741 W. Washington Street, San Diego
When chef Amiko Gubbins left her pioneering eclectic-fusion restaurant Parallel 33 to go cook for a rock star, local foodies gasped. She finally shut Parallel 33 down permanently after taking a gig with Specialty Produce (which supplies veggies and gourmet products to local restaurants), and its physical replacement turns out to be nearly an opposite sort of restaurant. Where Parallel 33 was at the vanguard of a new trend, the Red Door is anything but “trendy,” even as it epitomizes the dominant current trend in recession-eating — looking backward. It’s what everybody seems to want right now, a neat little neighborhood restaurant serving comfort foods at comfortable prices.
Restaurateur Rick Libiran (who owns Market Street Café downtown) seems to be creating his own little “restaurant row” in the western stretch of Washington Street. He moved wine-bar/bistro Urban Bleu from Hillcrest to a block away from the new restaurant, while next to the Red Door, he just opened a miniature steakhouse and cocktail lounge called Wellington (which thumbs its nose at snooty steakeries with a price of $32 for a steak with two sides). Wellington shares the kitchen with the Red Door, and local chef Brian Johnson (fondly remembered from his stint a decade ago at Star of the Sea) presides over both.
Renovated and expanded into the surrounding space, the Red Door is larger, calmer, and more comfortable than claustrophobic, boho-chic Parallel 33. It’s not chronically noisy like its predecessor (no noticeable music track), but there’s nothing to soften the ambient sound, either: At our visit, a sextet of stentorian alpha males (business-class travelers) overrode all other conversations until they finally drank up and went home.
Posse-regulars Mark and the Lynnester live nearby and have eaten here before. Lynne’s lively mom, Mary Ann, joined us; she’s here for her annual escape from the snows of northern Michigan. Lynne had fallen in love with the Red Door’s rendition of Wedge Salad — one of those small-town “nice restaurant” shibboleths of the late ’50s, along with shrimp cocktails, clams casino, Parker House rolls, etc. Now it’s a retro fad on a rapid route to local ubiquity, soon to join fried calamari, crab cakes, and Caesar salad in the ranks of Universal Standard Appetizers. (Perhaps its secret charm is that we’ve learned that it’s sinful — unlike green or red leaf lettuces, iceberg has almost no nutrients; and that bacon — ooh, bad to the bone!) Well, having tried several other restaurant versions, I agree with Lynne — if you love the dish, this version is as good as it’s likely to get. Dressing the pale-green hulk are an outpouring of savory applewood-smoked bacon crumblings, minced and sliced ripe-enough tomato, pickled red-onion slices, and house-made croutons to swish around in the delicious buttermilk dressing. I suspect it may be addictive; I’d never wanted it before, but next day I craved more.
The showiest starter is a braise of pork cheeks in white wine and veal stock baked in a puff-pastry shell, served with onion marmalade and herbed braising jus. It’s rich and meat-sweet the way only pork is, and the delicate pastry wrapping dignifies it in the way that serious French chefs flatter “off-cuts” and offal — an outstanding Gallic bistro dish amidst the menu’s Americana. But if you eat the whole thing yourself, you’d better forsake hope of downing an entrée unless your appetite is prodigious. The trade-off may well be worth it.
Our other starters were equally generous in size and flavors. Shrimp Creole — no, nothing like that scarlet slop your mom ladled over Minute Rice — offers sweet, tender Mexican white shrimp sautéed with the authentic Creole Holy Trinity (onion, celery, green pepper — plus garlic) finished off in a thick white-wine-and-cream sauce, colored coral with semi-mild red-chili powder and other spices. (Hey, it’s not “shrimp Creole” — better, it’s more like étouffée!) The back of my palate caught a sweet-tart flavor, maybe a splash of sherry vinegar, maybe an illusion. And the whole posse fell in love with the crispy polenta wedge in the center, which tasted as if it had the same seasonings cooked into the cornmeal, though it doesn’t — it seems merely to have drunk up the vibrant sauce. Next day, the leftover shrimps tasted even sweeter at room temperature, without heat to obscure their delicate flavor.
A gutsy bowlful of tender Manila clams were garnished with finely minced chorizo, minced parsley, and a joyous horde of fine-chopped garlic in a thin white-wine tomato sauce, served with crostini. The fearlessly flavorful garnishes permeate each clam shell. It’s Carmen on a plate, the Spanish-Gypsy seductress dedicated to sensual pleasures. (Two cautions: hang on to your soft-roll table bread if you order this, because you’ll want to keep dunking up sauce after the crisp crostini are gone. And, if dating, you really must share this dish or you’ll hate each other later.)
These starters, shared among a foursome, were more than enough for dinner. And the atmosphere (along with the wine list) seems to encourage grazing dinners among friends. For a sextet, you could add the crab cakes or spinach-artichoke dip or perhaps try the “artisan salumi plate” of selections made by local craftsman Ray Knight, with cured meats, cheeses, olives, and crostini. Food costs for a grazing meal will average about $12 apiece. (The clams may recall Carmen, but the prices bespeak La Boheme.)
The adventurous wine list inclines toward carefree experimentation, with not merely full glasses for most selections, but half-glasses to taste. With Mark in the posse, I chose a bottle of Sauvignon from his home country, Suisun Valley, called Picnique PQ ($22), supposedly tasting like the orange-lemon-lime fusion of Starbursts (whatever those are). It was pleasant but no star- or sunburst, merely fun. Plenty of better whites on this list (including, in the same price range, a Chilean Chardonnay, an Argentine Torrontes, and — a bit pricier — a white Bordeaux, plus something I missed entirely, a Monterey “Grigio e Bianco” mystery-quaff the menu calls “exotic”). A better guess for our meaty second course (no foolin’ around desired) was a Château de Montfaucon Côte Du Rhone ’06 ($30), medium-bodied but mouth-filling, complex, sunshiny. Rhones are still miraculously underpriced, easy-drinking dinner wines that are perfect with meaty comfort food. “This wine is really our best main dish,” said Mary Ann.
The wintery main dishes of the season are for serious eaters with serious appetites. Everybody’s favorite entrée is the huge Iowa natural pork chop, brined in maple syrup, molasses, and spices, finished off with black figs and balsamic sauce and Yukon mashed potatoes — plus young green beans and deeply roasted, seductive carrot hunks. But even though I’d specifically requested that the pork not be overcooked, it was. Mary Ann (who’d just set a hunk of pork to brining at her local pied-à-terre) reeled off the modern formula for perfect moist, rosy pork: “Cook to 135 degrees, remove from heat, let rest five minutes.” (Commercial pork is free of trichinosis.) Well, this pork was cooked to about 150 degrees; that is, gray-fleshed all through. It’s still good, thanks to the sweet brine and figgy sauce, but it could be so much better.
A thick chunk of sautéed Scottish salmon fillet also seemed overcooked — put off by the dry surface, none of us penetrated to its rare center. (Remember, those rich appetizers had quite disabled our appetites, leaving our palates hanging on for dear life.) The fish was lightly coated with a sweet pear chutney and came with a few asparagus spears. Underneath it, a school of large, round butternut squash ravioli, resembling vegetable manta rays, lurked in the shallows of a soi-disant Madras curry sauce. (That is, the sauce bears no resemblance to anything cooked in Madras; it’s apparently a cream sauce barely touched with a mild version of Madras curry powder.)
We had mixed reactions to the ravioli. Mary Ann liked them, enjoying their simple sweetness. I found the wrappers a bit mushy — and cursed (or blessed) with a frighteningly long food-memory, I found that the filling evoked a suppressed recollection of Gerber’s baby-food squash, the second spoonful of which set off a rug-rat tantrum, as I recall. The ravioli filling, probably smoothed with butter, certainly wasn’t as sludgy as baby food, but as an adult I enjoy puréed squash mainly when it’s sparked up with dark herbs like sage and black pepper or strong seasonings whole curry spices or used as a substitute for sweet potatoes in a butter-crusted pie. All in all, next time I’ll try the cornmeal-crusted Cajun catfish instead. (It comes with sweet potato–crab hash! And after the credible “Creole” shrimp, I have some trust in the chef to do “Cajun” without disgracing himself.)
Meyer beef short-ribs, served boneless, were braised in red wine and veal stock, served with Cabernet sauce, Yukon potato mash, and a titillating all-over topping of fried onion straws, plus now-forgotten veggies. It’s good, very meaty. Not world class, but worthy of respect. To respect it, don’t eat heavy appetizers first.
Sorry to say, we tried the chef’s family’s turkey meatloaf, which comes with the chef’s family’s barbecue sauce. Problem is, not all families are equal, culinarily. I sort of liked the browned crust on the loaf, but the interior was dry and weirdly flavored. None of us could stand it, and now that retasting for this review is out of the way, I’ll be polling the local feral-cat gourmets for their opinion. The sauce is SoCal WASPy: simple, sweet, ketchupy, a soprano ingénue. The main side dish here is mac ’n’ cheese, which evoked floods of dire reminiscences of family cooking from each of us as we tore the Red Door recipe apart. (We’ve all been corrupted by the Stouffers’ version.) This rendition is not awful, but the cheese is tragically mild, the texture very dense. We wanted to remake it with more cream and some sharp cheddar.
Mark mentioned he’d dropped in one night and really enjoyed the Red Door Burger of Meyer natural ground beef; for $12.50, you get fries with that (plus caramelized onions, cheese, lettuce, and tomato). A minute later, a guy at a nearby table received one, dug in, looked happy. Given that it’s made with a branded natural beef (hopefully with no scary “spare parts” from God-knows-where), it’s probably relatively safe at medium-rare.
We could eat no more but ordered a couple of desserts anyway. A strawberry-rhubarb fruit cobbler was very tart. The two Michiganders (Michigandresses?), both accustomed to rhubarb as a hometown taste, liked it quite a lot. The bread pudding was simple, heavy, and bland, better for breakfast than dessert. The espresso was thin and bitter.
The way to go here, I think: Look over the menu carefully before you order, and make some hard choices, keeping in mind that all portions are huge and will get even larger as you try to consume them. But, hey, if you do over-order, this style of cooking is friendly to gentle reheating. Like a visit to Mom’s (if Mom is a good old-fashioned cook, and generous), you’re likely to come home with a bountiful package of goodies for tomorrow night’s dinner.
The Red Door
741 W. Washington Street, Mission Hills, 619-295-6000, thereddoorsd.com
HOURS: Open 7 days. Lunch Monday–Saturday 11:30 a.m.–3:00 p.m.; brunch Sunday 10:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m.; happy hour daily 3:00–6:00 p.m.; dinner 5:00–10:00 p.m. weekdays, until 11:00 p.m. weekends.
PRICES: Starters, $6.50–$14.50; mains, $12.50–$19.50; desserts, $6.00. Sunday “Family Dinner Night,” simple three-course prix-fixe dinner for four, $49.50.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: American comfort food with a sophisticated edge. Clever, affordable international wine list with most wines available by the half-glass, glass, or bottle. Full bar, modern cocktails.
PICK HITS: Appetizers: Pork cheeks in puff pastry; Manila clams; shrimp Creole; wedge salad. Mains: Maple-braised pork chops, short ribs. Good bets: Surf and “Cheeky” Turf (scallops and pork cheeks); catfish; burger.
NEED TO KNOW: Neighborhood-restaurant ambience. Street parking, not awful. One lacto-vegetarian entrée. Large portions (great for sharing). Half-price wine bottles Monday nights. Early-bird special for unemployed, Monday–Tuesday, phone or check website for eligibility rules.