729 W. Washingon Street, San Diego
My friend Charlie Perry (now food writer for the L.A. Times and various food-scholar magazines) used to live about a mile from me in San Francisco. Both of us were ambitious, striving cooks (we eventually collaborated on a cookbook), and we often spontaneously shared dinners that turned out well. One night, he attempted Beef Wellington — a technically difficult dish that he managed well. He’d made modifications to the unaffordable original recipe and so redubbed it “Beef Ellington” — after the American Duke, rather than the English one for whom it is named.
San Diego’s own Wellington Steak and Martini Lounge is named for this dish. Beef Wellington is featured on the menu, of course, although the version here is even less true to the original luxury item than Charlie’s rendition. More important for the pleasure and comfort of the diners, the ambient music runs to the pop-jazz of the ’50s softly played — music to my ears. You can talk over it when you want to, without having to raise your voices, or you can just listen. It’s a signal to patrons: we’re adults here, enjoying adult pleasures. No, I didn’t hear any Ellington tracks that evening, but this genre of American music is under the Duke’s powerful, benign sway. As our flawlessly elegant Duke taught America: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
The Wellington used to be the site of the Blue Bar, back when the property was an extension of the late Parallel 33. The room is smallish, semi-dark, with the plain, understated chic of a bohemian Manhattan supper club of an earlier era. It offers a wide choice of comforts — booths, banquettes, tables. Located next to the Red Door, with which it shares the small kitchen, chef Brian Johnston (formerly top toque at Star of the Sea) is at the helm on both sides of the house.
The cocktails are variations of martinis, although I suppose you could get a shot and a beer back if you ask nicely. The bartender visited our table to take drink orders. I challenged him, saying I find regular martinis too boozy but hate the candy cocktails currently so common. The answer was the Grand Passion, a martini with a light touch of passionfruit purée. Perfect. My friends (Samurai Jim, plus new friends Melanie and Jason) went for classic flavors, but those who want to will find the usual alarming array of chocolate, cherry, berry, and cranberry versions.
Our server, Javier, proved a paragon takes his profession seriously, not as some stopgap to reality-TV stardom or as coincidental support for a surfing habit. He knew about all the foods on the menu, gave good advice, was there when we needed him and invisible when we didn’t.
We didn’t need Javier’s encomiums to try the Kobe beef tartare — we were already set on it. The meat was surprising; it didn’t begin to resemble the ultra-fatty, fall-apart-tender Kobe beef I’ve eaten raw at Quarter Kitchen, etc. Here, the Kobe is not pure Kobe: it’s a Montana rancher’s crossbreeding of Japanese Wagyu cattle with Certified Angus Beef, which isn’t graded by the USDA but is the equivalent of top-of-the-Choice grade. The hand-minced beef in the tartare is amended with shallots, lots of capers, Dijon mustard, and herbs and topped with a poached quail egg in the shell; you have to crack it and let it ooze onto the meat. Bold and entertaining, it may be the best dish in the house.
Creole shrimp (also offered at Red Door) offers Mexican white shrimps sautéed with onion, celery, green bell pepper, garlic (your classic Louisiana-style mirepoix), and a light, not-too-spicy dusting of Cajun spices, finished with a white-wine cream sauce and served on a thin, crispy three-cheese polenta cake that I could happily eat every day for a week — perfect texture, great flavor. The dish deserves its designation of “Creole” because the chef is thinking Louisianan, and it evokes dishes you might find in upscale NOLA restaurants.
Braised pork cheeks in puff pastry are enjoyable, too, but somehow didn’t captivate us this time. (I adored them at Red Door in February.) Same with the crab cakes, with a thin, crisp coating and almost all crabmeat in the center, garnished with roasted red peppers, Kalamata olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and a basil vinaigrette. The problem was that the jumbo lump crab seemed dull in flavor, lacking sweet maritime undertones. I’d think it was just me, spoiled by a Dungeness-tuned palate, but my companions felt the same way.
Most entrées consist of steaks. Alternatives include a roasted chicken breast, an Iowa pork chop (overcooked when I tried it at Red Door in February), a mustard-crusted salmon, and our choice, applewood-bacon-wrapped jumbo sea scallops served over crispy polenta with cilantro pesto. The scallops were tender, the bacon flavorful, and they played well together.
Writer Nelson Algren famously warned the world, “Never eat at a place called Mom’s,” but he never cautioned, “Never eat Wellington at a place called Wellington.” You feel obliged to try it. The original Beef Wellington (named for a British duke) was rich and spendy: beef tenderloin topped with a layer of pâté de foie gras and another layer of mushrooms in cream sauce, all wrapped and roasted in puff pastry and served with classic, weighty, French-style Madeira sauce (based on reduced veal stock) studded with fresh black truffle pieces and regular mushrooms. Well, you’d have to charge plenty more than $32 for that!
I’m glad somebody’s still attempting this silly old dish (the now-defunct Rainwater’s seemed the last holdout), but the version here, even more than my friend Charlie’s (which substituted duck liver mousse for foie gras), is truly simplified down to an “Ellington.” The filet mignon is topped with minced cremini mushrooms, duly roasted in a light wrap of puff pastry, finished off with a Madeira-shiitake sauce, and garnished with asparagus spears. I was disappointed by this minimalist rendition, particularly since it’s near impossible to turn out really rare beef in the dish; perhaps the missing layer of pâté in the original helped insulate the meat from the heat. (That’s the Wellington challenge: by the time the pastry is done, the meat is at best light pink.) And filet is tender but short on intrinsic flavor, so it may need some sort of pâté to jive it up. Hint-hint: duck- or chicken-liver mousse is easy and inexpensive to make, and any that escapes the beef can slide through the kitchen to play appetizer special on the Red Door side.
On other steaks, you can get a sauce of your choice, within limits. Alas and lackaday! The lavish but labor-intensive, skill-challenging béarnaise sauce (an elaborate wine-based twist on hollandaise) is still listed on the website but has gone off menu. I mind, I really mind, because one of my lifelong reasons for going to restaurants has been to enjoy dishes I can’t just toss off at home. To me, a steakhouse without a béarnaise is like a mousetrap without cheese. As a child of Julia, I made many a terrifying béarnaise in my younger years (using the dregs of the serious French Bordeaux we’d be drinking with dinner rather than a classic white wine — looked ugly pinky-yellow but tasted amazing), but now I’m old, lazy, and single again, so let some professional beat madly to incorporate the butter! As a youngster I adored any steak I could get (an always-rare, treasured treat) and sauce was unknown, but I’ve since grown bored with most beef and look to sauces to lend the meat interest.
The beef at Wellington is top Choice (or equivalent) rather than the USDA Prime of the much more expensive top steakhouses. You can find top Choice at supermarkets in upmarket areas (e.g., the Coronado Albertsons, Jonathan’s in La Jolla), but it’s extremely difficult to find Prime grade at retail, since restaurants monopolize it. Here, all the steaks have been wet-aged at length, but none (as far as I know) are dry-aged. (Wet-aging, e.g., hanging prime cuts for several weeks sheathed in heavy plastic Cryovac wrap, only tenderizes the meat. Dry-aging — hanging mainly the rib-loin prime cut unsheathed in a climate-controlled situation — intensifies its flavors as well and adds to the price because the meat shrinks so much in the process.)
We chose a Harris Ranch rib-eye, the most flavorful steak cut, very rare, with chimichurri, Argentina’s parsley-based vinaigrette salsa — and a very good one it is, brightly wide awake. It’s an easy sauce to make, but this was a cut above most versions I’ve made at home.
The Kobe top sirloin is the same not-quite-Kobe we had as a tartare, and as a steak it revealed its true nature. It’s a big puck of meat, closer to its certified Angus beef fathers than its Wagyu side. It’s hearty and chewy, the marbling decent but not extraordinary, as in genuine Wagyu. (I’m rather sad about this — America keeps buying up other countries’ culinary folk-heritages and turning them into regular commodities.) The sauce we chose with the aid of Javier was au poivre, a cream sauce finished off at the end with cracked black pepper. But sauce or no, I kept thinking that this flavorful beef would be even better grilled on a campfire over mesquite or any other fallen dry wood scavenged from the forested edges of the campground. (Dream on.) Like buffalo, it seems to crave wood smoke.
You have your choice of two sides with every steak entrée. And they are all good. At Red Door I didn’t love the mac ’n’ cheese, but I’ve eaten lots more renditions since then at other restaurants — uh-oh, this is the new tiramisu. Now I love it for a disgusting reason: it’s made with a combo of Velveeta and Gruyère. I’m ashamed, but this is my own mom’s mac ’n’ cheese (though she didn’t include Gruyère, just Velveeta), and I’ve come around to its “food for the inner child” ethos. Even better did I like the sweet creamed corn, which tastes as it sounds. Sweet-potato fries are a pleasing, healthy starch choice, and mini baked Yukon potatoes are, too. They’re cute, crispy, small enough to enjoy without a carb-guilt overload. We didn’t try the Yukon gold mash.
All meated out, we could barely contemplate dessert. The four of us shared a lemon-curd extravaganza and couldn’t finish it. But it was really good. Even better: flawless espressos, fresh-made with crema still intact at delivery.
Although Wellington can’t afford Prime grade meat at the neighborhood prices it charges, what you go here for is not so much the meat but “the sizzle on the steak.” That sizzle consists mainly of the jazzy, retro ambiance, postwar film noir meets Prohibition speakeasy — plus good service, comfortable seating for all tastes, and above all, music that’s a treat for all ears. That’s a lot of sizzle. ■
The Wellington Steak and Martini Lounge
★★★ (Fair to Good)
729 West Washington Street, Mission Hills, 619-295-6001; TheWellingtonSD.com
HOURS: Sunday–Thursday 5:30–10:00 p.m., Friday–Saturday till 11:00 p.m. Happy hour at bar daily 5:00–6:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers, $6.50–$13.50; entrées, $16.50–$32.50 (including two sides and a sauce); desserts, $6.50. Sundays $35, three-course Beef Wellington dinner special.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: USDA top Choice steaks cooked to order, a few seafood and poultry choices. Wine list somewhat steep (mainly over $50), but seek and ye shall find affordable bottles and glasses. Full bar emphasizing martini variations.
PICK HITS: Kobe beefsteak tartare; Creole shrimp; bacon-wrapped scallops; rib-eye steak with chimichurri sauce; creamed corn; mac ’n’ cheese; sweet-potato fries; lime-curd dessert.
NEED TO KNOW: Small room, so always reserve. Quiet, sophisticated atmosphere. Relatively easy street parking.