The dining room offers three massive, magnificent raised booths of pincushion brown leather with large round tables.
795 J Street, San Diego
Of all the gastropubs opening this year, Proper Gastro Pub seems to have the most extensive and ambitious menu, along with an especially rich selection of English pub-food classics, jiggered by chef Sean Magee into, well, something better than most British pub-grub. It’s a spin-off from Wine Steals and occupies the adjoining premises. I’ve been waiting months to try it, until the Padres were done for the year, so as to secure easy parking, because the pub is on a pedestrian alley next door to Petco. (See “Need to Know” for directions — you will need them.)
Proper is in a heritage building (erected 1912) and much care has gone into making its interior look both pubby and old-timey American, with dark wood on floors, chair-backs, booth-backs, tables, and the heavy wooden framework around the open kitchen’s window to the world, which faces a bar with a black-and-white mini-tiled floor and tall, bar-table dinner seating. The
dining room, windowed on two sides, offers three massive, magnificent raised booths of pincushion brown leather with large round tables. At the regular tables, the chairs have black leather cushions on backs and seats; utensils are wrapped in black linen napkins. The staffers exude sheer niceness.
Alas, there are several huge flat-screen TVs, and on Monday “Football Night” they were blasting out a Jets game, albeit not loudly enough (at our table) to drown out conversation. Unless you’re really interested in the game, you’re better off choosing any other night because Football Night is the opposite of Foodie Night — the chef hasn’t yet done his weekly or semi-weekly shopping at the fishmongers’ for the night’s seafood special, or for fresh organic produce at Suzie’s Farm, near Imperial Beach. To my severe disappointment, all the roasted bone marrows had been consumed over the weekend.
I arrived first of my posse that evening, and while waiting, amused myself with a sample of the mixologist’s magic, a frothy, lightly tangy Pear-Fect Fizz ($7). There’s a lot of fun on the specialty cocktail list, ranging from the 1840 Pimm’s Cup, the 1860 New Orleans Sazerac, the 1901 Floradora, to new inventions by bartender Rich Easter.
I had just finished my lovely quaff when Ben, Lynne, and Ryan all filtered in within a few minutes of each other. It was still happy hour, so the dudes enjoyed half-price craft beers and Lynne went for a glass of Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc, which I liked enough to buy a screw-top bottle ($19) of to start off our grazing orgy. Later, moving to the heavier dishes, a Jardin Côtes du Rhône ($18) was smooth, food-friendly, unpretentious, a right red for gastropub grub.
A half-size “cheese and fruit board” held a cornucopia of mainly unseasonal fresh fruits that would make militant locovores cry “Anathema!” — small, seedless red grapes, strawberries, chunks of melon and pineapple along with orange and apple slices and golden raisins, plus bread and lavash. The cheeses — brie, bleu, gouda, havarti, Swiss — were plebeian, supermarket quality rather than artisanal. These choices are not what you’d get in those idealized English pubs planted in my brain by Reginald Hill’s brilliant British policier series, where copper “Fat Andy” Dalziel gobbles ploughman’s lunches on the fly in Yorkshire, enjoying cheeses that are as richly flavored and staunchly regional as his character is.
Next listing on the menu is “local mussels” (i.e., Carlsbad-farmed), which come in three versions: cooked in Guinness stout, Belgian style, or with Danish bleu cheese and bacon. We chose the version cooked in Belgian beer with roasted corn in a creamy pink sauce colored by oven-dried tomato. It was pretty good. (It was also served in a cramped small bowl, with a larger ceramic bowl for shells — Ryan quickly solved the problem, upending the mussels into the shell bowl so we could enjoy them and their sauce.)
For the “bites” and “small plates,” I’ll describe them in order of pleasure, the best three first. Piquillo peppers (skinned, lightly smoked mild chiles) are a staple of Spanish tapas, with a full flavor and sensuous mouth feel. Here, they’re stuffed with ungreasy Spanish-style chopped chorizo, black beans, and creamed corn, the plate filled out with baby spinach, Kalamata gelée, and cilantro purée. This may sound heavy, but the stuffing proved light and mousselike, the composition of flavors fascinating.
Crispy cocoa pork belly is spectacular, all the more so for pub grub, offering a complex array of complementary flavors in one small dish. It combines tender pork with a crisp surface, flavored by cocoa dust that lends a subtle chocolate flavor, accompanied by a small, delicious portion of cavolo nero, an Italian dark-colored kale, and an airy pouf of coffee crème mousse, with a sweet sauce of reduced pork juices and black currants. Whoo-hoo!
We also loved the pork cheek “lasagna” of braised pork cheek with interesting mushrooms, roasted garlic, baby spinach, and more, topped with a few desultory, excessively al dente pasta pieces, with a hard cider and pork jus reduction.
These three dishes are triumphs of the gastropub over the everyday pub, an array of ingredients working together to create fulfilling, intriguing flavors. In some other grazes, though, ingredients trip over each other’s feet. A tiny “terroir tartlet” of mushrooms and herbed cheddar was terrorized by a haystack of wild arugula and balsamic dressing under which the tart was buried. Marinated grilled artichoke had a good aioli dip well hidden under a salad, and a sharp, unadvertised second sauce (horseradish?) similarly concealed. I really like food better when I can actually find it.
A stack of diced raw ahi with steamed edamame over ultra-sweet pickled cucumber slices, proved a do-it-yourself number, with a fierce wasabi sauce and spicy hoisin sauce on the side, and a topping of delightful fried wonton skins. It’s up to the diner to discover that the sharp blasts of wasabi and hoisin aren’t casual garnishes, but necessary flavor components. Without one or both, the other elements are sickly sweet. Sorry, I don’t want to excavate ingredients that complete the flavor — chefs are supposed to do that.
Sausage rolls are the standard quick lunch of cops in all Brit mysteries, but I don’t think that Proper’s version benefits from the juiceless house-made pork sausage, tasting like leftover meat loaf, served en croute in its fine puff-pastry crust. (At least they weren’t bangers. If you’re really hot to eat like a Brit, you can find those horrors, with mash, among the “small plates,” but by worldwide acclaim they’re probably the worst sausages ever invented: greasy, bland, and bready, all the worse for the inevitable sauté in packaged white fat made of lard, suet, and/or mutton tallow — I wonder, has the Queen ever eaten bangers and grease-fried mushrooms for breakfast, as her subjects do?)
As for the Proper Pub Fish Taco, dirt cheap but overwhelmed by raw onion — just fuhgettaboudit. “Never eat Mexican food in a restaurant that isn’t Mexican,” said Ryan. “Unless it’s the grilled fish tacos at Blue Waters,” said Lynne. “Which aren’t all that Mexican,” Ben said, “just really good.”
Turning to the next page on the long menu, we find pizzas, wraps, and entrées. We sampled a slice of the Margherita pizza (tomatoes, basil, buffalo, and regular mozzarellas) and it was dandy, with a thin, crisp crust somewhere between New York and Roman styles, and a thin, tasty topping. The list of specialty wraps and pizzas, each named for a wine grape, is intensely tempting.
Then we tried two fine versions of what the menu calls “Pub Classics All Dressed Up.” The Shepherd’s Pie, that quintessence of comfort food, would fill a family of four, or two nongrazers coming just for this, or one Fat Andy Dalziel in Reginald Hill’s novels. It’s a homely peasant dish, but this is the version you’ve always wanted. Nowadays most shepherd’s pies are made with ground beef (more properly called cottage pie) or with any chopped-up leftover meat. Given the name of the dish, lamb is obviously the original, designated animal. The cook mixes the meat with vegetables and reduced broth or gravy to moisten it and enrich the taste and nutrition of this one-dish meal before topping it with mashed potatoes. Here, this enrichment includes wonderful chopped wintry roots — rutabaga, turnips, carrots, celeriac — and the mash crust on top mixes parsnips with Yukon Golds. Authentic, seasonal, and tastes great, too!
The Black & Tan Mac & Cheese includes smoked cheddar, gruyère, roasted garlic, grape tomatoes, grilled onions, applewood-smoked bacon, and “Guinness béchamel,” with a bacon and panko crust. It’s fearfully rich and tasty enough to make you forget about your cholesterol level. The half-size portion would sate a heavy eater who hadn’t snacked beforehand.
No desserts were offered. (Say, apple tartlets with melted English or Vermont cheddar on top would fit this restaurant’s format!) Of course, we didn’t miss a sweet, being too well fed already. I’ve been eating at gastropubs all year, and judge Proper one of the very best, offering good value for tasty food, with a serious chef for the gastro and classic Brit menu items. If fictional Fat Andy miraculously showed up live in San Diego, this is where I’d take him. But they’d better put some Wensleydale on that cheese plate for him! ■
Proper Gastro Pub
★★★ (Very Good)
795 J Street (on pedestrian alley near 8th), 619-255-7520; propergastropub.com
HOURS: Monday 4:00–12:00 p.m., Tuesday–Thursday, Sunday 11:00 a.m.–midnight; Friday–Saturday until 1:00 a.m.
PRICES: Cheese and salumi boards $15–$27.50; mussels $10–$17; bites/sides $4–$7; small plates $5–$11.50; salads $8–$12; wraps $6.50; pizzas average $3/slice, pies $14–$20; “Mains” and “Pub Classics” $18–$24.
CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Long menu of creative grazes, pizzas, and substantial British pub/mainstream American entrées, made with locally grown organic produce. Vast beer list, modest selection of affordable wines (all by the glass or bottle). Full bar with inventive or historic specialty cocktails.
PICK HITS: Stuffed piquillo peppers; crispy cocoa pork belly; pork cheek lasagna; shepherd’s pie; mac and cheese; pizzas. Worth a gamble: double bone-in pork chop with apple sauce, dates, root vegetable gratin; specialty wraps.
NEED TO KNOW: No storefront on J Street; look for block-long pedestrian alley left (east) of Mexican restaurant on corner of 8th. Walk south on alley next to Petco Park’s low fences to find Proper and adjoining Wine Steals. Easy local parking (street or paid lots) when there’s no game. Huge wall TVs are noisy on Monday Football Nights. Happy hours 4:00–7:00 p.m. and 10:00–closing nightly, with half-off beers, wines by the glass, non-call hooch, plus appetizer discounts. Loads for lacto-vegetarians, about five grazes for vegans, many gluten-free dishes by request. Check website for weeknight specials.