The Curse of Samurai Jim struck again — third time in a row. We were heading for a new Caribbean place in the Gaslamp, but when we called for a res, the phones were disconnected. Restaurants are a risky business. Zip, off we headed for the month-old Crescent Heights, still so new I meant to wait another month. But again the Jinx of Jim proved lucky after all. The Caribbean place would have been cheaper, but it couldn’t possibly have been better.
Many of the personnel at Crescent Heights are veterans of Wolfgang Puck’s Spago Beverly Hills, where chef-owner David McIntyre fell so madly in love with Chino Farms vegetables (according to restaurant manager Mark Wheadon, who stopped by our table to chat) that he determined to relocate to San Diego to be closer to his Mecca. (Actually, David and his wife/restaurant partner just liked our laid-back lifestyle better than L.A., but Mark tells a good story.) Now David lives in the Santaluz area and stops at nearby Chino regularly on his way to work. A few other local farms also contribute, along with a specialty wild-mushroom grower in Washington state.
The spacious, comfortable restaurant features walnut paneling, amber lighting, a “wall of wine” with 1700 gleaming bottles, and plenty of sound baffles on the ceiling to keep the noise to a minimum. Behind a divider wall is the bar and lounge, with large, handsome red sofas and a view of the 1500-square-foot glassed-in kitchen (which will have space for catering in the future). The wall keeps the bar babble down to a quiet background sound in the dining room.
The hospitable touches start immediately with the bread and butter. The bread — onion, sourdough baguette, and the incomparable olive bread — is from Bread & Cie, and the ramekin of butter is at spreadable room temperature, sprinkled with delicious coarse sea salt. A class act to start your dinner.
We began with a salad of Chino Farms beets and mozzarella, dressed with 25-year-aged balsamic vinegar and pistou (the French version of pesto, sans pine nuts). A wondrous heap of Burrata (mozzarella so young and creamy it’s not yet fully solidified) sprawled sensually on the plate like Manet’s “Olympia” on her divan, surrounded by delicate, intensely sweet quarters of small golden beets (milder than red ones), cherry tomatoes, roasted peppers, and sheets of silky, salty Prosciutto di Parma. I found myself humming, “These are a few of my favorite things” — so many great flavors in one dish, including the resiny sweetness of the balsamic.
Prime steak tartare offers top-quality raw beef, chopped as it should be (not ground), mixed with seasonings, including mayonnaise, parsley, shallots, and minced chives. It comes with ramekins of coarse-ground Dijon mustard and horseradish-cream sauce, with toasted baguette slices for spreading. This was the favorite of “Yoda,” Jim’s business mentor and partner, a mellow, silver-haired charmer newly inducted into the eating posse. (Doesn’t look a bit like Yoda, Jim only dubbed him that for his computer savvy.)
Bouchet mussels arrived in a heavy black ceramic casserole, très South of France. The black Atlantic mussels sat over a rich, reddish sauce (the menu calls it “saffron beurre blanc,” but it was more liquid than butter) punctuated with bits of roasted garlic, tomatoes, and chorizo, with more baguette toast on the side for dipping. Dipping was the best part, to catch all the goodies in the sauce. The mussels weren’t quite as exquisite as our home-grown Carlsbad mussels (the chef, new to town, didn’t know about them until we talked), and I regret the menu misnomer about the sauce, as it led me to expect a satiny butter bath, rather than this tasty but more conventional treatment of the bivalves.
Another Jim-jinx struck for the third time — we were stood up once more by our friend the chef-turned-realtor. (Had to show a house, he said.) So, reduced to a mere threesome, we had to skip the vegetable and lentil soup with duck confit and chanterelle mushrooms. Hated to miss a chance at chanterelles. (They’re also on the halibut entrée and part of the sautéed mushrooms side dish.) There’s also an ahi tuna tartare distinguished by jalapeño-ginger aioli, and “The Crescent Heights Salad,” a version of the classic French bistro frisée salad, with poached egg, confit bacon, and fingerling potatoes, plus an autumn squash soup with apples and cranberries, and lots more — it’s one of those menus where you really want to try everything.
With some menus, I order by the best-sounding proteins. Here, I ordered according to which vegetable garnishes sounded most enticing. We’re now in the harvest season of slow-growing roots, and a good chef can turn these non-glam autumnal veggies into the kindest of comfort foods. The menu changes frequently with the seasons, to include only the freshest produce and seafood. “We don’t even have a walk-in freezer,” our skillful waitress Eva told us in her lilting Slovakian accent. (How swell to encounter such cheerful professional service in San Diego, land of spaced-out “I’d rather be surfing” servers. Staff were trained properly at a series of gala “VIP-style” dinners the chefs cooked for them, so they could taste all the dishes — and lots of the wines.)
The newest menu addition is a pan-roasted Muscovy duck breast, its perfectly cooked if somewhat sinewy pink meat plated over an earthy vegetable assortment. Under the duck slices is a parsnip purée of startling sweetness, and surrounding them is a mélange of chopped butternut squash, rutabaga, and Hen of the Woods mushrooms. Yes, a good cook can make even rutabaga as sexy as Madonna. Surrounding them all is a sauce of herbed, reduced duck stock that echoes and intensifies the natural flavors rather than disguising them.
Second-newest dish is sautéed wild striped bass, and in an attempt to avoid rhapsodic hyperbole, I’ll just say that this is the first time this particular fish has ever thoroughly captured me, thanks to a rigorously crisped skin over very tender flesh. (We left the plate so clean it barely needed washing.) Once again the crowning touch was the vegetable bed — an enchanting Jerusalem artichoke purée, made from a sweet-nutty root (aka girasoles, or “sunchokes”) of a species closely related to sunflowers. (Voice of experience: Bury a few roots, even from a grocery, in a fertile spot in your garden in March, and six months later you’ll have 70–80 pounds of roots anchoring seven-foot-tall flowering stalks — and any root-bit you miss at harvest will come back to re-enact this not-always-welcome miracle next year.) Small Jerusalem artichokes, cipollini onions, and baby carrots in butter completed the array.
When we ordered the roasted Kurobuta pork rack, I specified “rosy, medium-rare, not brown.” “That’s how the chef cooks it,” the waitress answered, with the grin of someone who’s just shared a juicy secret with her BFF. “You’ve got a chef who knows how to cook, then,” I said. The pork, sliced off the bone, was rosy-pink, tender, and succulent — pure, great pork flavor. (Kurobuta has a Japanese name, but it’s actually an English-American heritage breed, the Berkshire hog. No problem eating it as rare as you like — there’s no more trichinosis in commercial hogs, and farms raising slow-growing heritage breeds aren’t so stupid as to subject their precious piggies to industrial-farm filth. Here the pork arrives from Snake River Farms in Idaho, also a major purveyor of American Kobe beef.) The accompaniments were dreamy Parmesan polenta, roasted baby turnips, caramelized apples, horseradish, and natural juice. Frankly, I was so taken with the luxurious meat that I mainly noticed the perfect harmony rather than individual garnishes.
Other choices include organic chicken, Alaskan halibut with chanterelles (carefully cooked until barely done, the chef says), diver scallops, braised lamb shank, and a couple of steaks, including a $44 “28-day-aged bone-in New York.” Unfortunately, turns out those 28 days are spent swathed in Cryovac, not in a dry-aging meat locker, so the meat will likely be tender but not profound.
Curious, we tried a couple of side dishes. Parmesan french fries weren’t that special. Ricotta-herb gnocchi Bolognese were tasty but a bit doughy, and the sauce was nice but ordinary. If you’ve got a little one in tow, there’s no kiddie menu, but mac and cheese is among the available sides.
The bar offers interesting cocktails to start with. Jim’s Yuzu Crush (tequila with tart yuzu juice, ginger, lemongrass, and lime juice) was crisp and clean, resembling a serious margarita made without junky simple syrup. My strawberry-basil caipirinha — well, I’ll stick with regular caipirinhas, hold the strawbs. Yoda’s Spiced Pear (spiced rum, pear, blood orange, and Cointreau) was pleasant and mellow, like Yoda, but the Yuzu Crush outshone it.
During the meal, we drank various wines offered by the glass, in generous pours. (I liked the Côte du Rhône Villages with the Kurobuta pork.) The more thrilling wines, alas, are by the bottle only, and steeper than those by the glass, but there are plenty of affordable bottles if you are middle income by John McCain standards. One positive aspect to ordering wine is the eye-candy sommelier, Joe Weaver, who comes to pour them (and advise you if you want) — with his dark hair and pale skin, he’d be perfectly cast as Heathcliff, or as a romantic Anne Rice vampire.
We didn’t think we had enough appetite left for dessert, but pastry chef Regan Briggs (formerly of the L.A. Four Seasons) offers desserts too smart to resist. We split her lemon-ricotta tart and demolished it. Totally. Don’t ask for details, it was all a dream: crisp round shell, tender-tart custard, a loud blast of citrus — then, whoosh!, gone to the last crumb. Judging by just one sweet is probably premature, but this pastry chef may even rival Jack Fisher (EOS) and James Foran (Market). The espresso was good, too.
Crescent Heights is not a “budget restaurant.” Planned and constructed over two years in a neighborhood of high-priced condos (that are no longer selling well), it has opened at a time so financially drastic that our best higher-end restaurants like Blanca and Marine Room are cutting prices. The bill here is likely to run about $100 a person for two courses and shared dessert, including tip, tax, and modest beverages. (Once the restaurant gets more established, the chef-owner plans to offer lower-price options, such as a Monday bargain prix-fixe and/or half-price wine nights.) But where I sometimes resent restaurant prices, if the food costs more than it’s worth, this time they seem reasonably justified by the quality of ingredients and the care at all levels of the operation. The cooking, service, and atmosphere offer a feel-good evening in fraught times. The food isn’t wildly original or venturesome (that’s why only four stars) but it is solidly excellent. With the holidays (and kinfolk from the cold states) coming, this could easily become at least a special-occasion favorite, to enjoy American cuisine at its most satisfying. Even Alaska-Wolf Barbie (remember her from before November 4, when she was a Somebody?) would be captivated. And if you work downtown — lucky you! They do lunch!
ABOUT THE CHEF
David McIntyre, from L.A., was majoring in business and psychology at University of Washington when he came home for summer break and snagged a temp kitchen job at Joachim Splichal’s famed Patina (his parents were investors in the restaurant) and realized that he wanted to spend his life behind a stove, not a desk. He went back to school and got his degree anyway — “I didn’t want to go to culinary school until I was certain this was what I wanted to do,” he says. After college he returned to Patina for about a year, then took time off to travel in Europe, knowing by then that his future lay in the kitchen. “Then I started with Spago and have been there almost ever since, until now.” He worked his way up to becoming Spago’s sous-chef and kitchen manager, responsible for ordering vast quantities of foodstuffs from numerous purveyors — connections he has maintained in obtaining top raw ingredients for Crescent Heights. After that, he helped open Cut, Puck’s steakhouse in L.A.
His wife’s sister lives in San Diego, and after a skiing accident, he and his wife-partner Mariah crashed with her while he recuperated. They fell in love with the mellower local vibe and decided to move here permanently and open a restaurant of their own. It took two years — lining up investors, designing and building the restaurant — until Crescent Heights Kitchen opened. “I wanted the food to be California Modern, using local and seasonal ingredients. I’ve never wanted to do something overplayed. I like to do a few ingredients on the plates and have them really shine. I’ll roast my artichokes, and I want them to be the best artichokes you’ve ever eaten. I like simple food. Most of our sauces are pretty much natural. We roast the bones with shallots, garlic, vegetables, and herbs and make a stock, and otherwise, it’s pretty much the natural flavor.
“My favorite technique is braising. We’re doing a lamb shank now. We’re going to do a Kurobuta pork shank and a veal-cheek ragout. I love slow-roasting and infusing the braising liquid with all the spice in there.” But on the rare occasions he gets to go out, “My wife and I are huge fans of Chinese and Japanese food.”
Crescent Heights Kitchen & Lounge
**** (Very Good to Excellent)
655 West Broadway, downtown, 619-450-6450
HOURS: Monday–Friday 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; Monday–Saturday 5:30–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Cheese and charcuterie plates (not house-made), $6–$21; appetizers, $12–$22; entrées, $29–$44; sides, $6–$10; desserts about $10. Lunch prices slightly lower, sandwiches (e.g., Muffalletta, Kobe burger), $15–$18.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Fresh, simple, seasonal California cuisine featuring Chino Farms vegetables, premium meats, seafood, poultry. Interesting international wine list, plenty by the glass. Full bar with avant-garde cocktails.
PICK HITS: Everything, especially beet and Burrata salad, Muscovy duck breast with parsnip purée, striped bass, roasted Kurobuta pork rack, lemon-ricotta tart.
NEED TO KNOW: Patio dining available. Parking $5 in attached garage. Save room for dessert. Dressy-casual. No vegetarian or vegan entrées on menu, but ask and ye shall receive; food allergies and taboos also accommodated by request.