1044 Wall Street, San Diego
First it was Fresh, a pricey seafood house owned by Sammy Ladecki (of Roppongi and pizza-chain fame). Then Ladecki sold it in August 2006 to Arturo Kassel, and it became Fresher, still a seafood house, with chef Ryan Johnston at the range. It was still good, maybe even better than before, but perhaps La Jolla simply didn’t want an upscale seafood house. The restaurant shut down for months of renovation and then reopened with a different style of cooking and a new name — not Refresh (as you might expect) but the awfully gemütlich Whisknladle (named after an underground foodie supper club in Brooklyn), which sounds to me like an overstocked cookware store with rag-stuffed “kitchen witches” hanging from every beam and rafter.
What’s in a name? For a restaurant, possibly the odds of survival. But by any other name, Whisknladle would smell as — savory. Its new focus is the kind of cooking that urban America is increasingly learning to cherish: ambitiously artisanal “slow food,” highlighting natural and local ingredients, with the kitchen crew rediscovering the skills of a hardworking farmwife of 150 years ago. They bake the breads, cut up 200-pound pig-halves, cure and/or smoke the pork, make several of the cheeses (with more on the way, as they learn the skills), and all the ice creams and sorbets.
The results? Tasty, exciting, worth watching, and much less costly than it used to be — good to eat and good for you as well. In six months, the food will be even better. In a year or two, probably better yet — the chef is still relatively young (34), and he and his crew are still learning the relatively arcane culinary arts they’re drawing on in this kitchen. We’ve got a serious contender here.
As for the physical setup, all the dining is on a sheltered, roofed, sidewalk patio. Only the bar remains inside (it’s been moved toward the front), along with a gleaming open kitchen. On the first night of a brief heat wave, a welcome break from May Gray, I was delighted to eat outside. Our server, Jenny, was not your standard San Diego “rather-be- surfing” wait-sylph. A smart, sturdy, clever, non-glam Cape Codder with a strong “Bahston” accent and evident abilities to communicate and to think on her feet, she clearly cared about our getting the best meal possible for our preferences. I liked her enough to mentally dub her with a nom de posse — “Pirate Jenny,” after Lotte Lenya’s subversive role in The Threepenny Opera.
The menu is a small tri-folded flyer printed on coarse brown recycled paper. It includes wines by the glass (there’s also a long, separate wine list), craft beers, and cocktails, with a centerfold labeled “Food.” But at the top of the right-hand fold, just north of the beers, is a short section called “More Food(ies).” Start here. These are the necessary dishes; skip them and you haven’t really eaten here.
First, the oysters on the half-shell come from Carlsbad. They’re meaty and very briny, saltier than most northern oysters. They come with a pleasant mignonette and lemon quarters. To my taste, the lemon alone seemed best at balancing the salt and highlighting these oysters’ distinctive flavor.
Chorizo and date fritters are obviously going to rank as one of the year’s greatest dishes. What binds the fruit and meat together is a rich Mornay (cheese sauce) that comes burbling out with each bite. So you’ve got simultaneous blasts of sweet-spicy-fatty and crispy-chewy-gooey (Donald Duck’s three nephews all in one). They’re plated on a sauce of tomato and Spanish piquillo peppers, which is good too, if you can pay attention to it in the face of those diabolically delicious diva dates.
Roasted bone marrow is a slow-cooked cut bovine shinbone, from which you spoon out the marrow, accompanied by surprising triangles of thick, sweet Texas toast. Marrow is incredibly rich, flavorful stuff. Despite its unctuousness, I’d recommend no more than two eaters to a bone. We were all painstakingly polite to each other, but everybody knew that I really yearned to hoover all the marrow up for myself. Presumably my friends suffered the same powerful lust.
The last listing in this section is the “Cutting Board,” from sous-chef Joe Herman (he’s nicknamed “Joe Sausage,” while the pastry and bread-baker, Joe Burns, is “Joe Pastry”). It features Italian-style house-cured meats (Mario Batali has familiarized their Italian name, salumi, better known in French as “charcuterie”) plus house-made cheeses, plus cornichons, sweet gherkins, several mustards, and raisins-on-the-stem. The array typically includes bresaola, sopresata, and Tuscan-style salami, but additions are prone to constant change, so I’ll just mention the classic and rewarding pork French-style pâté de campagne and the deeply succulent prosciutto.
The rest of the menu offers about twice as many salads and “grazes” (appetizers sized for sharing) as entrées. This is where the action is — you can get two tastes for the price of one entrée, ideal for curious foodies and sufferers of culinary attention deficit disorder (CADD).
The menu changes too frequently (based on seasonal choices) to take the website version seriously. Two of my target dishes — roast squab salad, and spaghetti citarra with guanciale (house-cured hog maw) — had vanished by our visit (boo hiss!)
The grazes from the center of the menu were less spectacular than those from the right-hand corner. They were good but seemed more like works in progress. Tempura-fried squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese were pleasing, while the sweet Turkish-style honey-walnut pesto alongside was smashing — but somewhat estranged from its plate-mate. “I’d love this pesto with good, thick Greek yogurt,” said Ben, the air steward. A special of soft-shell crab, also in tempura batter, came with an egg-thickened mint-cilantro vinaigrette resembling Caesar dressing with extra herbs. Each crab bite brought a spate of crab liquid (no, not fat), but the dip was less focused and exciting than I’d hoped. (Maybe an Indian-style yogurt-based cilantro-mint chutney might sparkle more.)
Pappardelle Bolognese was the Lynnester’s favorite graze, with its soulful, shredded-meat sauce. Still, even she agreed that the long, thick pasta ribbons needed about 30 seconds’ more cooking to transit from chewy to al dente. Spicy Catalan shrimp were a tad overcooked and awash in olive oil, flavored with crushed garlic and hot chilies. Flatbread pizza was cracker-thin, topped with ramps (wild scallions, a precious springtime treat), tomato, and housemade mozzarella. The flavor combination was fine, but the mozzarella layer was even thinner than the crust, leaving the dish dry enough to require too much chewing for too little reward. (Next day, I nuked the leftover pizza for breakfast, like a Real Man, and found I’d snagged the one good cheesy piece.)
We concluded the savory courses with an entrée of simply grilled fish with Chino Farms vegetables. Several fishes were available, but we all agreed that Arctic char was the one to choose — a cold-water salmon-trout sharing characteristics of both, with pink salmonlike flesh, but having a milder flavor and more tender texture. With the patient help of Pirate Jenny to define the precise degree of doneness we wanted, we ordered it medium-rare, and so it arrived. The outside was crispy and well seasoned, the interior meltingly perfect. The baby Chino veggies (summer squashes, potato, amazingly sweet carrot) were splendid — not just veggies but each a miniature major-flavor on its own.
We’d started with a round of creative cocktails (at $10, the average starting price of most wines by the glass here). The Lynnester’s Lavender Cosmo was a top pick: blueberry-lavender–infused vodka with white cranberry juice and cassis, it was subtle, pale, fragrant, and altogether sexy. Ben’s “Sweet and Vicious” (“I didn’t know you swing that way,” I teased) had basil-infused rum and the freshness of watermelon juice to balance a lash of habanero syrup. It’s not cruel at all. My coconut margarita with tarragon syrup was less coconutty than I’d hoped, merely a frosty, neutral quaff on a hot night.
The wine list offers fine choices by the glass and half-bottle, but the sharp escalation of its prices can be a problem, with few bottles under $40. Given the choices, a $45 Viognier from the Languedoc saw us happily through the grazing. For the tag end (pasta and fish), the sommelier recommended a smoky Pinot Noir. A curse upon Sideways, which has painfully escalated the prices of this grape. Posse regular (and wine lover) Sam generously treated us to a Willamette Valley (Oregon) quaff ($85), which proved delicious, ingratiating, and food-friendly — but for that price I’d hope for a somewhat older, richer French Burgundy (even if only a Volnay).
For dessert we enjoyed a delicate cherry panna cotta plated over cake and topped with housemade cherry sorbet. Unlike many, pastry chef Joe Burns really knows how to make panna cotta. We also tried the labor-intensive zillion-layer chocolate crêpe cake, sandwiching chocolate mousse. It was…very sweet. Not disgusting, just…sweet. The coffee and decaf espresso were good. We were happy with our dinner — and we’re all looking forward to coming back to watch this promising chef and his venturesome crew grow and bloom.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Ryan Johnston’s father was a chef in Florida, cooking Continental-American style at local restaurants, so it was only natural for Ryan to follow the family trade. “I started cooking with him when I was about 13 and eventually went to the CIA — not sure if I wanted to be a chef or not. I fell in love with it there and went on to cook in New York [in East Hampton, an upscale resort area], back in Florida, and then in San Francisco for seven years, and then down here for the last three. In San Francisco I cooked in Napa, for two years at Bouchon [famed chef Thomas Keller’s bistro venue] and then at a little place called Bijou, South of Market [another highly acclaimed bistro]; I was there four years as chef de cuisine.”
I asked what brought him to San Diego. “A girl,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about San Diego cooking. But I came down here and found a job with Sammy [Ladecki] at Fresh, then did some time at Blackhorse [Ladecki’s one-time steakhouse in Del Mar] and then back here with Arturo [Kassel, owner of Fresher and now Whisknladle]. With Sammy, I was just doing what he wanted me to do. But now — this is what I really want to be doing, about 80 percent, but we still have to accommodate the locals here.”
The remaking of Fresh was a mutual project of both the chef and the owner. “Arturo and I went up to Portland, Oregon, and we really liked what was going on up there. Same with San Francisco. If you’re gonna do something, at least it’s gotta be your own. If you’re gonna fail, at least it’s something of your own. We wanted to make it more casual, less stuffy. He’s 27 or 28, I’m 34, so we’re younger, and we wanted a restaurant that reflected who we were, as people, as diners. It’s a little different than the other restaurants in La Jolla.
“We’re making our own salumi in-house, we’re doing everything we can in-house — baking bread, all that stuff, and that’s really what we did at Bijou and what Thomas Keller’s about in Napa.
“What I really enjoy about cooking is, it’s gotta be from the soul, from the heart. You gotta do the best you can with product that’s local as much as possible. Staying local is cheaper for the customer, too. We’re slowly but surely changing the patterns here. Just last week we sold more bone marrow than we’ve ever sold. It’s good to see people trying new things. One thing I loved about San Francisco and Napa was that people were willing to try new things — not that they’re close-minded here, but they’re a little more reluctant to try new things. Having a good time, that’s really important. There’s always a chance of human error, but if you have the best ingredients, you’re less likely to screw up.”
**** (Very Good to Excellent)
1044 Wall Street, La Jolla, 858-551-7575, whisknladle.com
HOURS: Lunch/weekend brunch 11:30 a.m.–3:00 p.m. daily; sunset menu 3:00–5:00 p.m.; dinner weekdays 5:00–9:00 p.m.; to 10:00 p.m. (plus bar menu until “last call”) Friday–Saturday.
PRICES: Appetizers and grazing plates, $8–$18; entrées, $16–$30; desserts $10
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Local, natural, artisanal, and seasonal cuisine with global flavors; emphasis on grazing plates (shareable appetizers). Craft beers, sophisticated mainly West Coast wine list with ample choices by the glass and half-bottle, but few bottles under $40. Full bar.
PICK HITS: “Cutting Board” house-cured salumi plate; roasted bone marrow; chorizo and date fritters; “simply grilled” fish; panna cotta; Lavender Cosmo cocktail.
NEED TO KNOW: All seating on roofed, sheltered patio. Dinner reservations strongly recommended. Late-night weekend bar menu. Kiddie menu available (tweaked versions of adult menu, no fried foods). About five lacto-vegetarian grazing plates, one vegan.