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“Mickey Two” (Samurai Jim’s friend, not his squeeze) put out the word: James Beard award–winner and Michelin two-star New York chef Christopher Lee (currently seen in magazine ads for Swanson’s new canned stocks) was working as executive chef at the new Suite & Tender in San Diego. Even though this Christopher Lee isn’t as charismatic as the darkly brooding, same-named actor who played Dracula and Fu Manchu in England’s Hammer horror films of the ’70s, I decided to check the restaurant out ASAP. I wanted to taste Lee’s food before he, like so many celebrity chefs who’ve touched base here (Wolfgang Puck, Jimmy Boyce, Damon Gordon, et al.), discovers native San Diegan food preferences and runs for his life.

Suite & Tender is the restaurant at the new Hotel Se, just south of House of Blues. The “suite” refers to the pricey penthouse lodgings, the “tender” to the steaks. The hotel had trouble getting built and even named (it was the Setai until just before opening), but downtown construction dramas aren’t my beat — just the food, ma’am. All I knew was that early Yelp bloggers were penning raves, claiming that at last San Diego had its first world-class restaurant. (So 1500 Ocean, A.R. Valentien, Addison, Blanca, El Biz, George’s, Marine Room, Market, Mille Fleurs, etc., are all chopped liver?)

Restaurant architect Dodd Mitchell’s decor is both chic and comfortable, with lots of natural materials, chairs that are kind to your keister, banquettes that would probably feel even better, and spacious tables, all in blacks, browns, and creams, facing a putty-colored wall-size lighted relief map of downtown San Diego, with a tiny bright white bulb at the restaurant’s location, silently signifying that “You Are Here.” With brown tops and black pants, the server and busser uniforms match the furniture.

However, the restaurant’s development company (and co-owner), Société Hospitality, is based in Las Vegas, and they just couldn’t stop themselves from importing a touch of Vegas vulgarity. You’re led to your table by one of a bevy of buxom hostesses bursting out of skanky low-cut stretch mini-dresses that expose way more cleavage (and stray bits of undergarments) than any of us wanted to see. The dresses look cheap, and so do their wearers. This identity conflict between class and crass lays a heavy Hooters vibe over what should be a “fine dining” restaurant. What happens in Vegas oughta stay in Vegas.

Once seated, presto change-o, you’re back in a real restaurant. Our server, Lygia, was a paragon — sweet and warm, but neither over-friendly nor intrusive, attentive to all the fine, tiny details that can make so much difference to the pleasure you take in your meal. A real pro, one of the best any of us has encountered in San Diego or anywhere else.

When a restaurant lists its signature cocktails at the start of its menu, attention must be paid — it signals that the bartender (or “mixologist”) is a creative chef, too. We passed our drinks around as we do with plates. Steve’s “Energy” cocktail was the most exciting — a cucumber-margarita mutant spiked with spicy chili paste and lemongrass. That’s a happy wake-up call. Samurai Jim’s “Painkiller” was thrilling, too, a mix of Pusser’s rum, pineapple and orange juices, and a scooch of cream of coconut, all lightly sprinkled with nutmeg. Micky Two’s “Grace” was a pretty mix of champagne and Cointreau, with berries floating up and down on the bubbles, like a lava lamp, but it was a bit too sweet for me. My “Passion” mingled vodka, champagne, passionfruit, and a crew of extras. Also rather sweet, but fun. Later, when we got serious, we found a Chapoutier Côte du Rhône for $32, a decent buy.

The table bread consists of clover-leaf rolls, a nostalgic throwback to “nice” restaurants of my childhood (and to family dinner parties, after refrigerated ready-to-bake rolls came on the market). An amuse-bouche involved a gussied-up bit of brussels sprouts in a tablespoon.

A sense of consideration extends to the menu format: the loose pages can be slipped from their frames, while the table holds a cup full of pencils, inviting you to mark your choices directly on the pages. That means you’re free to keep the pages at hand, to consult if you need a reminder about what’s on your plate. And if you order meat, you get to choose your own steak knife from an assortment of powerful, expensive blades. I zeroed in on a handsome, hefty bone-handled Laguiole, while Samurai Jim naturally chose an all-steel Shun, and Steve and Mickey found blades equally to their liking (a Wüsthof and a Henckels, I think). Too bad they don’t let you keep them as souvenirs.

In many ways, the restaurant coddles the hang-loose California mindset. The management’s aim, says the website, is to give diners plenty of choices, regardless of standard restaurant “rules” — to allow you, at least on paper, to create your own dinner to your own tastes. As you’ll see, that’s overstating the case considerably.

One of those “diners suit themselves” features is a raw bar where you can order as little or as much as you like of any seafood on offer. (It is not cheap, however, so we didn’t indulge.) The appetizer menu, in contrast, is as restricted as a radio-station playlist — it’s a compendium of California cuisine’s top dozen hits. Restaurant developer Kelley Jones (of Société Hospitality) told a reporter that, to fine-tune the concept for Suite & Tender, he ate at 30 of the better downtown San Diego restaurants, taking notes on what was available at what prices. Perhaps he and chef Lee then devised the menu by making an Excel chart of all the appetizers and selecting the 12 most frequently served dishes. Your Caprese and frisée and Caesar salad variations? Yup. Your crab cakes, fried calamari, tuna tartare, fried wings, lobster bisque, and (not house-made) charcuterie plate? Yup. Oh, but one difference: instead of the ubiquitous beet salad with melted goat cheese, there’s a starter of maple syrup–glazed bacon, the sole nonstandard choice.

By the end of the year, it probably will be standard: the new fad food of 2009 (this year’s seared ahi) is shaping up to be bacon, often coated with something sweet. It could become even bigger than sea-salt caramels. Those damned TV pet-food ads (“BACON!”) have brainwashed us into craving BACON like a pack of hounds. Just a few days before this dinner, I randomly opened one of the slick cooking magazines to a recipe for sugared bacon. (And a week later, I found myself eating bacon chocolate cake at Cafe Riviera.) The maple syrup–glazed bacon here is crisp, sweet-salty, sprinkled with chives and garnished with frisée curls to eat or ignore. You have to love it, unless you’re halal, kosher, or vegan, you poor thing.

The “Crispy Lump Crab Cakes” were wonderful, distinguished by their utter lack of perceptible filler material. We couldn’t spot mayo or béchamel or a starch binding — just pure, sweet crab in a crunchy crumb coating, plated over a zippy tarragon remoulade with green apple shreds. Sorry, Oceanaire and Tin Fish, you’re now fighting it out for second place. This is the new number-one crab cake.

But a lobster bisque was a surprisingly thin broth, rather than the expected thick, creamy soup. It certainly wasn’t as filling or fattening as the standard version and also seemed tenuous in lobster flavor.

Kobe beef carpaccio proved pleasant but problematic. It’s the world’s tenderest beef, but the question remains: does its loin cut actually have any flavor? (The braising cuts are spectacular, but here, we’re probably looking at the tenderloin, e.g., filet mignon.) Nearly transparent slices of melting raw meat scattered with pickled scallions and model-slim Reggiano Parmesan slices were arranged with a few lithe lengths of lightly toasted ciabatta bread. But any garnish seems to overwhelm this beef, while with no garnish, it’s less interesting than hoped for, merely lush and fatty — like eating butter. This particular garnish didn’t quite satisfy any of us — we liked the flavors, but either they bolstered the beef too much (particularly the Parmesan) or not quite enough.

Entrées are divided between “Ocean,” “Land,” “Suite and Tender” (surf ’n’ turf), and various sizes and cuts of steak, including Japanese Kobe at market price by the ounce, available in whatever size portion you want and can afford. We chose all three “Suite and Tender” combos and a duck confit.

The surf ’n’ turf dishes were beautifully plated, little works of art that looked dainty but provided ample protein portions. In the lobster and braised short rib combo, the short rib was fall-apart tender, braised in some fine flavor-instilling liquid, and plated over garlic potato purée. Steve, who often works in restaurants, guessed it had been cooked at 250 degrees for about eight hours in a red wine sauce to produce that texture. It made the lobster — a modest-sized tail section — play second fiddle. The crustacean seemed to be sulking atop the buttered corn garnish, offering only a hint of its normally sunny, sensual personality. Maybe it needed a buttery sauce to bring it out. Or it may have been frozen, which eviscerates the lobster flavor. (That might also account for the pallid bisque.)

Braised pork belly was paired with diver scallops and served with hedgehog mushrooms, cauliflower purée, and sweet kumquats. The belly was tender but, dare I say it, seemed to call for a bit of distinctive sauce in addition to the sweet kumquat to set it off. The scallops were perfectly tender, translucent. I liked the way the fat of the belly pork and the softness of the scallops held a mirror to each other — same texture, by sea and by land. “I really prefer scallops with a crisped surface,” said Steve, “for more textural contrast.” He could be right, since this was one of those great intellectual constructs that somehow didn’t make it over the edge into a taste thrill.

Our final pairing married Alaskan king crab with veal tenderloin, accompanied by brussels sprouts, butternut squash, and blood orange. The crab was buttery and charming, the red-carpet celebrity on the plate. The veal was overcooked and dry and, like most modern veal, nearly bereft of flavor. (This was the dish that several Yelpers loved the best. Well, one man’s meat...)

Ordering duck confit is an acid test. Making confit (duck legs slow-cooked in rendered duck fat, then crisped just at serving) is a patient process until the dramatic climax of the reheating, when suddenly everything can go wrong. The aim is to achieve a crackly, crisp skin over tender flesh, and it’s surprisingly difficult to obtain. Here, tasting the desiccated quacker, Steve guessed they’d reheated by deep-frying rather than pan-searing, as he does when he cooks it. Whatever technique they used wasn’t the answer. While some of the skin was indeed as crisp as well-cooked bacon, most was merely shriveled. The meat underneath was as sere as an octogenarian sunbather’s face. It came with nice garnishes — baby root veggies, cranberries, et al. — but no point to putting rouge on the old crone’s withered cheeks. This was dry, dry duck.

Dessert is another acid test after a big meal. I was curious about the chocolate cheesecake set over a passionfruit coulis, a blogger favorite. The chocolate proved, however, to be milk chocolate, which I plain don’t like. (This dessert was not counted in determining the star rating.)

Baked Alaska has become a lot easier to carry off now that it no longer actually requires baking — every restaurant kitchen is equipped with a little blowtorch for crisping the tops of the inevitable crème brûlées, and they can do double-duty on meringues. Still, it was quite a presentation, the meringue shaped into a royal crown. Inside was a seductive coconut sorbet that really tasted of coconut, with the shreds to prove it. This crowd-pleasing extravaganza was plated over guava sauce. My espresso was decent and thirstily welcomed with such sweet sweets as Suite provides.

The website, less competent than I’d have imagined, wouldn’t allow my system access to a complete menu, just the start of the starters list. When I arrived at the restaurant and read the whole bill of fare, I realized that chef Lee had surely already left the building. He must have consulted on the dishes, trained the kitchen staff and chef de cuisine Billy Boyle (former chef de cuisine at David Burke Restaurant in Las Vegas) while deciding that no way would he himself be cooking in San Diego — he’d phone it in from back home in Manhattan, where he just left Gilt in the Palace Hotel to become executive chef at Charlie Palmer’s renowned Aureole Restaurant. (Just as this review was going to press, the restaurant publicist emailed to say that chef Lee was flying in for a day to hold a press conference — clear evidence of his ongoing lack of local presence.)

Aren’t hotshot chefs supposed to be creative, original, exciting, eager to épater le bourgeoisie and etonnez-moi? Well, nothing here to shock the middle class or astonish anyone, unless it’s the already trendy surf ’n’ turf variation that pairs seafood with braised meat rather than steak. Is there anything about this menu or its execution that would win a James Beard Rising Chef award or two Michelin stars? Not remotely. Lygia’s flawless service was more revolutionary for San Diego than anything on our plates.

Instead, we have an impersonal composite picture of a San Diego fine-dining hotel restaurant — a schematic diagram drawn, perhaps, from afar in Las Vegas. Put together the group of serious San Diego restaurants mentioned parenthetically earlier in this review (the chopped-liver contingent) but minus all the chefs and the chefs’ imaginations and inspirations and distinctive culinary personalities, and what’s left might resemble the food at Suite & Tender. You’ll enjoy cautious, unoriginal dishes made with mainly excellent, partly local ingredients in pleasant combinations, with mainly competent execution, in a comfortable, handsome ambience. Lower your expectations — it’s a very good restaurant, but it won’t rock your world.

Suite & Tender
*
(Very Good)
Hotel Se, 1047 Fifth Avenue (Broadway), downtown, 619-515-3003, suiteandtender.com.
HOURS: Sunday–Thursday 5:30–10:00 p.m., weekends until 11:00 p.m., bar until 2:00 a.m. Brunch and lunch coming soon.
PRICES: Appetizers, $8–$18; mains, $23–$46 (average around $30); sides, $5–$11; desserts, $8–$9; cheese plate, $16.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Streamlined California-style seafood, steaks, trendy surf ’n’ turf with braised meats. Full bar with creative cocktails, vast wine list offering portions from “sips” to “bottles” to “bottomless glasses,” most on the expensive side but with some decent deals.
PICK HITS: Crispy lump crab cakes; maple syrup–glazed bacon; lobster with braised short ribs; baked Alaska, “Energy” cocktail.
NEED TO KNOW: Just south of House of Blues in new Hotel Se (named Setai until just before opening); from outside, windows look dark, like a closed corporate office. Elevator access to mezzanine-level dining room. Mainly business-casual and date-dress, but lots of dweeb-wear (Tees, jeans) on weeknights. Great service. Don’t miss “tunnel of fun” thrill-ride unisex restroom, dark and spooky. Valet parking ($20 plus) but street parking is reasonably possible after 6:00 p.m.

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