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.