4095 30th Street, North Park
(No longer in business.)
This is how far we’ve come: An affordable new neighborhood eatery, warm and pretty but unpretentious, serving humanely raised natural Niman meats, precious Jidori chicken, local organic veggies in thoroughly tasty simple dishes — am I back in San Francisco, or have I landed in Hog Heaven?
Ritual Tavern is closely linked to the nearby Linkery, that staunch purveyor of ethical food culture a few blocks south. Mike Flores, who owns Ritual with his wife Staci Wilkins, is a Linkery “graduate,” and so is chef Glenn Farrington. They’ve carried their culinary idealism across University Avenue to the north side of 30th Street, to the site of a former Greek-Mexican eatery called Mailo’s.
The space has been thoroughly renovated to look like an Old World pub. One room of the Ritual houses an attractive bar. Next to it — but happily separate, in case the bar gets noisy, as bars may do — is an attractive, publike dining room with a bare floor, a dark green wall or two, dark-stained wooden accents, and well-spaced tables topped with white cloths. Soft, spacey rock was playing on the sound system when I arrived; later, it was replaced by bebop, still played softly. The staff believe that conversation is an integral part of a civilized dinner. Ah, Grownupville.
I ate there during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, when the populations of San Diego and the Midwest switch places, so I couldn’t bring my usual horde of hungry Vikings; all were scattered to the freezing regions to visit various Aged P’s or grown children. Happily, my friend Marciela was still in town and looking for (culinary) adventure. As a duo we couldn’t eat our way through the menu, but what we did eat told us we’d hit a winner on every front: food, atmosphere, comfort, price. The menu is short and looks deceptively simple, but what emerges is pleasure on a plate.
We began with a round of house onion rings, with an airy batter leavened by Ballast Point pale ale. The rings came with a remoulade dip — not mustardy-hot green New Orleans remoulade, but pink, mild, and rich. The same light batter robes a vegetable assortment and a shrimp appetizer if you fancy more fried food. We had to try the scampi (haven’t had that for ages). Tender, sweet Gulf of Mexico shrimp floated in a dark, lemony broth, with toasted ciabatta from Sadie Rose Bakery alongside for dipping. Marci and I tried to guess what the mysterious undertones were: Worcestershire, or maybe Thai fish sauce. Neither one, the chef told me later: “It’s just the classic scampi recipe, with shallots, garlic, sherry, olive oil, and butter.” It tasted better and richer than that.
Entrée possibilities include a burger and fries (with house-made ketchup, sweetened with cane sugar instead of evil high-fructose corn syrup), catfish and chips, pan-fried Jidori chicken breast with pineapple glaze, and a tempting shepherd’s pie with a load of veggies that includes green beans and sweet, seductive parsnips. (There are vegan versions of several of these choices.) There are one or two specials every night as well.
I couldn’t pass up the temptation to try “Saddlebrush Gumbo,” so named because the chef is a Long Island Yankee cooking a Southern dish (see “About the Chef” for details). As y’all probably know, I’m a strict constructionist when it comes to Creole or Cajun gumbo and can get testy about ersatz renditions — but this is not a Louisiana gumbo at all. To start, instead of the “Cajun trinity” of green peppers, celery, and onions, the chef uses carrots — carrots in gumbo! Second, it isn’t really a soup, more a thick étouffée (“smothered” dish). Then, too, there’s neither okra nor filé in it.
But gumbo isn’t restricted to Louisiana — it’s common throughout the South, from the Carolinas to Texas, with a number of regional variations. When I spoke to the chef, I asked what color he made his roux, to get a hint of what he was doing with the dish and where it might have come from: It’s a golden roux, he told me, made with bacon fat and flour, lighter in color than Louisiana’s typical range of peanut butter to mahogany. That alone points to origins in Alabama, or more likely Florida. The carrots? Here’s my theory: Florida’s zillions of retired New Yorkers (including many of my relatives) have never eaten okra in their lives — but carrots they know and love. So perhaps this recipe stems from the southeast Florida culinary region that runs from Century Village (where an alligator once slithered out of a canal and ate somebody’s grandson) to South Miami Beach. Jewish Mother Gumbo, maybe?
By any name, it’s wonderfully good eating — a thick, full-flavored sauce robing Mexican shrimp, Niman’s semi-spicy andouille sausage, and reasonably tender Jidori chicken breast, with a delicious, wholesome backbeat from organic long-grain wild rice, instead of the sticky white stuff.
The highest-priced item ($20) is a lamb sirloin with a rosemary-Port reduction sauce. It arrived cooked to a perfect medium-rare and came with “potato goat cheese dumplings” (that is, gourmet Tater Tots) and fresh, simple spinach from Crow’s Pass Farms in Temecula. Marci and I agreed: It’s a charming dish we’d gladly cook for ourselves if only we could get this quality of lamb at our local Vons (fat chance).
Most of the dishes are designed to go well with the awesome beer list. There are only a dozen-odd wines (the short list of whites could use some bolstering), and they change frequently, but the sweet and charming servers and bartender can help you come up with the right pour for whatever you’re eating.
For dessert, we were tempted by the artisan cheese board but, feeling full, succumbed instead to the house bread pudding. It’s soft, sturdy, and flavorful, loaded with raisins and glazed with a sugar syrup dusted with mace and nutmeg. You can get it topped with all-natural gelato if you like. (Minus gelato, any leftovers make a grand breakfast.) Beer lovers may want to try the outrageous-sounding Stone Smoked Porter Shake — an ice-cream “soda” of vanilla gelato in dark beer. The Caffé Calabria organic French-press coffee is rich and fine, including the decaf.