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Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant

2202 Fourth Avenue, Bankers Hill

Carl Schroeder was the hot young chef hired by Bradley Ogden to oversee Arterra back when it was new. Schroeder made both his and the restaurant’s name there. Then he opened his own place, Market, at the northeastern edge of Del Mar — a long drive from the city, with steep prices as befits the upscale neighborhood (a quick drive from the fabled Chino Farms in Rancho Santa Fe). With Bankers Hill, he brings his talent downtown to a restaurant with a neighborhood feel and more neighborly prices, with entrées all under $20.

The site of the former Modus has been handsomely transformed so that it looks twice the size and feels three times as airy. Tall, open front doors with wood frames and glass panes let in the oxygen. The lighting seems brighter. Tables are packed to the maximum possible, and given the lack of carpeting, the noise level is high but not quite unbearable. On a Thursday night, every chair was occupied by all manner of people, ranging from elderly quartets and a few older men entertaining eye-candy “nieces” (whose costumes were fancier but briefer than other patrons’), down to the 20ish T-shirted crowd hanging out on the roofed-over, glass-enclosed patio that serves as an extension to the bar. Schroeder’s partner, blonde and willowy Terryl Gavre (owner of popular breakfast place Café 222 and food columnist for San Diego Metro), has moved from hostessing and running the front of the house at Market Restaurant to doing the same at Bankers Hill.

The seasonal menus reveal the same farm-to-table ethos as Market, in simpler preparations but with fewer costly ingredients. As you’d expect from this new formula, the brightest flavors and most exciting combinations are found among the salads and vegetable-centered appetizers. Our best dish consisted of large, lush slices of red heirloom tomatoes surrounding a wondrous thick splat of genuine, rare Burrata cheese (Mozzarella so young, it hasn’t fully solidified and still bursts with cream) sprinkled with basil pesto and accompanied by garlic-infused flatbread slices with crisp exteriors, soft interiors. It’s well-nigh perfect, a catalog of intense pleasures.

I also loved the eccentric salad of ripe peaches with shreds of fine prosciutto, candied almond slivers, and puffs of goat cheese, all over arugula. Prosciutto and melon is a cliché. But peaches? That’s fresh, a way to savor this seasonal fruit at its purest without gumming it up in a sugary dessert.

Small oysters fried in a cornmeal batter were topped with dollops of Meyer lemon aioli and plated with a crunchy salad of julienned celery root and tart apples. The oysters didn’t quite knock me out — they were tender enough, but not very briny. (I’d guess they’re farm-raised Carlsbad oysters; the aquacultured mussels are terrific while the oysters are somewhat bland.)

Deviled eggs were mildly disappointing. They were spicy but otherwise nothing new, although they came with a lovable arugula-bacon salad and lemon shoestring potatoes. Also, they were only four to an order and there were five of us. In many restaurants (upscale or even mid-scale), especially those with truly professional service, our plate might have held an extra egg, given our lengthy, spendy food order. An egg costs about a dime, wholesale...maybe 20 cents for organic. A displeased table of customers can cost far more than that in lost future dinners.

Service fell apart grievously at our final appetizer. The organization here is that a waitperson takes your order, then runners deliver it from the kitchen: you rarely see your original server again. We received four out of five appetizers, then had to wait to catch a glimpse of our server before we could hail her. (She hinted, displeased, that a runner had probably left our final dish at the kitchen.) A minute or two later, we finally received our chilled Dungeness crab, shredded and heaped over batter-fried green tomatoes and served with corn-arugula salad. The green tomatoes were the best part — succulent, crisped slices, more sweet than acidic. (They were probably not hard, sour underripe tomatoes but an heirloom variety, green but savory when ripe.) The Dungeness was bland, minus the intense sweetness I remember from eating it in its native San Francisco. But that’s a “San Francisco treat” that locals eat mainly in season, late fall through early spring, usually steamed whole with melted butter at home or cracked and stir-fried with garlic or black beans at local Asian restaurants. In summer, it’s left to the tourists at Fisherman’s Wharf.

The wine list starts out moderate but escalates rapidly, though not ridiculously (e.g., $105 for a 2006 Joseph Phelps Cabernet and $155 for Nickel & Nickel “Branding Iron”). I’d recently been reading about Argentina’s Torrontés white ($29) in a food magazine and promised myself to try it again ASAP and pay more attention this time. As the magazine promised, it does have a subtly peachy flavor. But once we started drinking it with food, it was easy to lose track of such subtleties. For the entrées, an M. Chapoutier blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Carignan grapes from Roussillon (in the sunny far South of France) hit the spot with a velvety texture and a touch of spiciness ($39). True to its grapes, it tasted like a wandering Rhône that picked up a little suntan on its southern vacation.

The sexes split over favorite entrées. My friend Lynne and I both fell for the duck confit, a leg of tender meat embellished with balsamic-roasted peach sections, plus a corn-shallot salad. The three dudes in the evening’s posse fell harder for the spice-rubbed USDA Prime flat-iron steak, ordered “very rare” and delivered rare (enough), served sliced over twice-baked potato, garnished with roasted mushrooms and Worcestershire butter. The steak is flavorful but slightly tough, cut from a small, sheltered, well-marbled section of the hard-working front shoulder (chuck). Even Prime-grade and rare, it takes some chewing. But it’s a good steak for the price.

It’s the rest of this menu listing that’s a little misleading. That twice-baked potato is no Idaho baker, with all the Idaho’s rich spud flavor — it’s a couple of bland red-skinned new potatoes (which American home-cooks usually serve boiled, sautéed in hash, or sometimes roasted in olive oil and herbs or tucked under a roast beef to bake in the drippings). These seemed boiled, not baked, except to reheat (no crisp crusts on them), and even tarted up with sour cream and a touch of melted cheese, they are not what I want from twice-baked. Usually, this indicates baked Idahos with their flesh scooped out, mixed with whatever fats and goodies the cook likes in them, then re-stuffed into the skin and baked again to reheat. These were disappointing, as were the plain old button mushrooms — they weren’t even shiitakes. Sure, Bankers Hill is cheaper than Market, but I still want something special from this chef. The raw materials for the accompaniments could have come from produce-deficient Vons or a depressed Logan Heights mercado.

Crispy BBQ Braised Pork Tacos (hold on, just what does “BBQ Braised” mean?) offered tender, flavorful pork in crisp corn tortilla shells, loaded with pepper Jack, avocado, and herb-lime cream, and topped with avocado and a garden of greenery. They were a great deal better tasting (and cheaper) than the tacos I had at Barrio Star a couple of weeks ago. Sole quibble: the pork came in lumps, instead of being torn into shreds.

We hit a low spot with Hickory-Smoked Baby Back Ribs, which proved nearly a joke, the ribs heavily smeared with a “Sweet Chili BBQ Glaze” that evoked distress around the table. The spiciness was just right, but the sweetness was beyond excessive and the texture was glutinous. We ran through all the BBQ sauce recipes in our brains. Not molasses. Not brown sugar. Oh, no, it tasted like Karo — the original high-fructose corn syrup! Well, at least the meat is tender, and the accompanying large, light buttermilk biscuit is exquisite, American folk-baking at its best. Plus, you get hot, moist towels to clean your hands. You’ll need them after you pick up and gnaw at those ribs, unless you’re fool enough to try and use knife and fork.

The Lynnester has a passion for Bolognese sauce cooked by other people — “Three days of cooking all those meats,” she said, “and in the end all you get is good spaghetti sauce! It’s worse than cassoulet!” I once tried making it (with Marcella Hazan’s recipe) but promptly went back to my old Little Italy (New York) neighbor Antoinette’s Neapolitan never-fail “gravy,” which only takes three hours. So we ordered the Fettucine Bolognese here. The pasta, homemade, comes in wide rectangles, slightly overcooked, in a subtly seasoned tomato sauce (I think I smelled a top-note of nutmeg) thick with clumps of meat — meats of various flavors, evidently ground after they were braised. The sauce is amended by little clouds of goat cheese, the plate completed by baby spinach. I still think I like Antoinette’s gravy better.

For those who want to move further downscale (e.g., the patio-bar crowd), the menu also offers a burger ($14, and for $3 more you get truffle fries), fish and chips ($18.75), and an ever-changing sandwich — currently a French Dip ($14.75).

Bankers Hill has a dessert chef, and the guys all wanted desserts. The only one worth mention is a butterscotch pudding, so sybaritic that the Emperor Caligula might have reveled in it. It’s topped with whipped cream, and the depths hold a streak of chocolate syrup. Happily, my espresso was delivered with dessert, as ordered, and it was good.

It seems odd that the neighborhood of Banker’s Hill, with its high-priced condos and million-dollar Craftsman cottages, should become a new hub of neighborhood-style restaurants (Cucina Urbana, Hexagone, Azuki Sushi, Hane Sushi, Barrio Star, and now this one). Our fellow diners didn’t look like plutocrats. Maybe this is the new dining neighborhood for nearby areas without many restaurants, or lacking enough restaurants where people feel comfortable with the food or ambiance. At Bankers Hill, you’ll be packed in cheek-by-jowl and forced to raise your voice to converse, but the menu won’t pose any major challenges. It’s modern American comfort food in a cosmopolitan mode — rarely thrilling but mainly very tasty and easy to enjoy. ■

Banker’s Hill

★★★ (Very Good)

2202 Fourth Avenue, Banker’s Hill, 619-231-0222; bankershillsd.com

HOURS: Daily, 4:30–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Soups, salads, appetizers, $7.50–$12.75; entrées, $14–$19.50; desserts, $7.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Seasonal American cuisine, sophisticated but simple. Huge international beer list. International wines, wide price range, plenty by the glass. Full bar.
PICK HITS: Heirloom tomatoes and burrata cheese; fried oysters; prosciutto and peach salad; duck confit; flat-iron steak.
NEED TO KNOW: Popular chef, so reservations essential. Informal. Currently no vegetarian entrées, but menu changes often. Fairly noisy. Service still has rough edges.

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