Suite and Tender is heartily sorry for what it did when it first opened and is doing sincere penance — and doing it well. I would never have gone back, but then I phoned the dining-room manager for the “Thanksgiving roundup.” And he deeply regretted the awful Vegas vibe at opening in late 2008, complete with skimpy hostess costumes and an expensive one-size-fits-all menu compiled by the Vegas-based management, apparently based on an Excel chart of “most popular SD dishes” and phoned in by the hot New York chef purportedly in charge of the kitchen. The food wasn’t bad, just boring, and the restaurant caused a brief splash — mainly for its decor, which featured sharkskin bar-top and dark, spooky unisex restrooms. Then the splash dried up in the parching Santa Anas. By now, Se San Diego Hotel, expensive to build, with an ill-timed opening at the depth of the recession, is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and the restaurant clearly isn’t doing much better.
The dining manager told me that everything has changed — and it has. Not only are prices lower and women staffers dressed like professionals rather than, ahem, “professionals,” but new executive chef Anthony Calamari, who actually lives here, has revised the menu, holding over only a few appetizers and desserts.
On a Friday night, the dining room was sparsely occupied, the sound level quiet. It’s still gorgeous, and comfortable, too. Mark and I sat at a leather banquette, Lynne and Ben facing in armchairs of beautiful brown wood and padded black leather. The huge relief map of San Diego still hangs on the wall with a “you are here” light indicating the Se hotel. The lighting was low, just bright enough to read the menus. The charming and skillful waitress dressed in a simple black uniform.
Small, puffy sourdough rolls came with good unsalted room-temperature butter. The amuse consisted of crisp-crusted miniature crab cakes plated over spicy aioli. They rocked.
The starters on the menu initially looked more tempting than the entrées (but read on; this chef surprised us). Wagyu beef carpaccio (a holdover from the original menu, and who could object?) featured ultrathin slivers and shreds of raw, ultratender beef, garnished with fine-minced tomatoes, pickled shallots, and a long, lacy slice of lightly toasted ciabatta bread. Excellent beef and crouton, although I might have liked less shallot to better taste the gentle meat. And we all loved the small packets of seafood ravioli with thin-enough skins, bathed in a red pepper cream sauce at once lively and soothing.
The Chardonnay-braised artichoke heart was a small, quartered heart, tasting sweetly pickled, well-met by three colors of roasted pepper in apparently the same pickle. Mark loved them, the rest of us not so much.
Beef tartare doesn’t quite make it. Served with a thin crouton like the carpaccio and a scattering of baby spinach leaves around it, the thick puck of meat, about a quarter-pounder, is of top-quality raw ground beef, dotted with capers and shallots, with a tiny poached quail egg on top — or is it just half an egg? That egg yields less than a teaspoonful of delicious, runny yolk to dress the meat, far from enough for maximum pleasure. (The classic dish uses a whole raw chicken egg, but it was invented before factory chickens with salmonella.) And without that, the flavors are just not very vibrant, skimping on a vital tartare ingredient. But there’s something right about the meat and seasonings: most of it was left for me to take home, and the next night, leaving it thick rather than flattening it like a burger, I panfried it over high heat to make a bunless slider with a crispy surface, rare meat, and still-raw center. It was terrific, the hard-browned exterior providing that mysterious umami — meaty savor — that the uncooked beef had lacked.
Some other starters we’d have liked to try include bacon-braised pork belly, fig and prosciutto crostini, duck hash, and spiced lamb riblets. (The fried calamari of the olden days is off the menu. With just four of us, we couldn’t have it all, but if you’re looking for glam on the cheap, consider grazing meals here.
After “Beginnings,” the menu proceeds to “The Continuation” — four light main courses, which include 12-buck burgers and fries, if that’s what you want. Mussels Provençal were delicious, if a bit oversalted, in a rich pink sauce with a grilled slice of rosemary-scented baguette alongside. But our highest hopes, cruelly dashed, were for the orange-glazed grilled pair of quails. Quails are remarkably forgiving birds, as sweet to cooks as they are to bird-watchers: their flesh is lean and white but wonderfully moist, so with a modicum of care, it’s hard to ruin them by any normal poultry-cooking method (sautéing, pan-frying, grilling, broiling). But, whoops!, as Julia Child supposedly said as she dropped a chicken. The griller in the kitchen somehow managed to overcook them until they were dry all through from skin to bone. We couldn’t even taste the orange in the glaze.
Our large entrées were quite the opposite: two beasts that most restaurants overcook were flawlessly prepared and fulfilling in flavor.
The main courses include several steaks and the now-ubiquitous braised short ribs. We avoided them out of terminal boredom with those tourist-oriented dishes. Instead, we gambled and won.
I rarely order chicken in restaurants. But the mustard-brined half a roasted chicken called out to all of us. “Eat me!” it commanded. The brine made the surface salty, of course, but also sparky from the mustard and a little sweet, and the skin was crisp. The meat was tender all through — even the breast, like those roast chickens at Parisian bistros you read about and wonder why they’re so celebrated. This may not be a plump, flavorful Bresse chicken (you could say a Bresse chicken from France is the polar opposite of a wimpy American chicken breast), but the delicious treatment here gives you a hint of the “why.” Good eating!
The bird comes with a side of baked mac-and-cheese with white cheddar, truffle oil, and bits of mild summer truffles. The posse went for it big-time, while I found the white cheddar bland. The mac is also available as an inexpensive side to add to whatever else you’re eating.
Finally, regular readers know that I’ve been fulminating for years against the perpetual popularity of ultrabland halibut — but chef Calamari turns it into Cinderella. He treats it to the treatment that my favorite San Francisco chef, Roland Passot, used to use with gusto on John Dory: a crisp crust of potato, here with a subtle touch of horseradish. “It’s like a thin latke spread on top,” said Ben. This fairy-godmother makeover offers a crisp, lively crust and tender flesh. The seasonal vegetables alongside were winsome, and pretty, too, including big, sweet fava beans and segments of a delicious Mediterranean broccoli variant, most likely romanesco.
The wine list offers plenty for big spenders but also a sufficient assortment for small spenders ($30 to $40). We started with a Colombo Viognier from the South of France, dry but meaty, and moved on in the mains to an enjoyable Kunde Sauvignon Blanc — a tad sweet, hence well suited to complement the assertive flavors of the chicken and the sensuality of the crusted halibut.
We didn’t save room for dessert, and the choices, many of them held over from the ancien régime, sounded too sweet, not inspiring. I do remember that the espresso was decent last time we were here. We felt we’d already eaten quite well and had been treated well, provided with comfortable seats, good service, and a quiet, handsome room, a feeling of chic luxury at a middle-class price point. Food ran a little over $25 each; double that to include wines, tax, tip.
With the holidays coming up, bringing the annual influx of visiting relatives and long-unseen old friends, Suite and Tender has become a viable destination to wow your guests (or to escape from them for an evening). It looks like a million bucks, but depending on food and drink preferences, of course, the two-digit overall per-person costs shouldn’t shatter your checking account. They say penance is good for the soul. It’s certainly been good for Suite and Tender’s cooking and ambience. ■
Suite and Tender
★★★ (Very Good)
Se San Diego Hotel, 1047 Fifth Avenue (north of Broadway), downtown, 619–515-3003; suiteandtender.com
HOURS: Tuesday–Thursday 6:00–10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 11:00 p.m. Breakfast daily.
PRICES: Starters $1.50–$10; light entrées $12–$16; mains $18–$25; sides $5–$7.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: American bistro with Mediterranean touches. Interesting international wine list, sufficient bottles under $40; creative cocktails ($12 each), full bar.
PICK HITS: Wagyu beef carpaccio; seafood ravioli; mussels Provençal; mustard-brined roast chicken; potato-and-horseradish-crusted halibut. Possibly worth trying: bacon-braised pork belly and fig-prosciutto crostini starters, light entrée of six fried oysters.
NEED TO KNOW: Just south of House of Blues. Validated valet parking $12. Looks dark and empty, but the huge brass-rimmed doors are entrances to the (dark) bar-lounge and hence to the restaurant. Elevator access to mezzanine dining room. Quiet, with comfortable seating, excellent service. Unisex bathrooms. One vegetarian pasta entrée plus salads, lacto-veg sides. Decor is ultraspiffy; patrons (sparse) not so much, ranging from chic to geek.