11966 El Camino Real, San Diego
Bay Area-based chef Bradley Ogden is still the official guiding spirit at Arterra, but ever since executive chef Carl Schroeder left to open his own Market about 18 months ago, the top toque working actively in the kitchen has been Brian Pekarcik, who inherited the job after several years under Schroeder here, and even earlier at Bertrand at Mr. A's. He's less a graduate of the Bradley Ogden "school" of cuisine than one of the "sons of Gary Danko," whom many consider San Francisco's best chef. (I ate a final feast at Gary Danko's restaurant the night before I moved to San Diego. It was exquisite.)
Schroeder's food at Arterra was excellent, cleaving to the Ogden mode of great ingredients in tasty, unchallenging, all-American combinations -- but it was somewhat less exciting than what it's become, now that he's free from having to please corporate diners whose minds are more on their deals than on their dinners. In contrast, Pekarcik's cooking at Arterra absorbs all the attention you can spare. Every dish, starting with the "amuse," is complex and creative, an adventure for the mouth. It's artful, perfectionistic food to savor, not gobble as you talk business. But there is a downside to this rampant fruitfulness: It can be a tad exhausting.
We began with an "amuse," a soup spoon filled with Chino heirloom tomato soup, one shrimp, gently pungent opal basil microgreens, and additional tiny unnamed garnishes. You're supposed to swallow it all at a gulp, chewing the shrimp en route. I'd have preferred to attack it bite by bite with chopsticks, savoring each flavor in turn before upending the spoon. It was so delicious, it nearly brought tears to my eyes.
The bread basket at Arterra, like those at any Ogden restaurant, is worth attention. The stars are tiny corn muffins, abetted by delicate miniature biscuits. In the past (starting way back when Ogden was cooking at Campton Place in SF), you couldn't get refills on the divine corn muffins at Ogden's restaurants, just the regular breads. After I moaned to Schroeder about this, the policy at Arterra changed. Now, ask and ye shall receive.
Of the exceptional dishes that followed, my favorite, not accidentally, was seemingly the simplest -- a thick soup of curried white lentils and celeriac. The puréed lentils served as a thickener, while the haunting flavor of celery root stole the stage, abetted by a lacing of hot pepper oil and a secret, subtle waft of curry spices. On the side was a mini-salad of crabmeat, cucumber, and mint in lime vinaigrette, cool relief from spice and earthiness -- although scarcely necessary. After my friends had sipped their fill of the soup, I scraped the bowl in a state of greedy ecstasy. A five-star dish, winning on both artfulness and sheer flavor.
Maine Lobster, "hot and cold," was not as finely focused, offering a ramekin of warm lobster, orzo, and baby fava beans next to a salad of thin-sliced poached lobster "carpaccio," disks of beets, and greenery. Interesting, fun, but not totally orgasmic. I regret missing the Satsuma tangerine version of the double dish in the summer of '06. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and chefs gotta change their recipes or die (of boredom), but I have a feeling I'd have liked last year's version better.
A tiger prawn "BLT" offered two garnishes for large, tender shrimps set at opposite sides of the plate. In one corner, a couple of prawns sported red robes of fresh tomato confit. In the other, the prawns mingled with sweet corn relish and applewood-smoked bacon. Refereeing the bout from the center: a mound of newborn arugula and a little patch of "avocado terrine" (chopped avocado and veggie friends, disciplined into a minuscule parade-ground square). Charming -- especially the avocado terrine. (It reminded me of a dish I badly miss, a lobster and avocado terrine at San Francisco's sublime La Folie.)
A Chino Farms fig salad was, in comparison, a relaxed composition. The salad, spotted with fresh black figs, consisted mainly of arugula in a fine truffle vinaigrette, with a few slices of silky Parma prosciutto draped across the greenery like Venus lounging on her daybed. Along the edge of the plate were several lumpialike crisp rolls of thin pastry filled with caramelized onions and enough Brie to bind them. I'm not sure the rolls and the salad really had much to say to each other, but both were precious -- in both senses of the word, gemlike, but also a bit "arty" as a combination.
By now, I was starting to notice that the chef here is so smart and so inventive, he has a tendency toward overkill -- too much wonderful stuff on every plate, wearying the palate. (I had a similar experience with Tony De Salvio at Jack's, where I enjoyed the doggie bags over several nights better than eating at the restaurant.) I wanted to put my hands on Pekarcik's cheeks like a fond old aunt and say, "Don't work so hard, dahling. You've made your point, now relax a little -- so we can relax too."
The entrée I liked best was Hawaiian hamachi (yellowtail), arriving pearly and opalescent, some of it straight up, some in the lightest tempura crust. It came with a garnish of thin, delicate soba noodles in a spicy sauce, mingling with spinach and baby favas, tomato bits, pistachios, and purple string beans, plus a daub of spicy coral-colored sambal aioli. Textures ranged from meltingly soft to vegetatively crunchy. I'm not sure that the combination works in absolute harmony, but it offers a bustling, anarchic pleasure, like Kowloon's Temple Street Night Market or a street scene in a Charles Dickens novel.
I wasn't thrilled with grilled day-boat scallops. The huge scallops were a little coarse textured and not quite vibrant, perhaps the result of sitting on the tarmac too long on the flight from Boston. Many top local chefs have switched to Mano de León scallops, farmed in Ensenada, which arrive here much fresher. They have less snob appeal, more mouth appeal. (Pekarcik sometimes uses them, too.) In any event, we were tickled to find each scallop crowned with a frizz of horseradish foam. Alongside came haute-Mex garnishes: a puffed roulade of poblano peppers, prawns, and cream cheese, and a pepper-and-avocado salad. The "puff" of peppers and cheese proved spicy, salty, and thoroughly amusing, a culinary joke on the theme of chile rellenos gone upscale.
Pekarcik worked in San Francisco when chef George Morrone was pioneering a major trend (now carried on by his more famous protégé Michael Mina) of offering several versions of an ingredient on the same plate, an exploration of the varied tastes offered through different cuts and different treatments. The first San Diego restaurant to follow this fashion was Blanca in Solana Beach (whose chef worked with Mina). I think it's a great idea, lending intellectual rigor to the sensuality of eating. Arterra is now offering the same explorations with pork, jidori chicken, and beef entrées.
A duo of Four Story Hill Farms pork (the pedigree must indicate it's free-range) pairs a house-made sausage with a slice of spice-rubbed loin (served medium-rare by default, as it should be). The sausage is fine, slightly spicy from black pepper, and not that far from one of the artisanal house-made links at North Park's Linkery. The loin is tender and pleasant. The combination comes with a riotous sweet hash of diced beets, sweet potato, cabbage, onion, and bacon, plus a potatoey-tasting biscuit.
Beef gets a similar treatment -- sliced grilled rib eye (unfortunately, I was outvoted by a posse that preferred medium-rare, rather than very rare) is paired with braised short ribs, quite nice if not quite to die for, with various elaborate garnishes involving corn, cheese, and roasted veggies. Normally I love to eat "family-style," sharing every dish (a smart strategy since nobody gets stuck with the "bad dish" and everyone gets to taste everything), but here, any single entrée offers more than enough flavors for one diner to handle at a meal. It's all wonderful, but again, perhaps a bit too much at one time. Even with gently reheated doggie bags, one per night, a certain palate fatigue recurred.
Arterra, as a restaurant, has several annoying features: a noisy dining room and lighting so dim at certain tables that you need a flashlight to read the menu, plus exorbitant wine and cocktail prices. After a wearying workday grappling with the previous review, I needed seriously frivolous alcohol that night. A round of cocktails for four came to $64. Wines are just as high, with glasses running $12 and up and hardly any bottles under $50 (most are at least $70). By sticking to California Rhones (Beaucastel Blanc white and Qupé red), we managed to keep the wine to a third of our total bill; it could easily have outpaced the food costs. Full of "cult" boutique bottlings, it's a great California list, but most suitable for, say, a military contractor trying to seduce a corrupt congressman into an earmark. Other hotel restaurant sommeliers (e.g., at Molly's and at Azzura Point) have devised more merciful but equally excellent lists. In these parlous times, when the Dow shivers with every flutter of Ben Bernanke's eyelashes, few people have unlimited expense accounts.
Desserts were near fabulous. My favorite was the relative simplicity of an almond cake with poached pear, honey cream, and Moscato d'Asti essence -- that is, something small, light, and craftsmanly. Plum clafouti is not the homey custard but a more elaborate deconstructed version, the plums standing alone on the plate. Valrhona chocolate caramel crème is so sweet and gooey that even Jim, the Chocoholic Samurai, found it a bit much. There's also a sampler of artisanal American- made cheeses, with options for port or Madeira accompaniments. If I ate at Arterra on my own bill, I'd probably just feast on appetizers and then fast forward to the cheeses -- or perhaps I'd nibble "small plates" and the cheese sampler on the lovely new outdoor patio. I'd miss some deliciousness, but I'd feel calmer.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Brian Pekarcik (pronounced Peh-KAR-chick) was born in Korea and adopted by a Slovak family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "I grew up with my grandmother's strong Eastern European flavors and aromas, like chicken paprikash. My mom, as a job when I was growing up, would cook for the priests at the rectory, and I'd be dragged along, and she'd also help out at her friend's bakery making wedding cakes, and I went with her there, too. So I always had an interest in having fun in the kitchen and making my own meals, so to speak. I was the youngest of four children, and I was extremely involved in sports during high school. By the time I got home from practice, what was food for the family had become reheats and leftovers for me. So I liked to put things together in my own way -- making French-fried cheese melts with tomato, which I later called my first experience of making 'French-American fusion cuisine.'"
An injury on the baseball field during his freshman year at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio, ended his involvement in sports and left him with free time. His parents urged him to get a job and help pull his financial weight, so while studying he worked as a prep chef in a local Italian restaurant. "Cooking filled the void for me that baseball left," he says. "I found the intensity, passion, and teamwork of working in a kitchen was very similar to baseball. I loved how the chef orchestrated the line and was thoroughly involved in striving for a common goal -- perfection!"
He graduated in 1997 with a major in psychology and a minor in business. "After I graduated, I said, 'Know what? Cooking is what I love to do,' and I moved out to California and pursued that full time." In love with the idea of California, he found work in a Sacramento restaurant.
He quickly discovered that Sacramento isn't anybody's California Dreaming. Visiting a college friend living in San Diego, he decided to relocate and targeted Mille Fleurs as the restaurant where he wanted to work. He called and "pestered" chef Martin Woesle until he was hired. Then he and Carl Schroeder worked together as sous-chefs at its then-new spin-off, Bertrand at Mr. A's. "Carl and I worked together so well there, we always knew we'd work together again." Then came Brian's great leap upward. "A friend of mine who worked at Gary Danko in San Francisco told me a position was opening up. This was right after they'd won the Mobil Five Stars and the James Beard Best New Restaurant award -- so the opening crew was still intact. This was still within their first year of opening. I called Gary and eventually got through to him, and he offered to let me stage [to work in an unpaid learning position] at the restaurant for a few days. After I staged for the three days, I was offered the position.
"It was an incredible experience. It was inspiring working with Gary, and for Gary. He reiterated my management philosophy, that there's nothing he wouldn't do for the restaurant. I'd go into the restaurant and find him on his hands and knees, cleaning bathrooms. There wasn't anything he would ask you to do that he hadn't done himself. Even more than that was the level of the chefs that were in the kitchen, and how we inspired and motivated each other every day. It was awesome, like nothing anywhere else. I was the chef de partie of the meat and game station -- in a restaurant kitchen hierarchy, a chef de partie is in charge of a single station in a restaurant, including doing your own purchasing and invoicing and supervising the prep of the dishes from your station. I really feel fortunate in my mentors -- Martin at Mille Fleurs, Gary, even the guy who ran the restaurant where I worked in college. I've been very lucky, because I didn't go to culinary school. I learned through the school of hard knocks. And I'll still learn from anybody I can, including guys in my kitchen. I'm really lucky to have such a great crew."
Several times, while Carl Schroeder was executive chef at Arterra, he asked Brian to come back and work for him. Brian was very happy at Gary Danko and in love with San Francisco, but when he and his fiancée (a social worker) looked at their finances, they realized they couldn't afford to settle down in a city with such a high cost of living. Then Carl mentioned that he would eventually be leaving Arterra to open his own place, and he thought Brian would be a good replacement for him. Brian took the bait and returned to San Diego.
"To be a chef, it's become so overglamorized a profession," he says. "But people don't realize, it's really such hard work. It's almost a sickness, to have that passion for it. My wife, when we're in the car, has stopped asking me when I'm quiet, 'What are you thinking?' I should tell her something romantic, but I'm actually thinking about food. Since I live close to the restaurant and have a short commute, it ends up that I get my best ideas in the shower."
Congratulatory note: The current issue of Gourmet magazine includes a nationwide survey of "Best Farm-to-Table" restaurants. Two of ours made it: Carl Schroeder's Market and the Linkery.