660 K Street, San Diego
Oh, so embarrassing! I’ve known for a long time that Soleil @ K had changed chefs (the opening chef moved on to another local restaurant), but it took an abominable snow job by Wolfgang Verkaaik (restaurant-ad manager and soi-disant “food critic” for the daily paper) to spur me to action. Last fall, chef Eddie Fincher arrived from the Grand Hotel and the Del Mar Country Club, and his menu claims to focus on natural proteins and local produce. Well, these may be near clichés of the new San Diego cuisine, but, hey, they’re a lot better than old SD cuisine — or even the spotty cooking I ate when I reviewed the restaurant shortly after its opening. Sweetening the pot, current offerings include a three-course prix fixe (no choices) for $30. Little as I trust Verkaaik (whose culinary literacy displays itself in at least one misspelled dish nearly every column), I thought I’d give Soleil a shot.
Turns out, yet another downtown hotel restaurant is coming through with fine ingredients, intelligent preparations, and sensitive, expert cooking. The guys in this kitchen are all obviously seasoned pros. How rare is that?
The dining room is chic, with a glassed-in open kitchen visible through an inner wall and walls of windows facing the street. There are a few leather(ette?) booths sized for two or three, but it’s mainly tables and punishing chairs with hard, lacquered woven-rush seats. (Oddly, the patio chairs have cushions over those seats.) In the center are two long wooden communal tables, for parties or, presumably, singles willing to party with strangers. That Thursday night, about half the seats were occupied, but the noise level was minimal, even with a large family group in the middle of the restaurant, including a few exuberant kiddies.
The cocktail list is heavy on martini and cosmo variations, but I’m not a cosmo gal. While posse regular Samurai Jim and I awaited his squeeze Michelle and singer-songwriter “Emmy” (real name, M.E.), he tried a mojito and I sipped a “perfect” margarita. Both were too sweet. Odds are, the mixologist creativity center is upstairs at the rooftop Altitude Lounge.
The slightly stale bread (from La Vache Bakery) resembled Solunto’s heavy white Italian loaves, served with balsamic vinegar and a superb old-gold extra-virgin olive oil — nutty and flavorful (an Italian brand called First Cold Press Supreme, and good luck finding that at Vons).
The starter on the prix fixe was a mound of smoked-salmon shreds sprinkled with chopped chives, accompanied by shredded mild cheese and chopped raw sweet onions served on the side, along with a heap of pita triangles. Not mind-blowing but tasty — that traditional Eastern European onion garnish was the key.
The dinner’s first sensational dish (of two) was tempura lobster. Since there’s no lobster entrée on the menu (and fearing more awful “knuckle-meat”), I inquired about its ancestry before ordering: It’s cold-water lobster from Canada. The lightly battered crustacean meat proved tender, seductive, and generously garnished with creamy-gooey wild-mushroom risotto enriched with truffle butter. This substance, tasting exactly like the high-priced spread made by New York’s great D’Artagnan French food emporium, was loaded with genuine truffle flavor, the very stuff that drives Périgord’s truffle-snuffling pigs (and yours truly) wild with desire. “I would rather eat one appetizer portion of this for $18 than a whole dinner at Tom Ham’s,” said Jim (who’d been on the latter excursion). “It’s big enough for a small entrée and flavorful enough for a whole dinner’s worth of entrées.”
Now, I wished I’d gambled on the lobster cream soup with lobster dumplings — no such thing as too much lobster, if it’s good lobster. Instead, I’d hedged my bets with bouillabaisse — a tomatoey broth filled with slices of mahi, bass, salmon, scallops, and shrimp, none overcooked. A thick slab of lightly toasted bread (no discernible rouille, alas, merely a waft of red pepper) lounged at the rim of the pool, dangling its ankles in the liquid. It wants to be pushed in and dunked; it won’t squeal. Not a great bouillabaisse — short on fennel flavor, saffron, and shellfish — but mildly pleasing as a starter.
The kitchen includes a wood-burning oven, and about a third of the starter choices consist of artisan flatbreads (think pita) with various interesting toppings. That evening’s special featured pesto, mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, mozzarella, Parmesan, and Italian sweet sausage — hey, a mini-pizza! The sausage was the spoiler: neither sweet Sicilian fennel sausage nor Neapolitan hot sausage, as I’d hoped, but some bland thing cut in rectangular slices that looked and tasted like gyro meat. There are better topping choices, such as heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. Or turn to the plethora of imaginative salads.
Starter portions (along with entrées) are generously sized for sharing. Jim was by now set on bringing his boss here for an appetizer-grazing meal, which might include filling choices such as a rib stack, lamb lollipops, or duck-confit spring rolls.
The wine list is odd. There’s top-shelf supermarket favorite Edna Valley Chardonnay (regularly $10, retail) selling for $36, and Clos du Bois Chard ($9 a bottle at supermarkets) selling for $9 per glass, even if they’re both three years old (BFD). But you’ll find loads of these familiar bottlings running about $36 here, plus a few “special occasion” aged reds and bubblies priced a great deal higher. Our St. Supéry Sauvignon was crisp, clean, swell with the starters; the Bridlewood Syrah for the entrées was mellow and user-friendly but shallow for a Rhone grape. Give me a mulligan and for a few bucks more I’d order the Wild Horse Paso Robles Merlot ($40) or the organic Raymond Reserve Merlot ($52).
The knockout entrée was the Sea Ranch grass-fed rib-eye steak ($34), a triumph of animal husbandry and cooking. Semi-coherently I’d ordered it “very rare — not actually dripping-blood-raw but really red, y’know?” Charming waitress Ashley relayed this to the kitchen, and the cook seemed to read my mind. The steak was thin but flawless, well seared outside and rich red inside, and the soulful flavor of grass-fed meat took it to a different realm from just more boring beef. Here was an atavistic thrill rarely encountered in these days of Cryovac-aged, corn-fed couch-potato cattle — pure, deep beef flavor. I almost wanted to kiss the cook and the rancher who raised the animal, and even smack a big wet one on the steer himself, but for the fact that his canoodling days were done. The red-wine reduction sauce reemphasized the intense flavor. Garnishes included fried leeks and a cake of creamy au gratin potatoes, plus a few baby carrots and broccoli. The table talk turned to how most steakhouses are overpriced disappointments, compared. “This just wipes out the beef at Ruth’s Chris,” said Michelle.
This being a Gaslamp restaurant, prone to conventioneers and tourists who send back perfect fish for more cooking, I remembered to say the magic words when ordering the horseradish-crusted black sea bass. “We’re not Yumans, we don’t want it desert-dry — we’re coastal, we want it tender.” Ashley and the kitchen got that one, too. The bass was a tall, moist monolith of steaky white fish, very lightly bread-crumb crusted — but I didn’t really taste any horseradish. It came with a mound of terrific creamy polenta with a pleasant sourness, most likely a splash of crème fraîche. Broccoli spears and carrots were the token veggies.
The prix-fixe dinner’s porcini-dusted scallops (most likely decent dry-pack, not dayboat or diver) were cooked tender, displaying their natural hint of sweetness, but the crust was a bust. The mushroom powder was burned deeply bitter, as senseless in the context as instant espresso. Once that bane hit the surface of the hot skillet, the only proper garnishes for the dish would be wooden stakes or silver bullets. A tarragon cream sauce (a keeper) clung valiantly and vainly to the scallops, trying to soak away the touch of evil. And was the silly, blithe heap of mashed sweet potatoes supposed to be the good fairy with an antidote to the poison? (Who decided sweet yams would go with scallops?) Asparagus and cherry tomatoes were present, too. As Tommy Lee Jones said in The Fugitive, contemplating a train wreck: What. A. Mess.
The sweet potatoes unfortunately recurred, this time as a gratin, with roast Maple Leaf duck, glazed with lavender honey. They shouldn’t have. (Duck is not Thanksgiving turkey.) And neither should the carrot-broccoli veggie garnish, repeated from the bass entrée — the identical tedious veggie combo you’ll find in about half the varieties of Lean Cuisine.* A restaurant this potentially good shouldn’t be serving something so close to old-time “Sysco medley.” Soleil claims to cook Modern California cuisine, so you expect and crave more interesting vegetation — don’t we grow it all right here? (With the food average teetering at 3.7, the blah veggies resulted in a loss of a half-point in the overall rating.)
The duck’s ultra-sweet sauce and rich meat cried out for earthy, dark contrasts — say, a heap of wilted arugula, celery-root mash, braised baby turnips, or maybe broccolini or broccoflower. The duck skin was soft and flabby, although I rather liked the thin layer of soft fat underneath. The meat was tough. I’m not sold on Maple Leaf brand duck, which most local restaurants use — guess I’m still spoiled by the availability of fresh little local Muscovies and busty, skinny-legged Moulardes at the supermarkets and Asian groceries up north.
The dessert for the prix fixe was competent, ordinary vanilla crème brulée with fresh berries. Jim chose Krispy Kreme bread pudding, the decadent donuts melted into a custard. Maybe Krispy’s moment is over: we all craved a sharp hit of cinnamon to brighten up that familiar, cloying vanilla-Crisco-cholesterol flavor. More sophisticated choices include chocolate babycakes, lemon meringue tart, and a Florentine cookie basket, not to mention a plate of four exciting international cheeses with fruit garnishes.
The menu says, “The spirit of community starts with sharing.” The portions drive home that motif. (I got six good dinners out of the doggie bags.) Even with the small flaws, we’d been eating very well. Emmy, who’d just read that week’s Tom Ham’s review and paid attention to prices, voiced the moral of the story: “I can’t believe that anybody would rather eat mediocre food, view or no view, when for the same price or less, they can eat delicious food here.” At the end, food-only costs ran us about $44 per person (reviews are splurgier than reality, of course), but the large portions can easily halve that price for moderate eaters who take home goodies to enjoy on the next weary weeknight when cooking seems unimaginable.
*Note: Now and then I like to mention discoveries of decent-tasting, not-too-evil store-bought food products to fill in when you’re too fried to cook or go out. Latest find is Kashi frozen dinners. Not as tasty as Michael Angelo’s Eggplant Parmesan or Nancy’s Quiches (or whatever Trader Joe’s is offering this month that you’ll never see again), but filling, virtuous, not awful. The calorie and carb counts are about the same as mainstream frozen “diet dinners” (e.g., Lean Cuisine) but for about ten ounces, rather than six or eight. Big-brand diet dinners typically offer two ounces of soggy or dry meat-protein, and gooey sauce sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, plus a stick of broccoli and four ounces of “empty carbs” (mash or white rice), and always leave me hungry. Kashi offers a huge heap of interesting, healthy whole grains (plus the same skimpy two ounces of protein and insipid gravy as the bad guys, but minus the corn syrup). You’d think you were back in the ’70s eating hippie stir-fry — except, after nuking, their typical understated Asian sauces are easy to re-season with shots of Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce, lime juice, soy sauce, sesame oil, hot pepper oil, and/or a complex Caribbean-style hot sauce like Jump Up and Kiss Me. After that, they could even pass for faintly ethnic food.
Sad and sadder gossip: “Tan me hide when I’m dead, Fred, tan me hide when I’m dead. So we tanned his hide when he died, Clyde. And that’s it hangin’ in the shed” at big, splashy Bondi, Australia’s giant foothold in the Gaslamp. Seems as though in hard times, size counts, mate — and the bigger they are, the harder they fall. But the dissolution of another, foodie-beloved biggie is a shock: The Marriott abruptly decided to tear up Arterra, firing the chef, sommelier, and restaurant manager in one swell foop, if my reliable informant has it right. The corporate suits want to remake the restaurant into something else entirely. What that might be remains a mystery, but don’t be optimistic. I’m thinking franchise, the way they did downtown, replacing Molly’s with Roy’s. Hey, Chef Maitland — email me when you get your next gig, I like your cooking!
Soleil @ K
- 4 stars
- (Very Good to Excellent)
660 K Street, downtown, 619-696-0234, 446-6088, soleilatk.com
HOURS: Breakfast weekdays 6:30–10:30 a.m., weekends until 1:30 p.m.; lunch daily 11:30 a.m.–1:00 p.m.; dinner weekdays 5:30–9:00 p.m., until 10:00 Friday–Saturday.
PRICES: Dinner soups, salads, starters, $6–$18; entrées, $20–$36; desserts, $8–$12; cheese plate, $16. Three-course prix fixe, $30.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Modern California cuisine with local produce, naturally raised proteins, Hawaiian fish. Mainly California wines at high markups but plenty under $50, plenty by the glass, a few half-bottles. Full bar.
PICK HITS: Tempura lobster, artisan flatbreads, grass-fed rib-eye steak, horseradish-crusted sea bass. Other good bets: Bocconcini “Martini,” endive salad, lobster cream soup, Kurobuta pork chop, any fish, artisan cheese plate.
NEED TO KNOW: Validated valet parking for three hours with dinner, plus VIP access to rooftop Altitude Sky Lounge bar. Large, sheltered street patio. No vegetarian entrées, but at least nine lacto-vegetarian starters. Large portions, grazing and sharing encouraged.