616 J Street, Downtown San Diego
Nearly every week, I pour myself a glass of Japanese fizzy-water (Nigori sake), take a deep breath, and call up some rank stranger — the chef of the restaurant I’m currently reviewing. Between the serious questions, we sometimes relax with a little culinary gossip. San Diego chefs seem more collegial and less competitive than those of New York or San Francisco. (Must be all those joint charity events they do here.) They don’t say (and I don’t ask) who’s doing nose candy, hitting the hooch, or makin’ whoopee with the pastry chef. They just tell me who’s doing good work that I ought to check into.
This year, so far, no fewer than four of the better local chefs have clued me in to the evolution of Christian Graves at Jsix. “He’s awesome, he’s really starting to burn,” said one. “He’s pushing the envelope,” said another. “He’s broken through, doing awesome stuff,” said a third. “Awesome” is evidently the favorite adjective of local chefs.
Meanwhile, Samurai Jim and Michelle (a new pairing in the old posse) recently celebrated their start-up romance with a grazing dinner at Jsix, during which they fell in love with the trio of house-smoked fish (sturgeon, trout, and Arctic char) served over Yukon potato blini with matching caviars. “Awesome,” said Jim. I last ate at Jsix 18 months ago, but when four chefs and a posse regular use the same dumb adjective, that indicates it’s time for a revisit.
Michelle’s an interior decorator, and she calls Jsix’s decor “a mess.” Well, yes. Plaster flowers on the ceiling. Hats, hats, and more hats (all identical fezzes) covering one wall of a small side–dining room. Nice semicircular open kitchen on a platform facing the bar. But the chairs and banquettes are deliciously comfortable and the service competent. The ambient music isn’t too loud or too awful, and the sound level can be lively but not rackety. That, and cleanliness, are all I need of ambiance.
“Who’s the chef here, again?” asked Fred. I told him Christian Graves. “Oh, my gosh, that sounds like a segregated cemetery — Christian graves are here, Saracen sepulchres are the other side of that fence, and the Jewish tombs are over there.” Obviously, Fred will remember the chef’s name from now on.
Bread (baked in-house) arrived with a depth-bomb tapenade made with black kalamata olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and a great whopping hit of white Spanish boquerones anchovies. “I have to admit I don’t normally like either black olives or sun-dried tomatoes,” said Michelle, “but using anchovies for the salt just changes everything. I love it.” Jim said, “When I was in Greece” (he was doing computer security for the Olympics), “my favorite restaurant served a tapenade exactly like this.” And as a total anchovy slut, I found the flavor just awesome.
We began with two of the four appetizers listed under “Share Bites” — large platters for two or more. “Simply Raw” offered two small, sweet Kumamoto oysters in mignonette (we bought two more to cover everyone); chopped Hawaiian ahi tartare with pine nuts and orange essence; mano de león (Baja) chopped scallop ceviche, the flesh sweet and almost crisp; and best of all, minced Arctic char, first cured, then cold-smoked over hickory. Char is a salmon-trout with pink flesh, similar to salmon but with a more delicate taste and texture. (Graves switched to it when wild Pacific salmon became endangered and to avoid farm-raised Atlantic salmon — a highly compromised product that’s fed hormones, pesticides, and colorants. Char, in contrast, is cleanly and sustainably farmed in the cold waters of Canada.) When cold-smoked, it’s a revelation — its gentle, elegant flavor is nothing at all like lox. This plate comes with freshly fried thin Yukon potato chips, “crackers” to cradle the various chopped fishes. The pine nuts and orange elevate the ahi a baby step above the local standard tartare variations, and for Michelle, a former Rust Belter relatively new to So-Cal, the plate was an introduction to a two-part study of the joys of Baja scallops — first tasted raw as a starter, then later as a cooked entrée.
The charcuterie plate of cured meats has a Frenchy name, but the style is mainly Italian salumi — dryer, saltier, leaner — the stuff that chefs Mario Batali in New York and Paul Bertolli in the Bay Area have been exploring. This time the array included house-cured prosciutto, bresaola, thin-sliced pink pork “lomo” (loin), and chewy, slightly sweet rounds and shreds of dark-brown pork salami. If you like jerky, you’ll be in hog heaven. The meats come with mustards, cornichons, a little bound sheaf of crunchy cooked green beans dressed in tarragon crème fraîche, and some wafts of shaved Parmesan. I found this particular array more admirable than seductive — I’d have enjoyed it better if it included a pâté or terrine or, like the last time I ate here, a good little fresh sausage.
The “share” category also includes a roundup of chips and dips and an artisan cheese board (which could be just the ticket between dinner and dessert, if you’ve invested in some serious wine and have some left, or are going for an after-dinner Port-tasting).
From the regular appetizers, we were drawn to local-grown Crow’s Pass asparagus in a stellar salad (the favorite starter of Michelle, Fred, and our waiter). The perfectly cooked spears, dressed with a balsamic reduction, are matched with soft, lush prosciutto slices and a gorgeous poached egg to spill out over everything when you puncture it. This is not really a new dish (some of my Italian cookbooks include similar recipes), but it’s seldom served in California, and it should be. It’s terrific.
Crisped morsels of veal sweetbreads, tossed in sherry vinegar, are matched with meaty scarlet runner beans and their bean juices. “Remind me — what organ are sweetbreads?” said Jim. “Pancreas or thymus,” I said. “As served in America’s Thymus City,” added Fred, the evening’s designated punster. I wasn’t sold on the beans — their scarlet vine blossoms are lovely and delicate, but the beans they give birth to are heavy and earthy. Personally I found the mixture weighty but — freak freely, oh awesome chef.
Wine prices in all restaurants seem to be escalating alarmingly, and the list here certainly reflects that trend — it’s easier to spend $250 than $35, with no hope of a bottle for $25. There are some great choices for $200 and up, if you’ve got that sort of pocket change, and almost nothing under $40. (The chef tells me that the sommelier is now focusing on searching out more interesting, undervalued bottles — Loires, Rhones, minor Burgundies, etc. — which will sell in the $30s. Many customers, of course, prefer familiar California names at any price. Another way around this, if you have a passable cellar, is to bring your own good bottle; corkage isn’t too steep and may be waived.) A crisp Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc ($38) from Marlborough, New Zealand, took reasonably good (not ideal) care of our seafood appetizers. For our entrées, which included two red-meat dishes and a game bird, a Robert Sinsky sustainably grown Merlot ($48) proved mellow and tasty, with just enough tannin to avoid playing the total pussycat in the face of the meats. (It did purr loudly at the short ribs.)
Mano de león (“lion’s paw”) scallops are sustainably farm-raised off the Baja coast, mainly between Ensenada and the famous “Blowhole.” Raised in warmer waters, they’re distinctly different from Maine scallops, typically larger and a bit coarser in texture. Sweet, sunny, and straightforward, they lack that dirty-flirty sexy undertone of the George’s Bank products. They’re also ultrafresh, coming from our next-door neighbor instead of the other side of the continent — which means you never get that wan, jet-lagged flavor of Atlantic scallops that have suffered a flight delay. Here, they’re lightly dusted in black pepper and seared to a velvet texture, married to fresh corn kernels, wild leek shreds, whole glazed small cipollini onions, and (ta-da!) revisionist hush puppies. Most hush puppies, mainly based on cornmeal, are prone to be coarse and dense. Graves has cut the cornmeal and upped the wheat-flour and the leavening to turn them into light, airy fritters fit for gourmands, not just mutts. Only the most beer-and-tradition-drenched Bubba could possibly object.
The evening’s special (a strong candidate to join the regular menu) featured roulades of guinea hen breast, an African game bird. They’re rarely found in America, because few poultry ranchers can stand their company. It’s not so much that they’re hard to raise as that they’re impossibly obnoxious to have around. The dumbest, loudest bar-blondes of the bird world, their call is loud and hysterical — BRRR-RHEE-HEE- HOO-HYEEE — and they never shut up for a minute. A whole flock must sound like a girls’-night-out party at Pacifica Del Mar. But, ooh, they do taste good when treated right. Like nearly all game birds, their flesh is lean. Graves flashed brilliant in his treatment, with breast roulades rolled around sautéed, chopped, wild-tasting mushrooms and cipollini onions, their exteriors bound with two thin layers of addictively fine, sweet bacon that is cured (salt, brown sugar, maple syrup) and smoked in-house. The bacon comes mainly from small Duroc hogs purchased whole from the great, organic Van De Rose piggery back East. (Graves also gets organic Berkshire or Duroc hogs from Niman Ranch.) The bacon is a visual pun, looking like crisp poultry skin but tasting, mmm, like bacon. In between the roulades on the plate were thick-cut batons of the same substance to savor on its own and King Trumpet mushrooms (which look and taste like a black variant of chanterelles). Then, as if that were not enough: hazelnut potato purée — not another boring garlic or goat cheese or buttermilk mash, but that rich, seductive nut flavor sneaking up on your mouth. And then the hen was finished with a light cherry glaze and garnished with thin strips of bitter radicchio wound along its surface, to “take the bitter with the sweet,” as my friends and I do when we ask for our coffee with our desserts. Yes, that dish really is awesome.
In a much quieter way, what also awed me was the audacity of pairing Dungeness crab fondue with Brandt Farms beef short ribs. (We were thoroughly glad we decided to order this dubious-sounding dish.) The ribs, set on a pedestal of potato galette, are braised in tomatoes and white wine until fall-apart fork-tender, and they’re coated with a smooth, creamy, subtle fondue of crab that flatters the hell out of them. Who knew? They’re in love, and they violate all the old culinary miscegenation laws — creamed shellfish with braised beef? That’s one exotic surf and turf! The garnishes contributing to this audacious make-out session include a cherry tomato vinaigrette jam for tang, caramelized whole shallots, and sweet, funky, roasted garlic cloves to squish out from their peels. But if Christian is burning, so was one of his line chefs that night — literally. Some hasty heathen in the kitchen turned the heavenly potato galette under the meat into black leather. If the ribs needed no knife, not even a sharp steak knife could penetrate the petrified potatoes. (Graves takes responsibility, but, in fact, that evening he was busy working on a dinner party for 30 in another dining room.)
A Brandt Farms rib-eye steak (grass-fed in Imperial Valley, then finished off on corn in small, uncrowded lots) came rare as ordered, with a relish of deep-flavored, crinkly Oregon morels (among the world’s greatest mushrooms, they can give black truffles a run for their money) and spring onions, with yummy steak fries and a sensual aioli based on puréed porcini mushrooms. One of the steak garnishes was a salad that included a large, raw, fresh porcini mushroom dressed in lemon juice and truffle oil — a chance to discover what this precious fungus tastes like “au naturel.” This lesson in comparative mycology taught me that, in the end, I like porcini better cooked, but I did welcome the educational opportunity.
Desserts are collaborations between Graves and his pastry sous-chef, John Larson. We chose thin squares of panna cotta (a good, tender version) alternating with small, local strawberries, all strewn with fetal microgreens and basil shreds and served next to a golden reduction of orange juice and peel. The greens and herbs were a smart touch — they were there to be tasted, not an arbitrary garnish, a flash of sharpness against the sweetness. We also enjoyed a Valrhona semifreddo (a soft ice cream-like confection) set atop a chocolate nut cake, a good choice for chocoholics to share — not over-heavy, but with full-out flavor.
After dinner, we were tired but merry, so we took the elevator to the roof-level Jsix Lounge, with its bar, swimming pool, and not-very-exalted views of Petco Park, construction cranes, and the boring boxy buildings of E-ville. Samurai Jim, designated driver, drank something clear, bubbly, and probably virgin; Michelle had something golden. Fred and I both went for a rum, coconut-rum, and pineapple juice concoction called Bad Attitude, which proved light and bright. Fred ate his maraschino cherry, I left mine so as not to mess with the lingering aftertastes of the meal. Guess you could say that the food left me with an awesomely good attitude.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Christian Graves was born in the South and automatically says “ma’am,” but his family moved to San Francisco when he was a teenager. After-school dishwashing jobs in local restaurants evolved into prep-cook work, and from there it was on to cooking school, where Graves realized that this was what he wanted to do. Before coming to San Diego to become top toque at Jsix, Graves cooked in several of San Francisco’s most highly reputed restaurants, including Farallon (under Mark Franz), Aqua (Michael Mina), One Market (Brad Ogden), and Roti. When the Kimpton Hotel Group offered him the Jsix position, he and his wife moved to San Diego, partly to be closer to her parents while raising their own two small sons.
I asked Graves about the leap forward in his cooking. He remains modest, but his evolution seems to be a matter of growing self-confidence: “I think it’s that the people who work at Jsix, and those who want to eat here, do want to see the artisanal side of cooking. And we’ve also, over time, discovered better ingredients to purchase.”
What’s his explanation for the collegiality among chefs here, compared to San Francisco? “I think people down here are really trying to make the food scene survive, as opposed to a thriving food scene where people are trying to get their names out there more. Maybe the egos down here aren’t quite as large. And when it comes down to food — it’s just food. We want to make it something momentous, and there are moments when it’s magical — but it’s just food.
“And most of us here have good relations with the local farmers, so we’re all using the same ingredients. That’s one of the most appealing parts of San Diego, that everyone is encouraging each other.” His own favorite farms include Crow’s Pass in Temecula, which also delivers produce from nearby Cunningham Farms, Peterson Greens, and Sage Creek. In addition, Amiko Gubbins, now a chef liaison at Specialty Produce, heads a division that purchases fresh produce at the farmers’ market in Santa Monica. (Then, too, farmers sometimes come in to Jsix to eat, and this can evolve into a relationship with the restaurant.)
Graves’s interest in charcuterie was sparked even before he became a chef, when as a teenager he’d eat at Oliveto in Oakland, where chef Paul Bertolli was beginning his now-famous forays into salumi. He began experimenting with doing it himself while still in San Francisco. “It’s intriguing to me. It’s something classic, a tie to the past — which is what I like about cooking as well,” he says. “And it’s one of those really cool things where you get to watch this beautiful transformation. And then a lot of it is trial and error. A lot of my chef friends around the country are into [salumi] as well, so we like trading tips, ingredients, ideas. It’s a good way of communication with everybody else. And it’s good from a cook’s point of view, because they learn what the whole animal looks like, where particular muscles come from, and they realize that not everything is a prime cut, so…what are you going to do with the rest of it?”
He sums up his approach: “I think the food that we do should be fairly simple in concept and not totally overdone. I very much believe in slow food, in doing artisanal cooking, in using interesting ingredients. Not everything has to be the ABCs we get from the produce company; we can work with less-overused flavors.”
Hotel Solamar, 616 J Street (at Sixth Avenue), downtown, 619-531-0744, jsixsandiego.com.
HOURS: Breakfast 7:00–10:30 a.m.; lunch and weekend brunch 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner Sunday–Wednesday 5:30–10:00 p.m., Thursday–Saturday to 11:00 p.m. J-Bar upstairs: 11:30 a.m.–midnight.
PRICES: Appetizers, $8–$13; “share” appetizers for two or more, $12–$24; entrées, $12–$39 (most in high $20s); desserts, $7–$10.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: California “slow food” with wild or sustainably raised and mainly local ingredients, showcased in bold, creative combinations that highlight natural flavors and from-scratch artisanal preparations. Rather pricey wine list, mainly California bottlings, with serious reserve list, plenty by the glass. Full bar. Corkage $20, often waived.
PICK HITS: Just about anything — especially roasted asparagus salad with poached egg; “simply raw” fish array; trio of house-smoked fish; Baja scallops with corn; braised short ribs with crab fondue; rib-eye with porcini aioli; special of guinea hen; strawberry panna cotta. Chef’s choices: halibut with pea risotto; lamb porterhouse with spicy lamb sausage, stuffed squash blossoms, and sheep’s milk yogurt.
NEED TO KNOW: Validated valet parking $10 at hotel porte cochere. Dinner reservations advised. Attire runs from jeans to date dresses. Not too loud. Kiddie menu includes games to play and foods unfit for grown-ups. Party rooms available. One lacto-vegetarian entrée, at least six appetizers. One vegan salad, plus seven sides (and kiddie menu PBJ). Rooftop J-Bar lounge (elevator to fourth floor) offers light food and drinks outdoors with views of Petco and E-Ville.