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.