the other a strong one. Alongside were arugula, slices of port-poached pears, and a sticky, yummy mound of caramelized spiced walnuts. We played "mix and match" with the garnishes, and every bite was interesting.
A "farmers' market salad" is a riff on the classic French frisée-and-poached-egg salad, a mixture of green and red curly endive, fluffy hard-cooked egg, and applewood-smoked bacon bits in Banyuls vinaigrette, with (ta-da!) a few puffs of batter-fried chanterelle mushrooms on the side. The mushrooms were to die for, of course. But the surprise was how well the salad "aged" as we passed it around, the bacon flavor seeping into the vinaigrette and gradually ennobling all the other ingredients.
Steamed duck dumplings were controversial -- everyone sorta liked them but me, the Chinese-food snob. They looked something like wontons with pointy ends but didn't taste anything near. "Pastry is way too thick and doughy," I said, turning into the Last Empress with the nine-inch fingernails. "Any good Han chef would be embarrassed." The filling was mildly flavorful, the sweet-and-sour dip reasonably pleasing. Oh, go ahead, try them, make up your own mind.
"Santa Barbara Smoke-House Salmon" flopped. It wasn't smoked, it was thickly cut gravlax, tasting very ordinary plated over small, thin Yukon Gold potato pancakes with crème fraîche, minus any visible sign of the menu-advertised caviar. Although the lighting was dim, my teeth didn't detect any caviar crunch either.
The wine list is long and fabulous, if price is no object. For the first course I chose a Santa Barbara Roussanne (Consilience) for a "mere" $45 -- lively, slightly sweet, an easy pleasure. For the entrées, James was jazzed to find a Rhone-like red Meritage blend called "the Prisoner" ($65) that proved wonderful drinking -- just enough tannin for depth, but smooth and bright. Over the course of the evening, it never faded.
Meanwhile, the band played to a semiattentive audience. Jason Weber is a dark-eyed, balding, intense-looking guy, maybe in his 30s. A few numbers into the first set, he launched into a sad-happy flowing melody that tore my mind away from my plate and left my heart in little pieces. Suddenly: A cloudy Manhattan afternoon, early fall, no money for subway fare, trekking two miles down desolate 11th Avenue for a few minutes of solitude overlooking the Hudson River at Gansevoort Pier (then derelict with rotting wooden planks, not the chic spot it is today), from whence I'd later turn eastward to the Village to commune with my kind.
Jazz like that will outpower any food. Nothing you can eat -- be it chilies, wasabi, or the sourest yuzu fruit -- hurts as deeply as good jazz, and no dessert is as sweet. The only sensual art that has a chance against such music is the best sex you ever had -- preferably accompanied by 'Trane, or maybe Mingus's "Good-bye, Porkpie Hat." (Do NOT attempt this activity to the tune of Monk's "Little Rootie Tootie.") The next day I Googled Jason Weber. Found his website. Discovered in "Reviews" a roaring all-out rave from 2006 by the late, great (sucks that he's dead) Buddy Blue, who was apparently as surprised and as knocked out as I was. It seems that when jazz lovers write about Jason Weber, they end up writing love songs.
Breath of relief when the band struck up a Thelonious Monk number, all playfulness and mathematical structure, releasing me from the capture of my senti/mental movie to get back to the entrées. "Clam chowder--style" seared Maine diver scallops (with bacon and crispy clams) were okay but a trifle overcooked. At an earlier visit, Samurai Jim had hung out at the bar and gathered food recommendations from his fellow drinkers. A peckerwood-
type with a Southern accent had recommended the fried chicken: "It's real down-home cooking." Well, it was all white meat -- mighty white and rather dry, as breast usually is. The gravy was also white -- it seemed to be a mustard cream -- as were "Mom's coleslaw" and a little heap of potato salad. A ramekin of corn pudding was yellow. Not terrible, but all in all, when I want mind-blowing fried chicken, I go to Magnolias at the mall behind the Euclid transit interchange and order the dark meat option (I find it moister and more flavorful) or the wings. THAT is down-home cooking.
Braised prime short-rib risotto was nice -- just nice -- with veggies from Be Wise Farms and Parmesan broth. An avant-garde honking sax solo sounded something like Rahsaan Roland Kirk when he was playing with Mingus, and it mopped the floor with the "nice" food.
We ordered naturally raised Brandt beef hanger steak to compare with the version we'd enjoyed so thoroughly at Starlite Lounge. This was good, but not as good as Starlite's. The cut seemed a bit thinner and the meat less tender. James talked about a young woman chef he'd trained when he was working as head chef at a resort in Fiji. "I could recognize that she had the talent to be a chef -- not just from the head but from the heart. Anybody can follow a recipe, but the best chefs cook from the heart," he said.
In the latening evening, Jason Weber and his sidemen were also cooking from the heart, another fluid, happy-melancholy melody, math and passion, drawn out in a long sinuous sax line that reeled my mind in like a hooked marlin. (Back to the derelict pier with a 16-year-old's vague heartache, watching the great gray river flow.) Food is an easy physical pleasure, whereas good jazz is often difficult and complex and apt to steal your soul. Sensual, too, but in a sneakier way. An image came to mind of an old cheap paperback of the sort published in the late '40s and early '50s. On its cover, a tawdry-looking hotel room, where a long-haired brunette lies on the bed, wearing a white satin slip and an ankle bracelet, smoking a cigarette, legs slightly spread, while a dark-eyed balding saxophonist kneels on the bed between her ankles and plays.
"You're right," I told James. "It's a great first-date destination. If she loves jazz, she'll be all yours."
We still had to try some desserts, pro forma. The dark-chocolate mousse was all gone, so the guys chose a trio of crème brulées and a tapioca pudding. All sweet pabulum, to my palate. James spotted the most interesting choice, a Port tasting -- ages 20, 30, and 40. Their personalities proved much like people of those same ages: the 20-year-old lively but callow, the 30 ripe and vibrant, the 40 mellowed and just starting to fade.
Then the band went off and we finished and paid and left. "The food is kind of middling," all the guys said on the car ride home. "Not bad, just not very exciting." "I've never found Brad Ogden's food exciting," I said. "It's good, but it's risk-free, background music for the mouth. And Jim Phillips is very skillful and reliable but -- well -- not really known for creative breakthroughs, no insult intended." "Yeah, I'd go to Anthology on a first date," said Jim, "and have the soufflés and the salad, and after the show we'd go up to Starlite for the rest of dinner. But the music was great!" "Yes, the music -- oh," I said, wrung out from it and still hungry for more.
No chef interview tonight, folks. We're done here. The chef of the evening was not at the stove but on the stage.
(This review is dedicated to Buddy Blue and Judith Moore.)
1337 India Street (between A Street and Ash Street), Little Italy, 619-595-0300, anthologysd.com.
HOURS: Dinner Tuesday--Sunday, 5:30 p.m.--closing. (Kitchen closing time varies with the night's entertainment; typically 9:30 p.m. early in the week, 11:30 p.m. for big acts on weekends.)
PRICES: Appetizers $10--$21; entrées $19--$34. Desserts about $7.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Seasonal menu of modern American cuisine with some Asian, Mexican, Mediterranean influences; fine ingredients, including local sustainably raised produce and natural meats. Mainly steep, mainly California wine list, very little under $45, lots by the glass and half-bottle, plus full bar with creative cocktails.
PICK HITS: Blue cheese soufflés, farmers' market salad, Brandt flat-iron steak, basil limoncello cocktail, all breads.
NEED TO KNOW: Pay parking lot on corner of A Street. Ground-floor bar and restaurant are wheelchair accessible; other venues up staircase. Cover charge most nights, requiring separate payment for tickets. Usually no cover Tuesday nights and some Sundays. Food-beverage minimums $15--$20. A few lacto-vegetarian appetizers, one vegetarian entrée. Reservations advised for parties larger than two.