3794 30th Street, San Diego
Stately, plump Bruce Aidells came from the smoker bearing a bowl in which a sausage and a French roll lay crossed. That was some 30 years ago, and Aidells's original creations were the start of the "artisan sausage" movement in America.
The Linkery is our own homegrown version of Aidells. Their links bespeak no chain restaurant -- they're made daily at this quirky, passionate, ecology-minded eatery. The Linkery won such roaring success in the quiet southern reaches of North Park (and even in the major foodie magazines) that after three years it's now moved to larger, nicer quarters in the commercial heart of the neighborhood, a block south of University. The menu has expanded, too. What hasn't changed is the green, slow-food ethos: Nearly everything (including most bread and even the mustard and ketchup) is made from scratch on the premises, from the best possible ingredients provided from local farms, pastures, and waters, whenever possible.
The new headquarters are considerably more spacious and attractive, and while loud, it isn't painfully noisy like the old place (now occupied by Sea Rocket). The best tables on a summer night are along the north side of the building, an indoor-outdoor area open to North Park Way. My posse of five (Sam and harem) arrived when all those tables were taken, so we were seated in an interior room, painted red and rather darkly lighted, with unpadded wooden banquettes, wooden chairs, naked floors and tables -- sort of the slow-food ethos in restaurant design, sincere and no-frills.
"I'm Travis, I'll be your server tonight," said a longish-haired young man. The Lynnester, by trade a human-resources pro, quizzed him. He'd been working at the Linkery for only one month. "Most of us are new," he said, "hired for the big expansion when the restaurant moved here." Did he like it? "Oh, yeah. I get free food, free drink, and I can wear whatever I want to work. Not a lot of employers let you do that."
We soon began to suspect that he might be new to waiting as well. Not long after he took our order, a crew of cheerful "runners" brought our appetizers and our entrées from the kitchen -- all at once, hot and cold together, not only cluttering the table but pretty much forcing us to eat entrées first, before they cooled off, and nibble later at the appetizers. Lucky we hadn't ordered dessert yet! Much as I love the "no tipping/automatic 18 percent" policy (which means no mathematical contortions at bill time), it also means that a server who screws up badly will never have to ask himself why his tip is low. When Travis later returned to our table, he still had no clue he'd done anything wrong, and we didn't yell at him. (A restaurant manager knew and comped our desserts.)
(So, young Travis, if no one else will train you, I will: Right now, approximately a quarter of a million San Diegans are reading that you blew it. For about the last 300 years, we in the Western world -- except for those individuals raised by wolves -- have been eating our meals in courses, except when we go out to Korean restaurants. You can tell which course is which by the headings on the menu: The category called "Market Starters" means dishes to start with. "Mains" means main courses, to follow. Got it now?)
The house-cured meat-plate appetizer includes prosciutto-like air-dried ham, bresaola (air-dried beef), and coppa, all made of naturally raised meats from California family ranches, and all very good. They come with a little round of addictive house-made fruit paste that combines local organic dates with pistachios and pecans. The international artisan cheese plate offers a blue (Point Reyes), a sheep's-milk Tomme, and a goat Gouda, plus grilled bread and more fruit pâté. With a glass of wine, it would make a fine alternative to dessert. We also tried smoked kingclip, which is a Mexican fish I've never heard of (it tasted rather lean), served with a salad of organic wild greens with something spicy-hot in the dressing. It deserved more attention than any of us could give it under the circumstances.
Casual entrées (link plates, tacos, burgers, and franks) occupy most of the left side of the daily menu, while more serious entrées are on the right. Since the menu changes daily, you may not find the same dishes as we ate, but the serious entrées afforded most of our favorites.
Recently, owner Jay Porter was able to find a local source for live free-range kid, but he then ran into trouble trying to get it butchered nearby -- the closest licensed facilities are in L.A. It's off the menu for the moment; instead, there's a fine version of cochinita pibil, a Mayan dish from the Yucatán of shredded pork marinated in citrus juices and roasted in a wrap of banana leaves. Lynne was blown away. "The flavor is fantastic!" she said. Over the years I've sampled this dish numerous times, and it's always been less than I hoped for. (Usually it's too dry, even in its home town of Mérida.) But while I wasn't as thrilled as the Lynnester, I must say, this is the best try yet. It's certainly the moistest, most edible version I've encountered. It comes with tasty tomatoes, pearl barley dressed with a tomato gravy (first time I've ever really liked barley), and a lively salad of organic greenery from local La Milpa Farm.
Grass-fed, totally pasture-raised rib-eye (no methane-inspiring corn mash went into that heifer!) is the most expensive dish ($21.50) and at five ounces is what I'd call a right-sized portion of steak. Cooked rare over a flaming gas grill, it's got beautiful light charring, and the tender meat abounds in full beef flavor -- it's great steakhouse beef at half the size, half the price, double the savor. Close your eyes, you could be in Argentina -- except that here, they know what "rare" means. Current accompaniments are fingerling potatoes, grilled cipollini onions, and wonderful grilled peaches.
Lynne wanted to try the veggie lasagna with its house-made whole-wheat pasta. I was surprised, but her instinct was right: In this carnivores' castle, it proved one of the best dishes, featuring layers of tender pasta, squashes, garlic, onions, carrots, red pepper, and queso fresco in an almost ethereal tomatillo sauce. (So it's Mexican, not Italian. No problema.) This was a paragon of vegetarian cuisine -- sweet, tangy, smooth, airy -- real comfort food that coasts angelically into your body and mind, offering satisfaction without satiety.
On the casual entrées side, the news is less uniformly favorable. But before we get into the sausages, I want to mention a probably excellent dish we didn't try: the "complete burger." It's made from grass-fed California-raised chuck that's ground in-house! Since the meat isn't being run through some slaughterhouse grinder with who-knows-what-else, nor traveling after it's ground, the risk of bacterial contamination is minimal. Hence, you can eat this burger as rare as you like. (I'd eat it raw, no worries. Bring on the tartare.) The burger comes with salty house-cured bacon made from America's best pork (Vande Rose's heritage Duroc hogs), plus Gouda, arugula, tomato, grilled onions, pineapple (huh?), and a free-range fried egg (optional).
The best sausage we tasted was the "superbison Mexi-dog," mixing free-range California-raised bison and Berkshire pork. It's moist and meaty and really captures the wild flavor of buffalo. It comes with house-cured bacon, pico de gallo salsa, smoked jalapeño aioli, house ketchup, and grilled onion on an artisan bun from Bread on Market. None of us could bear to wrap it in the bun -- too much fun to savor all the elements individually.
There are about five other sausages made daily from an ever-changing array. You can get one to three of these on a "picnic plate" or in a vaguely Alsatian-style choucroute (sauerkraut with white wine). Not being sauerkraut aficionados, we tried all five of the day's offerings on a pair of picnic plates. These come with Granny Smith apple and red-cabbage slaw and potato salad, both mildly pleasant, plus a couple of slabs of Gouda and a dipping sauce of nose-clearing, gooey honey-based house-made mustard.
It's been interesting to watch the Linkery develop its repertoire of sausages, but I've been mildly disappointed over time at the lack of consistent deliciousness. I'm an old friend of Bruce Aidells and watched (and tasted) with delight as his sausage-making business grew. He went from being a hippie with a converted fridge-smoker in his backyard into a national brand because he's a natural-born chef, with a powerful intuition about what will taste great. The Linkery's sausages are purer in some ways (they're all fresh, uncured, free of commercial sodium nitrates and nitrites), but -- alas -- nothing at the Linkery has ever equaled Cousin Brucie's least-spectacular sausage in flavor, although that bison dog is a powerful contender.
After chewing over the question for three years, I've concluded that the problem isn't the composition of the sausages but the technique used to cook them: All the sausages are poached before grilling. In contrast, when you buy a package of Aidells sausages from the grocery, you can do whatever you like with them -- grill 'em, skillet-cook 'em, griddle-cook them, or even boil them (aaagh!), like flaccid lunchtime wieners in a hospital cafeteria. At the Linkery, they've made one choice to fit all sausages, and I think it's the wrong choice.
Some sausages -- the porky mittel-European ones with thick skins and plenty of fat in their composition -- can withstand poaching, and may even improve from it. Others should never touch water -- it sucks the life out of them. These include fresh Italian sausages (like those at Pete's Meats); breakfast sausage (whether links or loaves); the delicate, thin-skinned boudin blanc from the southern region of Cajun country (Lafayette south to Houma); and fresh poultry sausages. Traditional cooks always cook these sausages in a greased skillet or on a griddle (sometimes finishing them off on a grill) -- and these folk have got folk wisdom on their side. Take the Aidells fresh chicken-apple sausage skillet-cooked for weekend brunches at the Farmhouse -- when you bite into one, it spills delicious sweet liquid into your mouth. Compare that with the much dryer-tasting chicken sausages here.
We tried two chicken-based sausages -- a chicken curry and a Thai. Couldn't tell which was which, as both were spicy but dry. One was marginally acceptable, the other fowl sawdust. The three pork sausages (all made with that fabulous Vande Rose pork from Iowa) weren't bad, but none was quite thrilling. It could also be that the restaurant is so dedicated to virtue in all aspects of its operation that it doesn't include quite enough pig fat (or alternative emollients) in the sausage mixtures.
The wine list offers fun and adventure. Ordering by the glass, Lynne, Jennifer, and I each enjoyed a crisp South African Le Bonheur Sauvignon Blanc, while Mary Jo savored a fine dry Sangria made from a decent red and seasonal fresh fruit. Sam enjoyed a semi-sweet Alsatian white (Pierre Sparr "Alsace One") and then an organic Dashe Zin, while I savored a crisp, dry Tavel Rosé for my second glass, finding it exactly as I remembered from Provence.
For the final round, Sam, a serious wine guy, brought an Oregon Pinot Noir from his own cellar. Under the circumstances (eight glasses of restaurant wine, including Lynne's first round at the bar before the rest of us arrived), the $20 corkage struck us as rigid and ungenerous. Many higher-end restaurants (J-Six, Better Half, Cavaillon, et al.) waive corkage if you buy their wines as well, and we'd bought the equivalent of two bottles. I asked Jay about this later, and it turns out that the restaurant's corkage policy has never really been defined. (See "About the Linkery," below.)
Time for dessert. We asked Travis what his favorite was. "Carrot cake," he said. Not meaning to joke, I said, "I've already been a hippie, eaten enough carrot cake for life." Neo-hippie Travis looked blank. The grilled pound cake with whipped cream and fresh raspberries seemed austere despite the garnishes. A special of grilled nectarines and vanilla ice cream with raspberries left us cold -- good ingredients, no unity. The coffees, French-press, are all virtuous; unfortunately, they no longer come from Caffé Calabria but from other local roasters. I asked Travis if any were dark roast. That would be the Costa Rican, he said. Dark it was, yes, but also thin and bitter. I added cream as though it were luncheonette coffee or instant. Meanwhile, Mary Jo was suffering with a cup of what she described as "dirty-tasting" Earl Grey tea.
I still like the Linkery very much, even though I don't love it as I probably ought to. As I said, "I've already been a hippie." Cooking with the best, most natural ingredients is a first step, not a guarantee. Then you have to cook things really well. That's the difference between, say, J-Six or the Better Half and the Linkery. Virtue may be its own reward for those who practice it, but those who buy it at a restaurant may want a bit more. There's some very tasty food here, but nothing sufficiently ecstasy-inducing to make me cry, "yes, I said yes."
ABOUT THE LINKERY
Once again, I'm not including a full chef or owner interview because the restaurant's website will tell you far more than everything you want to know. It includes a blog by owner Jay Porter that makes fabulously educational reading if you care at all about the quality of what you swallow (and how it affects the planet). At the very least, you should click (in orange, on the right-hand side of the screen) the link to "The World of Meat." This gives an in-depth insight into the three distinct modes of meat production in the U.S. -- the huge differences between commercial meats, "branded" meats like Niman, and family farmed. Another blog entry about why restaurants are generally so bad exposes the near-enslavement relationship between major food-service companies like Sysco and the restaurants that buy from them. Read this, and next time you see a Sysco truck unloading in the alley of a restaurant you think you like, you will (to quote ad-line for the great Cronenberg remake of The Fly) "be afraid, be very afraid."
I did ask Jay a couple of critical questions. First, why does the Linkery poach all the sausages? "We poach them first because our (very possibly imperfect) experimental research leads us to believe that, done properly, this method actually keeps the moisture and mouthfeel in place better than any other," he said. "If you didn't get that experience, I fear that either we had an execution issue with the particular sausages in question, or we're just, you know, wrong about that method being best. Evaluating our methods and improving is a constant, iterative process."
Second question: What's with charging corkage to a table that's already bought the equivalent of two bottles of the restaurant's wines? "I can't say we've put much thought into it," Jay said. "Most of our rules and policies -- even the seemingly esoteric ones -- arise pretty naturally from the group as the need arises. I think corkage and waiving it just haven't come up enough yet for an actual policy to have evolved for us. Up till now, I reckon it's been pretty haphazard whether the corkage is waived, depending on who's on the floor and what they're paying attention to…. I agree that corkage should be waived if the party is buying a lot of wine or sharing a nifty bottle with us, etc., just like most restaurants do. It's come up so rarely, though, that we haven't really had the occasion to discuss it much with our group here, and discussion is the process here by which ideas and notions become habits and interactions."
(Special thanks to stately, plump Frank from Servpro for drying out my apartment from a garden-sprinkler flood. He loves game meats as I do and unexpectedly quoted James Joyce in his lovely brogue, thereby handing me the first and last words of this review [from Ulysses] on a silver platter on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.) n
- 2.5 stars
- (Good to Very Good)
3794 30th Street (at North Park Way), North Park, 619-255-8778, thelinkery.com.
- HOURS: Dinner daily, 5:30 p.m.–11:30 p.m.
- PRICES: Salads, starters, sides, $5.50–$12.50; entrées, $9–$21.50; desserts, $6.50–$7.50.
- CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Artisanal “green cuisine” with global flavors, featuring humanely raised small-farm meats (including house-made sausages and charcuterie) paired with local sustainable/organic produce on a daily changing seasonal menu. Wide-ranging, well-priced wines, plenty by the glass; craft beers; soft drinks made with cane sugar (not corn syrup). Corkage $20.
- PICK HITS: House-cured meat plate; super bison Mexi-dog; cochinita pibil; grass-fed rib-eye; garden (vegetarian) lasagna; probably the “complete burger,” side of green beans.
- NEED TO KNOW: No reservations accepted; go early or late for immediate seating. No tipping, but 18 percent service charge added to bill. Totally casual atmosphere. Many bar-height tables and chairs unsuitable for wheelchair-users. No kiddie menu, but several kid-friendly dishes. Always at least five lacto-vegetarian entrées, three vegan or vegan-adaptable. Takeout available; can call ahead and pick up.