675 W. Beech Street, San Diego
Craft and Commerce occupies the spot in Little Italy where a wannabe trendy restaurant named Illume briefly bloomed and died, trying to be a magnet for the hip young crowd moving into the nearby condos. It flopped, but this new gastropub seems a roaring (literally) success. Prices are lower, and the very air beckons “come as you are” — although many in the crowd are spiffy as all get out, the women sharply dressed, the heavily tatted guys following the lead of the waiters in wearing cool hats or caps (e.g., Irish tweed newsboy caps — no loutish backward gimme caps like the kind you see in sports pubs).
The atmosphere is pubby and, well, atmospheric, with weathered wooden-slat walls, shelves to the ceiling stuffed with secondhand hardcover classic book sets, low lighting with glassed-in candles on the tables, and a din of exuberant conversation. The babble overrides the eclectic music, which occasionally includes somberly passionate country blues that seem to quiet the crowds suddenly, captured by the sacred beauty.
The menus are handwritten into softcovered, small, thick unlined notebooks, like those used for essay exams in school. They’re hard to read by candlelight; luckily, I’d brought a more legible printout of the website menu. (If you’re of an age to join the presbyopian congregation, consider bringing a penlight.)
“Fries and pickles?” asked Mark. “What’s that?” Batter-fried pickles are a Southern favorite, I explained. The fries in this instance are made of sweet potatoes, the house-made pickles (soft, sweet-sour cucumber chunks, parsnip spears) are cornmeal-battered, scattered with blue cheese, served with a habit-forming malt aioli for dipping. The pickles weren’t at all Southern, unless you mean Southern California, and they were fiendishly salty. The dish arrived before our drinks or water, and after a few bites, we all took an intermission until the liquids arrived.
The cocktails were creative and flavorful. They cost $10 to $11, same as a glass of wine from the pitifully short list. It was a hot night, and I tried a tall, refreshing Carolina Cross (gin, St-Germain elderflower liqueur, fizz, watermelon chunks on top, loads of ice). Scottish Sue hit the Pan American Highway (a small, intriguing glass of white rum, mescal, lime, a discreet touch of pomegranate molasses), while the Lynnester ventured on the Silk Road (rum, cognac, chai tea–infused sweet vermouth, and an overdose of Angostura bitters). “That’s a real adult cocktail,” she said. It tasted quite Caribbean, but there, they’d back way off on those Trinidadian bitters. Mark had a short glass of St. Bernardus, a dark, nutty Belgian ale with 10.5 percent alcohol.
Devils on Horseback proved a modest portion of various foodstuffs fried in bacon-wraps: cheddar-stuffed dates, apple slices layered with blue cheese, asparagus with mushrooms and garlic. It all seemed inconsequential, culinary trivia. (How I’d love to juggle these combinations, with challenging blue cheese in the sweet dates, the bland cheddar melting through the tart apples!)
A double order of broiled oysters (four for $9) divided the posse’s opinions. The bivalves are big, squishy meats served without shells, nicely topped with frizzled seaweed, scallions, and chervil with a parsleyed broiled lemon for squeezing on as desired. Mark and I both liked them initially — but we left over the two that Sue and Lynne left over for us. They tasted generic, neither briny nor distinctly regional, much like bottled oysters from Vons, sexy only until you kiss them.
The dish that spurred my visit (which Lynne had discovered online, of course) was roasted bone marrow. Each plate of it consists of two huge split-open caveman-size shinbones, full of that delicious stuff. It’s pale, fatty, satiny, with a melting texture like custard. It reminded Sue of escargots, mainly because the kitchen loads it up with garlic (and chopped scallions), plus way more salt than it needs or wants. You can scoop it straight from the bone to eat (with a fork, no spoons provided here) or spread it with a knife on the lightly toasted lemon bread alongside. It comes with a tall heap of young greenery in a light, barely sweet dressing, emphatically the most enjoyable salad of those we tried.
Panzanella salad was a disaster. I love it when done right: a mass of greenery, sweet onion, tomatoes, and herbs like Italian parsley mixed with chunks of lightly toasted day-old Italian or baguette bread in a well-balanced vinaigrette. The bread softens as it absorbs the dressing and becomes a jolly, sensual player in the cast. Here, though, we found a single slab of hard-toasted lemon bread served on the side. Tearing it up and mixing it in was DIY. But no use: the vinaigrette was swamped with vinegar (and — need I say it? — salt). None of us found this salad edible.
The duck Cobb salad was another doubtful do-it-yourself project. Here, a tender, hard-cooked egg with a good soft yolk. There, the salad mixture heavily dressed with green goddess. On the side, small slices of heavily spiced, overcooked duck breast. On another side, sliced avocado. Chop-ins include pleasantly firm asparagus and crisp bacon. The original Hollywood recipe (from the Brown Derby, wasn’t it?) called for a blue cheese (Roquefort or Gorgonzola). Here, they substitute hard little cubes of “aged cheddar” (same as is stuffed in the dates, but unmelted). It’s stodgy, with a gummy texture and no bite. Whatever its pedigree (certainly not Vermont’s Grafton or anything approaching that caliber), it tastes like supermarket deli cheese. Okay, prices are reasonable here, but they already have blue cheese in the kitchen, so why not use some where it really matters?
We’d chosen the Cobb as a main course after hearing the people next to us begging for black pepper, red pepper, anything to liven up the mac and cheese. That sounded our blandness alarm. At the table on the other side, a guy was clearly relishing his hotdog. These are good beef dogs with crackly casings. They come three ways: with sauerkraut, with crunchy Asian vegetables, and, our choice, with heirloom-tomato relish, chicharrones, chives, and spicy fondue. This proved the best of our entrées, fresh and lively.
I would have loved the tender mussels with seasoned fries, except that the fries were dumped right over half the mussels, obliterating the minimal sauce of uni butter, habanero chilies, garlic, etc., lurking at the bottom of the plate. I suspect that’s a tasty little sauce down there, getting erased by the explosion of potatoes and their trickle-down salt. It’s like a fast-food misreading of the Belgian classic. I wish I could order this again, this time specifying “Fries on the side, please.”
Ordering fried chicken, we all had hopes of an indulgent treat. Suffering from fear of frying, I haven’t cooked it for years, nor even gotten takeout from Popeyes. Same with the rest of the gang. Given the other Southern dishes on the menu (fried pickles, buttermilk biscuits), we were hoping for a crackly, puffy buttermilk batter — or, if not, at least a brightly seasoned flour coating like that served at the late Magnolias. C&C’s was flour-coated and pan-fried. For flavor and tenderness, it flopped. Even the thigh piece was dry, with hard, scorched brown flesh wherever the skin had pulled off. I liked the accompanying buttermilk slaw but not the soggy garlic green beans. On the side was a red chili vinegar (presumably to be used as a sauce), so harshly spicy, it turned this chili lover right off. Dry chicken like this needs rich pan gravy (so easy to make!), not half-done salad dressing.
Last was an ice cream sandwich of chocolate wafers around vanilla ice cream, dotted with candied bacon. The bacon registered as “just chips” — more a texture than a flavor. A big “who cares?” Plus, no coffee of any kind to make the desserts go down.
We all shared an ambivalent combination of disappointment and optimism. We’d expected better food — but we also still held hopes for C&C’s future. This is an imaginative menu with huge potential, if only the chef will stop stubbing his toe on the salt and vinegar, turn down the stove heat a bit, buy more blue cheese and less dull cheddar — just, in general, back off from the tendency to excess, and let his ingredients speak for themselves.
A Few Holiday Possibilities
The Cravory (thecravory.com) — This local company makes cookies but not like any cookies you might find in a store. They’re thick and luscious, with flavors that range from dreams of the inner child (Oreo Milkshake and Birthday Cake) to nearly X-rated. To pair with wine, consider the Pinot Noir cookie with goat cheese, roasted almonds, and salted caramel or the seductive Rosemary Balsamic (with which I’m seriously smitten) or Lemon Cherry Basil. And consider a cookie flavored like pancakes and bacon. (I wish they’d included that in the little sampler they sent me!) And, indeed, the Red Velvet really does beat out any cake version. The price is $24 a dozen, plus shipping. Furthermore, they’ll put together any flavor combination you can conceive of (minimum order, two dozen for custom-made). Alas, no sampler packs of several flavors. Watch out to spell it right: another bakery called the Cravery with an e makes potpies only.
Foodzie (foodzie.com) — Based in San Francisco, this is a clearinghouse for small, artisan food crafters across the United States, with prices all across the map. The downside is that products (meats, fish, chowders) requiring refrigerated shipping carry hefty shipping charges. Because of that, I didn’t order the wild-killed Michigan woods venison steaks or roasts, the New England seafoods, or the pulled pork, smoked in Oklahoma and made from heritage hogs raised in Nebraska. But, wow, there’s so much more. Let me put in a few raves here: the gluten-free “ravioli cookies” by Zix (with stuffings of cherry, apricot, pumpkin, apple, etc.) are just dreamy, with thin, fragile crusts (made of rice and millet flour), thick fillings that taste like their fruits (or veggies), not too sweet. They’re $11 for a half dozen of any flavor or a mix. Perfect breakfast food for those who crave croissants but don’t want all the fat and calories. Another favorite is the lemon pudding from the Sticky Toffee Pudding Company in Austin, Texas, run by an Englishwoman from the Lake Country. I sampled one of these at a food show in Frisco a good dozen years ago and never forgot it — one of the best sweets I’ve ever tried. It won “best dessert in show,” of course. The sticky toffee (not disgusting at all) and molten chocolate puddings are also amazing. They’re $30 for a six-pack (one flavor or a sampler) and can be frozen for six months. One thing to be careful about: because these are all small producers, they don’t always label their packs “perishable” or “refrigerate.” Two of my packages (during the scorching weather in early November) came with chill-packs that had melted. If your FedEx guy leaves a package from an unknown provider on your porch, open it immediately! If it’s not your personal bomb from al-Qaeda, it could be something delicious that needs to go in the fridge right away.
Zingerman’s (zingermans.com) — Last year, this upscale deli/bakery in Ann Arbor was my main source of food gifts to my posse. (And, of course, the best stuff I bought for them, I bought for me too.) Heaven knows, they’re not cheap. The most appreciated gift was a sampler pack of tiny bottles of several aged balsamics of various vintages. (I love it!) There’s also a sampler of Italian citrus olive oils. And for those delving further, items like yuzu syrup, Rangpur lime syrup, and for total anchovy freaks, the ancient Roman Empire condiment of garum, an intense anchovy sauce that kept Roman soldiers’ mouths happy as they plunged into the bad-food wilds of savage Gaul and Britannia. Also lots of interesting (and freezable) breads and pastries, many of them not made by even our best local bakers.
Gourmet Food Store (gourmetfoodstore.com) — They have everything. Everything! Foie gras, caviar (local and imported), meats, imported cheeses, bottled sauces — everything. It’ll cost ya. I don’t like their sauces much. Otherwise, if you got it, honey, flaunt it!
Igourmet (igourmet.com) — Similar to the above, with more emphasis on imported cheeses, slightly lower prices. I shop here every December, not so much for gifts as for great goodies to get me through the winter. ■
Craft and Commerce
675 West Beech Street (between India and Kettner), Little Italy, 619-269-2202; craft-commerce.com
HOURS: Daily 5:00 p.m.–1:00 a.m.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Gastropub eclectic. Interesting creative cocktails, international craft beers, minimal wine (and no coffee).
PICK HITS: Fries and pickles; roasted bone marrow; hotdog #3 (with tomato relish); mussels (specify “fries on the side”); cocktails.
NEED TO KNOW: No reservations taken, and crowded even on a Monday; come as early as possible or expect a long wait for a table or bar stool at peak hours. Loud, dark (bring a penlight to read menu), convivial. Enough for lacto-vegetarians, including veggie burger.