611 Fifth Avenue, San Diego
Searsucker’s chef Brian Malarkey became a celeb when he got to the finals on one of those TV chef contests. He didn’t win, but his roguish style and outgoing personality made him famous. At the time, he headed the kitchen at Oceanaire, the Gaslamp branch of a high-end seafood chain. I liked his crab cake and the oyster bar and the simplest fish but wasn’t much impressed with his fancier “creative” seafood dishes. (I remember especially disliking the laughably inauthentic “Cajun-rubbed shrimp,” which brought to mind the image: “Eh, Fontenot! C’mere, let me rub these shrimp on you.”)
At Searsucker, partnering with nightclub entrepreneur James (Stingaree) Brennan, he gets to show what else he can do when he’s free to be Malarkey. An email from a trusted, good-palate reader recommending the restaurant (“much better than Oceanaire”) inspired a visit.
Designed by Thomas Schoos, it’s a vast space with numerous subregions — a big bar, of course, but also a central lounge where people can sit on couches to eat. (Reserving for an early hour might help you score one of these.) The large-table party spaces have comfortable padded chairs. Regular diners at four-tops are consigned to hard, small, wooden chairs that will make your tushie sore during a long meal. The open kitchen is genuinely open, not glassed-in, and includes stools to sit on by the “open window” and schmooze with the chefs. (Sit there, and Malarkey may even give you a taste of a new dish he’s working on.) One pre-opening report claimed there’d be a 60-seat patio, but all I saw were two little tables in front.
One blogger has described the overall look as resembling a country inn, but once the lights go down, it’s closer to a sports pub (minus the TVs) — neutral colors, and music blasting at such high volume, it kills conversation. “I think this must be the loudest place since Region,” said my buddy Samurai Jim. “If they just lowered the sound by a quarter or a third,” said our friend Fred, “this could be a much more pleasant place to eat. And — what’s that awful music? The place sounds like a disco!” Now, I may be a crotchety old Boomer, but Jim and Fred are both Gen-X, so if they think it’s too loud — it’s too loud.
Nonetheless, the place was booming both literally and metaphorically on a Thursday night, with a full range of fashions on display, ranging from Yumans in shorts on up to club kids in soft-core porn dresses, but mainly that midrange of casual “restaurant clothes.” The scene and the famous chef are part of the draw — but so is the food. It is, indeed, much better than Malarkey’s work at Oceanaire.
First, a basket of devastating little rolls — crisp outside, soft and eggy inside, like brioche, and startlingly salty. (Quick, grab a cocktail!) We began with “fennel ribs” from the “Bites” menu section — tempura-battered fennel stalks with a pale-green dip of revisionist aioli flavored with something sharp and a little sour (maybe it’s yogurt, not aioli). “Mushrooms, truffles, and burrata” exceeded my expectations; although I didn’t see anything like fresh truffles, the array included several varieties of Asian mushrooms, not all of them easily identified, topped by a glorious melting blob of gooey burrata cheese.
“Carb-free crab cake” was a mound of flavorful crab flakes with no starch filler or coating — more a salad than a cake, but with a slightly glutinous texture from the binding sauce. A caprese of mozzarella, basil, prosciutto and arugula was surprisingly unexciting. And the “marrow bone” (in the singular) with sea salt and peach had much chopped peach on top, very little marrow inside the single large segment of bone. We ordered two to make sure all three of us got at least a taste of marrow (not enough). Jim’s beautiful blonde housemate, Ginger the Wonder Dog, would have a truly happy night later on with her doggie bag of emptied-out bones. Ginge was the lucky one. When dinner was done we asked our waiter for our half-eaten entrées to be boxed up, too. It didn’t happen. (Somewhere in heaven my mother is wailing, “Throwing away good food! Think of the starving children of Africa!”)
Fred had car trouble and arrived late, so while we were waiting, Jim and I tried a couple of the cocktails, produced by a mixology team called Snake Oil — for me, Lullaby, with premium vodka and rosewater (reminiscent of a great prosecco cocktail at the late Bite, but harsher, boozier), and for Jim, Treaty of Paris, which I tasted and promptly forgot. It was (as it usually is for me) a great relief to move on to wine, a Marilyn Remark meritage of white Rhône grapes (Viognier, Marsanne, Rousanne) from Monterey. It was rich, lively, totally right for the food. (The Faury Northern Rhône for the main courses disappointed me; it was rougher than I wanted, okay for beef cheeks, harsh for duck. Alas, the only Merlot on the list cost a big fat hundred bucks. The Pinots were pretty steep, too — the one I liked was $95. Ditto the Grenaches. I should have gambled on a Rioja Tempranillo, I guess — one of the few reds I could afford aside from some Malbecs and unknown Sangioveses.)
Scallops Baja are named for their origin: they’re large, thick, succulent manos de león (lions’ paws) from the Ensenada region. While not as delicate as Atlantic sea scallops, they arrive here fresher and no less delicious, if in a different way. Here, they’re garnished with foie gras — a teeny-weeny itsy-bitsy bit of it at the edge of the plate — and figs, in excess, both as a thick sweet sauce and as a few small pieces of fruit. The scallops themselves were cooked perfectly. “Medium-rare okay?” the waiter had asked, and met with resounding assent.
Duck was another triumph of perfect cooking, if not saucing. The portion included sautéed breast, served as we specified, not medium-rare but slightly rarer, and leg confit. “This is the tenderest duck I’ve ever tasted,” said Fred. “Yeah, it’s usually sort of dried out, but this isn’t,” said Jim. The only flaw (as with the scallops) was too heavy a sauce. The “pomegranate with pistachios” specified on the menu wasn’t merely the promised light gastrique but a thick reduction. The dish was evidently inspired by Persia’s great fesenjan, duck with pomegranate sauce and walnuts, but this is very much a Yankee version, with its blatant sweetness overpowering the tart natural flavors of the pom.
Beef cheeks were in top form, a mound of deep-flavored, utterly tender meat, accompanied by cute little goat-cheese dumplings that proved a fine flavor match. Cheeks are a cooking challenge — a hunk of coarse-textured meat covered with gristly silverskin, the flesh intermixed with huge amounts of fat. Malarkey met the challenge admirably, with the greaseless, gristle-free meat that comes from long slow-cooking.
(Want to try this at home? You can get cheeks at Mexican markets with live butchers, such as Food Bowl in South Park. Shimmy off the silver skin with a boning knife; don’t bother trying to remove all the fat since the heat of braising will melt off most of it. Place meat in a heavy pot and cover it with low-salt chicken broth, which will become a rich beef-chicken broth as the meat cooks in it. Throw in some chopped onions, garlic, celery leaves or stalks, and whatever aromatics or spices you like, and, watching the pot, bring to a boil. Immediately lower heat and simmer for at least four hours, partly covered, adding more broth or water if needed, or use a Crock-Pot for eight or more hours. Refrigerate meat and broth separately. Before reheating and completing your recipe, skim all the fat from the top of the broth. Work over the meat with your fingers, tearing it into coarse shreds and removing any remaining visible lumps of fat as you go.)
The dessert list had some temptations, but the fig sauce on the scallops and the pom syrup on the duck had sated our sweet teeth, and we were eager to pay up and get out of the noise.
Meanwhile, at the big party-table next to us, Brian Malarkey in his signature straw fedora was strutting his stuff for a group of friends and/or relatives, kissing babies like a politician. Eventually moving on, he stopped by our table. I asked if the scallops were manos de león or Baja’s other species, callo de hacha. Yes, they were manos de león, but then the chef fled fast. He didn’t have any idea who I was, he just seemed loathe to deal with technical, intellectual foodie questions while playing the Great Malarkey.
I have to admit to an acidic preexisting relationship here. To start, I believe that the phenomenon of TV-based celeb chefs is deleterious to all chefs. TV fame often relies on looks and personality, not on skills. Based on his before-and-after cookbooks, I suspect Emeril was a much better chef before he learned to yell “Bam!” Starting in 14th-century France (Taillevent), there have been (and probably always will be) a deserving core of chefs whom foodies talk about in awed tones (e.g., Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert, Grant Achatz, Wylie Dufresne) — but who needs Rachel Ray? The TV celeb-chef game is a culinary version of Jersey Shore. Fifteen minutes of fame — for what?
Anyway, Malarkey started a blog a few years ago for his acolytes, and when El Bizcocho hired Stephen Rojas, who was introducing discreet touches of molecular gastronomy into his menu, Malarkey attacked full-frontal, claiming that molecular processes had nothing to do with real food. After eating the magical food at El Biz, I sniped back, calling Malarkey “an upscale chain-chef cooking a nice-enough crab cake, who got famous when he lost a TV chef contest, but proved cute enough to pick up as many paid food endorsement contracts as a Wheaties cover boy.”
Well, he really is much better at Searsucker, although I’m not so sure about the new version of the crab cake. But I started out my writing life as an auteurist film critic, valuing (for instance) the steel backbones of John Ford and Howard Hawks, et al., which allowed them to make movies that told their own hard truths within Hollywood’s smiley-faced studio system. This viewpoint has carried over to my view of restaurant food. My favorite chefs, wherever they’re working, have powerful culinary personalities. (See last week’s “Top Ten Chefs.”)
There are also delightful, non-auteur entertainers in both realms: Consider Michael Curtiz and his Casablanca, a great, lasting, crowd-pleasing movie with a light coating of sugar and tears. In food, we also have great entertainers. The food at Searsucker, like Oceanaire, hints that Malarkey is an entertainer-chef — those too-sweet crowd-pleaser sauces are a clue. His food is highly competent, offering the easy pleasures of sugar and salt, but little of it is subtle enough to require full concentration. Hence, the very loud music and nightclubby lighting, the sense that venue is at least as important as cuisine. Perhaps you’re not really supposed to talk about your food here — just drink up and eat up and shut up, have fun at a noisy party with irresistible nibbles. ■
★★★ (Very Good)
611 Fifth Ave (between Market and G Streets), Gaslamp District, 619-233-7327; searsucker.com
HOURS: Sunday–Thursday 6:00–12:30 p.m., weekends until 2:00 a.m.; lunch service coming soon.
PRICES: Bites, $2–$6; smalls and salads, $6–$13; mains $15–$32 ($75 for large rib-eye steak), desserts $9.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Playful New American cuisine with fine ingredients. International wine list, a modicum under $50, many by the glass. Full bar with creative cocktails ($12).
PICK HITS: Mushrooms, truffles, and burrata cheese; tempura fennel ribs; scallops baja with fig sauce; beef cheeks with goat-cheese dumplings; duck breast and confit with pomegranate and pistachios. Possible good bets: osso buco with grits and kale, pork butt with grilled peach and bacon, cobb salad.
NEED TO KNOW: Valet parking $15. Extremely loud music, hard to converse. Come early (with reservations) to score seats on lounge couches. Large groups get padded chairs, small tables get small, hard wooden chairs. Open kitchen with counter seating at edge. A few unheated two-tops on the front patio. Lacto-vegetarians will find enough to eat; vegans, fuhgettaboudit. Website a mess at this writing with no access to address, phone, menu, just a lotta “Malarkey” (celeb chef Brian Malarkey keeps popping up wherever you click); management promises prompt correction. Hours may have changed by print date.