This restaurant is closed.
I suspect that all middle-class (and up) native San Diegans have dined at Rainwater’s on Kettner at least once — for a birthday, a graduation, an engagement, an anniversary. According to its website, the restaurant is currently celebrating an anniversary, of its 20th year in business. But it’s actually more like the 23rd year. Last summer it acquired a new executive chef, Julian Quinones. The mere possibility of change at this bastion of tradition gave me an excuse to end my status as the last middle-class Rainwater’s virgin in San Diego.
You could say that chophouses are urban America’s version of the French bistro (a genre that is burgeoning again here), offering simple but well-sauced traditional dishes and fine wine lists in a congenial, faintly in-groupy atmosphere. But unlike bistros, chophouses are usually rather large, luxurious in atmosphere and pampering service, and they’re almost always forthrightly expensive. And, of course, they are focused above all on the joys of red meat — a characteristic stemming more from English first-class hotel restaurants and clubs than from France’s more eccentric eateries.
Rainwater’s spacious second-floor dining room resembles an English men’s club scaled to New World proportions, coziness spread large, with dark wood, leather booths, gentle lighting, white tablecloths. This is where the downtown power elite lunches. (Of course, I’ve heard the same about Chuey’s in Barrio Logan — but I guess Chuey’s is for working lunches and Rainwater’s is for impressing-somebody lunches.) It’s reportedly hectic at noon, but at a midweek January dinnertime, we found it sparsely populated.
The appetizers include retro steakhouse choices (shrimp cocktail and its colleagues), and there seemed to be fewer choices on the printed menu than on the website. (The lighting is dim, but had I spotted steak tartare, I would have ordered it.) We began with six flawless Washington State oysters, big, fresh, and juicy, arriving with a very decent house cocktail sauce as well as a mignonette, with Tabasco sauce offered on the side. A fine crab cake offered large hunks of crab and little filler. The crab is Eastern blue, but it tasted so buttery I thought it might be Dungeness. The breads were irresistible: First came a round of delicate, moist cornbread cylinders, followed by fluffy sourdough French, both accompanied by high-quality unsalted butter.
We lucked into an exceptional “special”: beef Wellington is new to the menu. Normally, it’s $42, all by itself, but that evening it was part of a package deal that for the same price included choice of a salad and dessert. For the salad, I chose a baby spinach and Belgian endive mixture strewn with Roquefort cheese and caramelized pistachios in a light vinaigrette. Loved it.
Beef Wellington reminds me of the old movie joke, “We call our company Miracle Productions. If it’s a good picture, it’s a miracle!” If it’s a good Wellington, it’s a miracle, too, because this is a dish difficult to pull off perfectly. It consists of beef tenderloin topped with foie gras and mushroom duxelles (minced and sautéed), surrounded by a buttery pastry shell. The miracle: baking the pastry until done, without overcooking the beef. Everyone at my table had, at some point, attempted it and flopped; it’s really something to choose at a restaurant instead of suffering over at home. (The chef later told me it takes a really hot, consistent oven. When he cooked it at home for his sister’s birthday, in 30 individual portions, just as the Wellingtons are served at the restaurant, many portions came out overcooked, to his great embarrassment.) I’ve even seen serious French chefs brought to their knees by the dish.
Rainwater’s’ chef did as fine a job on it as I’ve ever tasted: The pastry shell, rolled out thin, emerged deliciously crunchy, while the beef was a perfect medium-rare. Surrounding this marvel was a dark red-brown Bordelaise sauce based on veal demi-glace and red wine, dotted with small turned potatoes, carrots, and onions. Diehard traditionalists often serve Wellington with Madeira sauce (based on a heavy, flour-thickened traditional sauce brun), but frankly, I preferred this lighter, thinner potion, which doesn’t overwhelm the other flavors. Sometimes, as a special, the chef serves it with a sauce Perigourdine, dotted with black truffles. If you ever see this on the specials board, don’t even think of not ordering it, whatever the cost. That cashmere sweater you lust for will be 70 percent off in a month, but this sauce won’t be here then.
The beef at Rainwater’s is Cryovac-aged by their meat wholesaler for three weeks (that is, “wet-aged” inside Cryovac packaging, a kind of heavy plastic wrap). This style of aging makes the meat tender but doesn’t change or improve its flavor. (It’s less expensive than dry-aging, a process rarely attempted even by steakhouses now, which does intensify the beef flavor — at the cost of shrinking the meat and forming a thick, dry crust that needs to be trimmed off.) The beef is sent to Rainwater’s uncut, still in its Cryo shrink-wrap, in large sections (known as sub-primal cuts), such as the short loin and the rib rack. Usually the chef at Rainwater will give it another week of wet-aging onsite. Then he or another expert chef-butcher will band saw it into smaller pieces and cut it into the individual steaks, roasts, and chops that appear on your plate. The beef cuts that will become steaks and roasts are all USDA Prime Midwestern corn-fed beef. The braising cuts (such as the short ribs) are certified Angus, the equivalent of USDA Choice.
Kent’s entrée preference was the restaurant’s traditional specialty, “pepper filet,” known to Francophones and Julia Child followers as le steak au poivre. Although the meat was very tender, none of us found it that big a deal, especially for its $49 price tag. If we had to do it again, we’d be more likely to go for a rib-eye steak or the roast prime rib and revel in pure, simple carnivorousness with these more flavorful cuts. (Or, for a filet, we might go with the version that comes with Béarnaise sauce — although it’s easier than Wellington, Béarnaise is another dish usually best left to professional chefs, who can stay calmer than palpitating home cooks as they beat the butter into the egg yolks.)
Lynne, a lover of braises, chose short ribs “osso buco style.” They were what your mom might make if she’s a very adept cook — tender, just fatty enough for flavor, in a deeply beefy liquid. They offer old-fashioned goodness, even if they’re not the revelatory ribs of George’s California Modern, or of Market, both made from higher grades of beef and garnished with their chefs’ higher-flying ambitions. (As you might expect, the doggy-bag reheat tasted even better. Braises and stews do tend to improve overnight.)
Cheryl picked the evening’s seafood special, grilled swordfish. It wasn’t overcooked, and it came with actual vegetables — a wonderfully gooey, cheesy potato gratin and crisp grilled asparagus. I can’t say that the fish itself was truly interesting, but then swordfish is rarely as thrilling as one hopes it will be.
The menu is long, and perusing its various corners offered some amusement in the mode of time travel to the culinary past. I can’t remember the last time I saw veal liver and onions. (I know that several down-home eateries and diners around town regularly offer liver and onions — but I doubt it’s calf’s liver.) Here it’s made with “milk-fed” (translation: Simulac for cows) Provimi veal, whose livers would probably be light-colored and tender, something like a mammalian foie gras. There’s also a modest three-cheese meatloaf nestling among the expensive steaks, like a poacher amidst the fox-hunting party, and (so tempting!) a genuine butter-drenched Dover sole meunière, with fish flown in from Europe. That’s a fish leaving its carbon footprint over 7000 miles of sky (but so-o-o good).
On a menu section titled “Special Things We Do for You” (the source of both the short ribs and the Wellington), I noticed a marinated roast Shelton (natural) chicken. Normally, I wouldn’t really consider ordering roast chicken in a restaurant (unless I were at Chez Ami Louis in Paris), but next time I might, because Shelton birds are exceptionally flavorful, and I’d trust this seasoned chef to come up with a good marinade.
For dessert, we ventured on profiteroles, filled with vanilla ice cream. They were plated over caramel syrup and drenched in chocolate sauce, and the two sauces conspired to gum up the delicate texture of the pastry. Even with four sharing it, we abandoned it half eaten as just too sweet. A wedge of cheesecake imported from New York’s Carnegie Deli was huge, weighty, and as New Yorkish as a replica of the Carnegie Hall building carved out of cottage cheese.
The chef may be new here, but the traditions are old, and they hold. I don’t think people go to Rainwater’s looking for surprises. People mainly go there to eat what they’ve always eaten there. When I was 20, I would have found the food utterly thrilling, but in the immortal words of malapropish film mogul Louis B. Mayer, “Much water has been passed since then.” Dinner here seems a bit quaint and nostalgic, an array of luxurious cuisine from the bygone days of the genuine 40-hour week, of the vacation with no email device in the hand-luggage, of jobs that lasted forever and ended with employer-paid pensions instead of 401Ks — a time that was less culinarily adventurous but also less fraught, and vastly more indulgent with its rich, easy comforts. It’s a lovely time to visit.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Chef Julian Quinones is a mellow local guy, returning after years of working out of town. “I started as a dishwasher in Del Mar at the racetrack when I was 16 years old,” he says. “Two months later they advanced me to cook’s helper — you know, run upstairs and get them the spices. And I saw the cooks — they were older, and they were having such fun. They’d be working hard and throwing bread across the room at each other, and I thought it would be fun to be a chef. So I asked them, ‘What’s the best way to learn to do your job?’ ‘Get in a good restaurant and learn to cook the right way. If you get in a bad restaurant, you’ll be messed up all your life,’ they said. I didn’t know much about food, but I picked the best. I started at Hotel Circle at Angelo’s, an Italian restaurant. At that time, the chefs there were from Las Vegas, and they were really good.
“I started there back in ’69, and I went to Plate 500, where Liberace’s orchestra used to play. Everybody was in tails. It was a huge thing for me. I started in pantry, and then I was making French desserts. Everything was served on silver platters. I moved to broiler and learned to cut meats. I learned sautés, how to make sauces, and I decided I wanted to be a chef [not just a cook]. From there I went to Pucci’s, which was also French service, huge menu. I started on [the] sauté [station], and six months later I was a sous-chef. I’d work 14 hours a day and get paid for 8, but I was doing everybody’s job. I learned really fast and had some natural ability, and six months after that they made me the chef. So I’ve been a chef since 1973.
“I’ve worked quite a few jobs. I worked at La Valencia for nine years in the ’80s. I got out of the business — I moved north to Washington State and bought an 80-acre farm and put a track in and was training and breeding racehorses. I opened my own restaurants up there. So I went about eight years running my own businesses, with restaurants and horses. Started my son [in the business]. He’s now executive sous-chef at La Costa — he’s turned out really good. I trained a lot of chefs who started out as dishwashers, and now they’re making more money than I do. But I love the business.
“Then I worked in Palm Springs at the Chop House, but since I’m originally from San Diego, my family’s here. My mother’s getting up in age, and I wanted to be close to her if she’s sick, and my grandkids are here, and I’ve got a great-grandson, too. So I came back here and applied for a job at Rainwater’s because I really had a good feeling about the owners. I’d applied with them before, and this time they hired me, and it’s been a great relationship.
“We did a few changes to the menu; we’ll be playing with it. We put beef Wellington on, we put on duck à l’orange, a combination of marinated duck breast and confit, over wild rice. We have a real nice short rib that’s osso buco style, on the bone; it looks great, tastes really well. It’s a process. When I start at a place, I don’t just change everything. I see what people like, and I keep playing with it. And as the crew gets better and grows, I can do more things. It takes time, you mold your crew, you mold the waitstaff, and in time you get there.”
Rainwater’s on Kettner
(very good to excellent)
1202 Kettner (at West B Street), downtown, 619-233-5757, rainwaters.com.
HOURS: Monday–Thursday 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., Friday until 11:00, Saturday 5:00–11:00 p.m., Sunday 5:00–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Dinner appetizers, $9–$16 (not counting much higher caviar service); soups and salads, $8–$16; entrées, $23–$51 (most over $40); sides, $7–$15; desserts, $6–$10.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Classic chop-house fare with USDA prime beefsteaks and roasts with “continental” sauces, plus some seafood, poultry, other meats. Lunch menu emphasizes substantial salads, sandwiches, and downsized items from dinner menu. Awesome, book-length international wine list with verticals of top-growth Bordeaux, Bourgognes, and Sauternes (in the four-figure range) at approximately 150% of retail prices. Little under $40, but enough under $60 to get by. Full bar.
PICK HITS: Oysters, crab cake, beef Wellington, potato gratin side dish. Chef recommends bone-in rib-eye steak, 14-ounce New York steak, lobster tail.
NEED TO KNOW: Valet parking $10. Elevator access to second-floor restaurant. Quiet, fairly dressy atmosphere nights; weekday lunches much busier (business chic garb). Reservations always advisable. Most steaks and chops come without vegetables. No vegetarian entrées, but plenty of salads and sides for lacto-vegetarians to cobble together a meal, bupkes for vegans.