1835 Columbia Street, Little Italy
Everything about Glass Door makes it a delightful, entertaining restaurant — except the food. On the fourth floor of a new hotel in Little Italy, it’s a long, narrow room with a bar on one side; opposite, a table-lined wall of windows faces west-by-southwest. There’s also a roofed dining balcony just past the glass, perfect to view sunset on the sea and the lights of downtown after dark. Clusters of reproduction Tiffany lamps hang from the ceiling, and a semi-open kitchen anchors the north end of the room. The extended happy hour (3:00–7:00 p.m.) offers $5 featured drinks and a grazing menu with choices for $6 and $10. Even à la carte, entrées are mostly under $20. Our server was adept, attentive, charming.
The chef has fine credentials. Local guy Rob Conaway learned his craft at cooking schools in San Francisco and Thailand; has worked for Bay Area hotshots, including Brad Ogden, Jeremiah Tower, and Mark Franz; and has served as “Western chef de cuisine” at a luxury resort in Da Nang, Vietnam.
So everything fit the requirements for my summer series of “rooms with a view and bargains, too” — but when it comes to the food, don’t get your hopes up too high. I don’t know what’s gone wrong with the cooking, or why, but, well, you’re forewarned.
When we arrived for the dregs of happy hour, the bar was cheek by jowl with single young dudes, all in caps and board shorts, male calves on parade. (Fellini called this sort I vitelloni.) The sunny balcony tables were filled with sociable 20ish couples from the neighborhood getting together, many showing off newish babies. You can sit anywhere for happy-hour deals — the whole room and balcony constitute “the bar.” I savored a fine, limey $5 Cabo Wabo margarita “rocks” that didn’t taste like oversweet bar-mix. Tall, dark, and handsome Scottish Sue scored a terrific made-from-scratch mojito that Fred nearly stole from her when she offered a taste. Fred ventured on a beer the menu called Delerium (short for Delerium Tremens, its full name) that evidently didn’t produce its namesake condition, and Lynne’s well-chilled house Chardonnay left her lukewarm.
The best graze was calamari in a light, crisp, flavorful batter with a good mustardy remoulade dip. The squid didn’t get rubbery as they cooled. So far, so good. But then came our Kobe sliders, a trio of ultra-thin patties overcooked thoroughly dead, then buried inside thick “lemon buns.” Each of us removed the top half of the bun — and, after a few more bites, the bottom. The meat was still dead. (With American Kobe, rareness offers little risk. I’ve interviewed the owner of Idaho’s Snake River Farms, leading Kobe-rancher: Typical of breeders of ultra-premium meats, he doesn’t let his precious beef get besmirched by sharing a meat-grinder with “factory” cattle.)
Vietnamese-style summer rolls in rice-flour wrappers each held exactly one medium shrimp amidst a riot of lettuce and rice-noodles, with a tangy-sweet dip sauce. Not awful, but inferior to the more complex and shrimpier version that Fred enjoys at his favorite neighborhood joint, Pho King Restaurant on El Cajon near 47th. (Yes, the name’s real, and the owners do know. I’m not the only cheesy punster in the local-food biz.)
Happy hour ends at 7:00 p.m. At precisely 7:01, the entire bar and most of the balcony abruptly emptied out, with a few baby-free balcony-dwellers lingering to finish their drinks and catch the sunset. Apparently the neighborhood crowd has made its decision about Glass Door — that once happy hours end, not-so-happy time begins. The noise level dropped from a full roar to a minor din as the canned music played on to the three indoor tables (including ours) with patrons staying on for dinner. Our real meal began, and with it, the sad news about the food that didn’t make the grade.
Soup of the evening was corn chowder. The corn kernels and minced carrots were very sweet, amended by bites of bland mystery protein (chicken breast, when I got a look at the leftovers at home). The liquid was almost thick enough to chew on, with so much flour it was barely short of a béchamel sauce. “Well, they did call it corn chowder, not corn soup,” Fred observed kindly. “Yes, but —” I protested, “when I make chowders I use half and half, cooked down until it’s velvety, and purée some of the corn for thickening. Whole milk thickened with a light roux is fine too, but this is…sludge.”
Mac ’n’ cheese with three mild gourmet cheeses and chopped Louisiana andouille sausage proved reasonably good comfort food — undersalted and a bit dry on top but gooey down below, and I loved the sausage, of course. Pommes frites (Lynne’s must-have) were thin and crisp, although we tasted no hint of the advertised “black truffle dust.”
Crab cakes (Dungeness, with panko crumb coating and Meyer lemon aioli) were small. They were crumby and not nearly crabby enough. Seared bluefin “deconstructed niçoise” was a tragic waste of an endangered species. (Lynne and I both favor Italian olive oil–packed canned tuna in our homemade niçoises.) The modest hunk of precious fish was red and rare but naked, edge-seared but not seasoned. Around it were “correct” ingredients not working together: herb-strewn, pan-roasted slim green beans with a touch of vinaigrette; capers; sliced, hard-cooked eggs; tomatoes; and a rabble of green and black pits-in olives. Denying the dish’s sunny Mediterranean pleasures, the chopped tomatoes were cottony and underripe (the dish crying out for the good cherry or grape tomatoes of the season, or even Romas). AWOL: small new potatoes, a few anchovies for garnish, and the most serious loss, a vinaigrette to bind everything, without which it’s a collection of ingredients as alien from each other as a bunch of bus passengers avoiding eye-contact. Reconstruct this deconstruction, please.
Worse was yet to come. Landing first in front of the Lynnester was the entrée that sounded best — the one that drew me here: Moroccan pork shank with lemon couscous, asparagus, and chermoula gremolata. Lynne took one bite of the pork and abandoned ship. She passed it to me. Forget the none-too-lemony couscous (edible, but would be better with salty Moroccan preserved lemon, so easy to make). Forget the inconsequential chermoula. One tiny, tentative bite, and the grotesquely overcooked pork expanded into a vast, unswallowable wad of animal-based sawdust. (I did the Emily Post thing with the black cloth napkin, disguising a discreet removal.) This palate that has embraced fatty roast guinea pig, skinny baked starling, tempura turkey testicles and grilled lamb “fries,” fried Thai bamboo worms, and Oaxacan grasshoppers — stopped dead. Don’t get me wrong: the meat wasn’t rotten, merely ruined. Well, Moroccans don’t eat pork, anyway. (Haram!)
I was lucky to start with the best entrée, braised short-ribs — not sublime, but tender and edible, accompanied by my favorite healthy fake-starch, mashed celery root (most likely mixed with a majority of potato and definitely with enough dairy to enrich it), plus a pleasant, crispy shallot persillade (sautéed shallots blasted with a confetti of minced flat-leaf parsley). When Lynne got it, she noticed its flaw: “This chef underseasons everything!” She proceeded to compare and contrast the admirable short-ribs she’d recently adored at Quarter Kitchen’s “early-bird” prix-fixe. I passed her the salt-shaker, but some foods — meats, especially — need salting early, during cooking, not just at the table.
A vegetarian assembly of seasonal grilled and roasted vegetables encompassed zucchini, yellow squash, and red bell peppers. These actually overdid the salt and gained further salinity from a dusting of reggiano cheese and a nippy surrounding sauce of spicy chile romesco. The “creamy white polenta” that inspired us to order the dish wasn’t creamy at all, merely a lean, softly lumpy, undersalted porridge, lacking sufficient dairy enrichment to smooth it out. “That’s not polenta,” said Fred, “that’s so-so Southern grits.”
Passing up the menu’s “crispy-skin salmon,” we chose the evening’s alternative fish special, white sea bass in an Asian-inspired sauce with rice noodles and gai lan (“chicken greens” in Cantonese, aka a dark leafy green sometimes called “Chinese broccoli” or “Chinese kale”). I didn’t much mind the undersalted liquid and veggies (my Russian mom thought salt and pepper caused high blood pressure, so I’m used to this), while the nice goopy noodles and mild sauce were okay with Fred and Sue, too. But the desiccated sea bass was more sere sawdust that none of us could swallow. (I didn’t even bother taking it home for the neighbors’ visiting kitties. They’re picky about fish, too.) We skipped desserts, a minimal selection in any case.
As for wines, if you’re going to eat here: Seek and ye shall find. It’s a decent list with some nice, affordable bottles. As usual, the better red bottles can push the budget.
So what’s the good of Glass Door? Well, look at what we walked into: a full house of cheerful young people, with or without new babies, socializing at a lively hangout with bargain drinks and grazes — and then vanishing en masse the very minute that happy hour was over. (Maybe the place should be called Revolving Door.) If price, views, good cheap drinks, and fun right after work matter more than cuisine, it’s a find. And if you’re looking for serious dinner food, it isn’t.
** (Fair to Good)
Porto Vista Hotel, 1835 Columbia Street (at Fir Street), Little Italy, 619-544-0164, theglassdoorsd.com/littleitaly/.
HOURS: Monday–Friday, breakfast 6:00–10:30 a.m.; lunch 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner 5:00–10:00 p.m.; bar menu until 1:00 a.m.; happy-hour grazing menu 3:00–7:00 p.m. Brunch Saturday–Sunday, 7:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m.
PRICES: Dinner starters, $7–$12; entrées, $12–$34; desserts, $6–$8; happy-hour grazes, $6 and $10.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: New American–global food with local ingredients. Elastic wine list stretching over many regions, tastes, prices; premium beers; creative cocktails.
PICK HITS: Fried calamari (happy-hour graze); pomme frites; mojito; margarita.
NEED TO KNOW: No reservations required. Parking $7 with validation. Youthful crowd scene during happy hours; very noisy inside until 7:01 p.m. (end of happy hour), semi-loud (canned music) afterwards. Three lacto-vegetarian grazes/starters, one entrée.