9550 Waples Street #115, San Diego
The WineSellar and Brasserie is a longtime local favorite "splurge" restaurant, oddly located in a soulless industrial park, one of many such parks that dominate an area that looks as if designed en masse by a single life-hating architect or committee: You pass blocks of arid rectangular boxes, gray-tan or tan-gray, a smoggy neutral color that, when employed with such uniformity, seems designed to transform individuals into robots that serve an unknown entity's bidding. (It's Fritz Lang's industrial nightmare Metropolis translated to the Information Age.) But here in the bleached barrens of Efficiency-Land is a serious wine shop, devoted to one form of sensuality, and upstairs, an attractive white-tablecloth restaurant serving those wines to accompany craftsmanly cuisine -- more pleasure, indulgence, ease. The WineSellar is a hidden oasis, a haven of human vitality in the corporate desert.
I went there with my most frequent posse -- the Lynnester, Jim (the chocoholic samurai), Sam, and his friend Mark, visiting from Colorado. As we debated what starter to order, Mark noticed the yellowfin tartare -- it hasn't invaded Boulder yet. The rest of us gently vetoed it as a local cliché, but I think our attentive waiter must have overheard. After we ordered, and before our starters arrived, we were treated to amuses bouches of that very item -- puffs of minced raw tuna over squares of brioche toast, with lemons, capers, fresh herbs, and a crown of crème fraîche. The crème fraîche put it over the top, making it special after all.
The appetizer-of-appetizers was a thick square of duck foie gras, set over a near-as-thick layer of mango coulis, spread on ethereal croutons of toasted brioche. The top of the foie was painted with a sweet Port wine glaze and scattered with caramel pistachios. Admittedly, every fine foie gras becomes my favorite until the next one comes along, but this one might just become a permanent delight. The liver was cooked to exceptional tenderness, just barely to the right side of done, and the sweet-sassy mango seemed an ideal fruit, its quantity some ideal Pythagorean ratio. I'm surprised they allow this dish in an industrial park. It subverts every value implied by the gray boxes.
Honey-soy--cured hamachi (yellowtail) had flavors from the opposite side of the globe. ("It's odd to find this at the same table with the foie gras," said Mark.) It was our universal second favorite. The sweet slices, thicker than standard sashimi, allowed for juicy, tender chews, mirrored by softer avocado slices. Shaved English cucumber and daikon sprouts lightened up the textures, while sesame creme added a nuttiness to balance the honey.
Silky slices of cold-smoked New Zealand king salmon were arranged in a pile next to a blini (what's the proper singular of blini -- blinus? blintz?) heaped with braised leek circles, diced Yukon potato, and capers, all robed in horseradish creme. (None of us spotted even a speck of the American black sturgeon caviar the menu promised.) Alas, the blini was thick, pale, and doughy -- Icarus as a pudgy, pasty-faced nerd, plummeting earthward with lox on his head.
We ventured into the salads with a grilled lamb composition, slices of rare, mild Colorado lamb over spinach with a Pommery mustard dressing and crumbled feta. It was pleasant with its zesty dressing, as was a puréed fresh pea soup that was less sweet than hoped for, dotted with wild mushrooms, topped with "truffle chantilly cream" in which we couldn't really discern the truffle component.
We'd all hoarded a bit of our first-course white wine to drink with our seafood entrée, pan-seared Maine Diver scallops, cooked à point, bathed in a light ragout of tomato punctuated by diced Maine lobster and organic corn kernels. The scallops were marvelous and perfectly done to opalescent, but the corn wasn't sweet enough to balance the acidity of the tomatoes. The overall effect was of tasty Italianate cooking by a good home cook, falling just short of its riveting possibilities. Sweet corn is hard to find off-season, but several other local chefs somehow manage it (heaven knows how), so it's not impossible.
When I saw pan-roasted pheasant on the menu, I knew I had to have it -- not because I'm so taken with that snooty fowl, but because cooking it is so perilous that I love to let other people do it. When you get it right, the white meat has a lovely piney undertone -- but the breast is so lean it can dry out to cardboard in a New York minute. And in wild pheasants, the lower half is so stringy, it's only fit for braising or gravy. The only solution I ever found was to forget the dumb "roast pheasant under glass" mystique and divide the critter to cook the parts separately. So I was very pleased when a half-bird arrived in two pieces. The crisp-skinned thigh-leg was simply pan roasted, a piece plump and tender enough to indicate a farm-raised bird, not a shot-ridden fowl from the woods. The breast was skinned, boned, and pounded, then rolled around a moist stuffing anchored by foie gras, sweetened by onion and stone fruits (probably peach), with more bits of foie gras on the side. A foie gras stuffing proves perfect for pheasant -- not for show but for moisture. It was a fine dish. The bird came with mild cooked dandelion greens and an assortment of baby root vegetables.
The original chef of the Brasserie was Douglas Organ (who moved to Boston a few years ago), but some of his dishes live on. One such is a classic French combination of grilled duck breast and confit of duck leg (legs and thighs braised tender, then reheated in their own rendered fat to crisp the surface). What divides an ordinary confit from a sublime one (e.g., Jeff Jackson's at A.R. Valentien and Alain Rondelli's at legendary, long-gone Ernie's in San Francisco) is a thin coating of bread crumbs or the like, to take on the task of crunching and crackling that unalloyed braised bird-skin rarely manages on its own. (If you try blasting it to crispness, the meat's liable to dry out or the skin to tear.) Here, the confit meat was tender but the skin was limp -- tasty, but once again closer to top-notch, home-style cuisine bourgeoise than to haute cuisine. Most of the breast slices were tender, but among them were three or four riddled with gristle, impossible to chew and swallow. The accompaniments offered bright, sweet flavors -- balsamic and orange sauce, sweet potato purée, and homely baby root vegetables that, soaking up the sweet sauce, turned alluring. ("Without your glasses, Miss Turnip, you're...beautiful!")
Lynne gravitated, as always, to the braised short ribs (certified Angus is used here). They were tender and likable, but as we tasted, we discussed Short Ribs We Have Known and Loved (Better). (The winner by acclaim was the Kobe version at George's at the Cove.) I quite liked the potato "confit" alongside -- thin, pretty, scalloped disks of potato fried in vegetable oil (since potatoes don't exude any fat to fry themselves in, in this context you can't take "confit" literally). Rather bitter braised spinach won no plaudits, but a wild mushroom ragout was an apt complement.
A roast rack of venison featured mild-flavored, grass-fed New Zealand Cervena, which tastes closer to Colorado lamb than any bark-stripping, rosebush-chomping woodland critter. Two plump, beautifully rare rib chops arrived, their exteriors crusted with medium-grind black pepper. On Cervena, it proved too much pepper for all of us. We loved the accompanying celery-root purée, enjoyed the Swiss chard, and barely noticed the Port cherry sauce, because we had scant means to taste it. We were eating "family style" (central platters, small individual dishes) but received no spoons to drizzle sauces onto our food. (Yes, it's a new crusade! Spoon-lovers, unite!) Sopping with bread -- wonderful bread, in fact -- isn't the same if you want to taste sauces straight up or on the foods they're meant to dress. But the WineSellar did get it right about distributing sharp knives all around to cut portions from the platters.
During appetizers, somebody (had to be Mark or Jim) started a fun game, an American Idol of the palate. "The final question is: If you could afford only one of these dishes, which would you choose?" At the appetizers, everyone chorused, "Foie gras!" Second choice -- "Hamachi!" For the mains, there were two votes for pheasant, one for scallops, two for duck (by the two who hadn't eaten it at A.R. Valentien). Of course, the culinary equivalent of exotic, off-key Sanjaya was automatically eliminated by our choice of restaurant, and you're unlikely to find poor William Hung at this price point.
The Brasserie has a specialized dessert chef, Alexandra Bradley, so all sweets are housemade. The list is longer than at most restaurants, and more interesting, sparking a strenuous discussion of what not to order, since we wanted to taste more desserts than we could possibly eat. Chocoholic Jim argued in favor of the Valrhona chocolate duo but was willing to be overruled: "I'm finding that at most restaurants, I'm disappointed. I want something to blow my mind, and they usually don't." "It's probably because there hasn't been much creativity in chocolate lately," said Lynne. "Decadence in the '70s, lava cake in the '90s, nothing much new after that." We asked our waiter which dessert he'd choose. He confessed to chocoholism but also recommended several other possibilities.
Our first choice was a tangerine soufflé cake with vanilla crème anglaise. This resembled panna cotta translated into a cake, sweet air bound by flour as well as egg whites, with tangerine slices on the side. "Perfect if you like your desserts light and fruity," said Mark. Second choice: crispy hazelnut cannoli filled with banana mascarpone cream and napped with caramel sauce. The thin cannoli shells were crunchy and brittle, their filling light and sexy, and the banana disks thankfully separate, as a garnish. But all were awash in thick caramel sauce the color of canned refried beans. "This gets no points for appearance," said Lynne. The sauce was painfully sweet as well -- I scraped most of it off my shell. The strategy: Leave the gunk, take the cannoli.
I remembered strawberries in balsamic syrup from the last time I ate it at Laurel, seven years ago to the month (when Douglas Organ was chef), and wanted it again. It's an eye-opener of brilliant simplicity: Ordinary balsamic vinegar and sugar are cooked down to a syrup served surrounding organic berries sprinkled with pepper. (Here, the kitchen adds a dollop of vanilla bean ice cream.) But last visit to Laurel, the berries were lushly ripe in May. Here, alas, they were pale and underripe -- the difference between an interesting dessert and the unforgettable earlier version. It's surprising, these little moments of middling produce, given that the WineSellar is about 10 or 15 minutes' drive from Chino Farms -- which, by taste, is unlikely to be where the restaurant does its foraging.
But the Chocolate Samurai would not go unrequited. The waiter, indulging a fellow addict, comped him the Valrhona chocolate duo. "This is a smooth, creamy little bittersweet terrine," Jim commented between tastes, "and this is a rich, decadent lava cake with a very moist center. But best of all," he added, "are the curls of pure bittersweet chocolate of incredible quality -- especially when you dip them in the whipped cream around the plate." "You sound so passionate!" Lynne said. "I am passionate about chocolate," he said.
The WineSellar consistently rates at the top for food in the Zagat Guide (which now lumps San Diego in with Oklahoma City, Dubuque, and Podunk in a multicity guide). But local participants in their survey have historically tended toward more conservative tastes -- upscale comfort food -- than those of, say, San Francisco, Chicago, or New York, where people have stronger stomachs for avant-garde cuisine. The food at the WineSellar is also rather conservative, but it's very good indeed, in fact better than very good. You will eat well here and will drink fabulously. And your mere presence will score a few more points for flesh and spirit against corporate conformity.
ABOUT THE WINE SELLAR AND BRASSERIE
The WineSellar and Brasserie was founded in 1989 as a partnership between chef Douglas Organ (the food guy) and Gary Parker (the wine guy). Organ, a protégé of San Diego's legendary Gustav Anders, was eager to create cuisine that would highlight the symbiosis of food and wine. He centered on French provincial dishes from Burgundy, Gascony, Provence, etc. -- food literally made to go with their areas' local wines. About four years later, the pair opened Laurel on Banker's Hill, a more urban, upscale spot, with slightly more adventurous, modern French-California cooking. (After Organ's departure for Boston in 2004, Laurel was eventually sold.)
The WineSellar's current executive chef, Mexican-born David Gallardo, worked under Doug Organ for nine or ten years, according to restaurant manager Steve Barr. (Gallardo went on vacation two days after we ate there and was unavailable for interview.) He continues the tradition but adds his own personality and creations to the menu. "Even when he's cooking dishes that Doug used to do, he doesn't cook Doug's dishes exactly," said Barr. "He's been changing them a little, bringing his own depths to them."