4055 Adams Avenue, San Diego
Restaurateur Tracy Borkum (Laurel, Chive, Kensington Grill) is a demanding mistress. Chefs who don't meet her exalted standards (or who don't want to meet them) vanish swiftly. But chef Hanis Cavin, now cooking at Kensington Grill, seems a heaven-made match, and I hope it's a long and happy one. Not only is Hanis an imaginative chef with a fine palate for big, forward flavors, but due to his secret workaday weapon -- fluent kitchen Spanish -- the execution of the dishes is flawless, wherever he's in charge. (See About the Chef, next page.) And with Tracy as his boss, he can buy the great ingredients he needs to make his food shine.
Kensington Grill is a slightly upscale neighborhood restaurant in a decidedly upscale neighborhood, and Hanis cooks just the sort of mouth-friendly, sophisticated food you want from such a spot. It's not madly avant-garde -- but nearly every dish at every meal is fresh, imaginative, and tastes terrific.
My eating buddy Samurai Jim recruited a couple of friends who are longtime Kensington residents: James, a well-traveled ex-Navy guy turned chef (and now realtor) and his wife Anita, a Nordstrom executive who travels the country staging training exercises. After about three food-related sentences, I told Jim, "Add 'em to the posse; they've traveled enough and eaten enough." (I admit that their midlife beauty added to the appeal. Treat the eyes while you treat the mouth.)
Kensington Grill was redecorated a few years ago, but on a balmy, humid night at the start of the Labor Day weekend, when the air felt like a perfect New Orleans evening, we couldn't resist the sidewalk patio, foregoing the air-conditioned interior with its subdued golden lighting and clean, bright decor.
Jim, recently moved to nearby Talmadge, had previously sampled the fried calamari. "I don't really like squid, but this was special," he said. And so it was: The crisp-crusted tender circlets were engulfed in a vivacious cabbage and red pepper "slaw" dressed with sweet Thai chili sauce (Mae Plow brand, from a nearby Asian supermarket), a combination brimming with spirit. Hanis created the dish when he first worked at this restaurant, seven years ago. "Mmm, dis bust da mout'," quipped James in Pacific Islander argot. A few nights later, enjoying the doggie bag, I realized where I'd tasted a similar dressing -- in a raw cockle salad at my favorite dive on slummy lower Sukhumvit Road (Bangkok). That's a rave.
Small Prince Edward Island mussels also were treated to Southeast Asian flavors, but this time as comfort food -- swimming in a caressing broth of coconut milk, Kaffir lime, and lemongrass. Not only were the mussels cooked to succulence, but the broth was ideally salted, with the mussels' own brine contribution factored into the equation.
House-cured salmon gravlax, with grilled baguette, lemon-whipped cream cheese, and marinated cucumber salad was fresh and easygoing, an ideal summer-night starter. And a mango and Brie quesadilla was a light, bright surprise, since Brie can be overfilling. This holdover from a previous chef's menu deserves its long run. There was just enough cheese to hold the quesadilla together, but the real stars, along with the fruit, were the golden corn kernels as garnish. The combination tasted like an instant Caribbean vacation.
I was hoping to try the bouillabaisse (listed on the website menu) so I could play "compare and contrast" with the version at nearby Bleu Boheme (where I had reservations for the next night). But bouillabaisse has been banished from the current menu (it may come back in winter), with a substitution of a seafood pasta. (Sorry, anybody can cook that, whereas bouillabaisse takes real work.) Instead, we chose "crispy skin salmon," and it was a delight, the fish moist, thick, and medium-rare, the skin indeed crispy. The Scottish salmon (from cold waters with strong currents) was both lean and succulent, served over a light miso broth with delicate green tea soba, the "Asian trinity" (garlic, shallots, ginger), and minced celery, carrots, and bamboo shoots.
Tender, medium-sized pan-roasted Callo de Hacha sea scallops from Baja were fresh and of fine quality, perched atop crisp, interesting shrimp-and-potato cakes, the shrimp subtly pushing the spuds to a higher realm. Alongside each scallop was a heaping tablespoonful of a lush, tropical-tasting veggie medley of white corn, fresh peas, and teardrop tomatoes on little beds of fresh pea shoots.
Horseradish-coated sea bass is comfort food (another of the few dishes held over from previous chefs) and James's longtime favorite here. "People think about horseradish as harsh tasting," he said, "but if you grate it raw and then cook it, it's mellow. If you serve it raw, it'll blow your head off." This mellow rendition came with lush mashed potatoes and crispy leeks. The leek juices seeped into the spuds, turning their edges chartreuse and elevating the flavor well above ordinary.
Both Jim and Anita love steak, so we bypassed several other interesting meats (game meatloaf, stuffed "Sterling Silver"--grade well-marbled pork chops, and braised lamb shanks with couscous) in favor of grilled rib eye, which came with ramekins of two sauces, salsa verde and mustard aioli. "I like it so much better this way," said Jim, "served with a choice of sauces, instead of having it arrive already slathered with something." I was neutral on this dish because my tablemates wanted "medium rare" while I prefer "ultra rare." (The "vampire hours" I work apparently breed vampire tastes.) But if you're a steak conservative, take their word that it was good.
The wine list is sheerly wonderful, put together by an adventurous palate. With the temperature that evening slowly descending from the day's high of 92 degrees, I spotted a Vouvray, France's favorite picnic wine -- a dry, insouciant Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley. It's available by the glass, but we all wanted it, so we enjoyed a bottle with our first course. For our entrées (three seafoods overruling one meat), the lure was a French Marsanne blend called Las Valse. It proved crisp, but deep and rich. (None of us picked up any hint of the "marshmallow" flavor the wine list promised, but we enjoyed a faint minty undertone along with ripe stone-fruit flavors.)
The simpler desserts (pot au crème, cobbler, etc.) are made in-house, while more complex ones come from the larger kitchen at Laurel, often made to the chef's specifications. Samurai Jim has been dreaming for several years of a bread pudding to match that of A.R. Valentien. The house-made banana bread pudding here comes very close. The texture is light, and the sugar syrup drizzled on the surface isn't icky-sweet, merely sweet enough.
But the dessert that left my socks way down the block was our waitress's recommendation of a white-chocolate strawberry shortcake. After a big meal, as I've often said, what I want is "sweetened air," and this was exactly that -- a cylinder of fluff, fruit flavor, and gentle sweetness, anchored only by gravity to the planet's surface. It was more than good.
Ever since my superb meal from chef Patrick Ponsaty at Bernard O's (a "neighborhood restaurant" that sets a fabulously high standard, en français) -- compared to an earlier, dreadfully disappointing dinner at Addison -- I've quietly revised my rating system to give more weight to sheer deliciousness -- because the food of some highly accomplished "big name" chefs can be awesome but doesn't necessarily taste delightful. With a neighborhood restaurant like Kensington Grill, the taste factor really counts the most. Hanis Cavin's food is not likely to scare the horses, but it's definitely a free-stepping pace away from the ordinary -- and at the same time, reliably mouth watering. If you've been scrambling to get a reservation at new and trendy Bleu Boheme nearby (to be reviewed next week), you might think again about revisiting an old favorite instead. Good old Kensington Grill is now good old four-star Kensington Grill. I still adore the Moroccan food at Kous-Kous in Hillcrest and the Georgian food at Pomegranate in University Heights, but if you're craving something less exotic and more comfortable in a neighborhood restaurant, this must be the top American-food rendition in the city. With Hanis, to paraphrase Victor Spinetti in the Beatles' movie Help!: Just give him good ingredients and he could rule your mouth.
ABOUT THE CHEF
A longtime chef at Dakota Grill, Hanis Cavin moved on to a quick, fine stint at New Leaf at the downtown Hilton, then proceeded to reinvigorate Pacific Coast Grill in Solana Beach before taking on the Kensington Grill eight months ago. He's a big, low-key guy (but with high culinary standards) -- an alpha griller.
"I moved to Kensington drawn by the chance to have pretty much my own say on the food. The direction Tracy [Borkum, the owner] wanted to go in was to keep the neighborhood happy. We're really geared to being local and fresh and not so much of a specific [culinary] niche. I loved PCG with its 'Pacific coast theme,' but here I have some Asian, some American -- I can use all the ingredients that are available to us. And that's fun for a chef. Tracy's rarely here -- I mean, it's fun when she's here -- but when you can feel comfortable about running the restaurant on a daily basis, that makes every thing a little bit better. An owner's ability to have confidence in her staff makes a job really great. She's a terrific boss -- she wants to have great food, consistent food, and she relies on us to be her eyes and her ears.
"And the service staff have all been here years. That's really exciting, to work with a staff that's seasoned, that appreciates the food, and that appreciates it when you change the food. They give me great feedback, they really speak to me. They say, 'People aren't really eating this,' and I say, 'Let's change it.' We have the ability to make a change mid-shift if we need to. We can print a menu at 7:00, and if something isn't working, we can change it right there, that night. There's no need to keep serving something that people aren't enjoying. I think it helps the comfort level of everybody here.
"We're gearing the food to be seasonal and as local as possible. We get our produce from Specialty Produce, a local company that's now going around and buying from local farms, because they have enough restaurants that want to use local produce. It's hard for even chefs to know all about every farm, and Specialty Produce researches all these little companies and helps them so they do stay afloat. We do use Santa Monica for most of our fish, which isn't local, because their quality is just exceptional. It's because they have a passion -- the fish comes as cold and fresh as it was in the warehouse. We try to be responsible and use only nonendangered fish."
A couple of years ago, when I telephoned Hanis at Pacific Coast Grill, I overheard him speaking fluent "kitchen Spanish" with his staff. A far cry from some of the prima donnas coming out of cooking schools who refuse to learn another language, he encourages his line chefs to leap for excellence and enjoy perfecting their craft -- hence, no misunderstandings and none of the sly sabotage of the "no te entendí, pensé que me pedías que me orinara en la sopa" school of deliberate cluelessness. (Translation: "I didn't understand, I thought you had asked me to piss in the soup.") No problema for him. Cooking schools ought to make kitchen Spanish a required course: Hanis talks the talk as well as walks the walk, and the result is that he seems to elicit full-out performance from his staff, with mainly flawlessly executed dishes wherever he's worked.
"I'm really comfortable in a kitchen with a Latino staff," he says. "You bond a little more family-like. It's great to have somebody ambitious who wants your job someday, but it's really nice to have people who are happy to work their stations, and when you give them a new item to cook, they're excited about it. One of my right-hand men now was here when I worked here seven years ago. Whereas the one Anglo we have in our kitchen, fresh out of culinary school, is having a harder time because -- although everybody can speak English -- when things get really busy and hectic, you fall back on your first language. I like to make everybody have pride in what they do. I just got back from a couple of days in Ensenada, and I bought everybody on my crew Mexican wrestling masks. As silly as it is, it bonds the crew together. You make cooking fun, and I think it shows on the plate."
Erratum: A charming letter from Old Peru Hand Chris V. (with no return address, or I'd answer and enjoy sharing reminiscences) pointed out that Huancayo is slightly north of Cuzco, not south. Luckily, south of the equator the sun still rises in the east, or as trip navigator I'd probably have steered us to Nome instead of Tierra del Fuego. Why I didn't mention the divine Pisco Sour cocktail in my review of Latin Chef? Because the latter has no liquor license. Made with delicious white Peruvian brandy, the Pisco Sour resembles a Ramos Fizz; in Lima, they often substitute it for tea at "tea time" (dinners tend to be very late), and a couple of them can be deadly (especially in the airport lounge awaiting your flight announcement). Along with the margarita, caipirinha, and mojito, it ranks among the world's greatest tropical cocktails.