Chef Luke Johnson is a master at attaining proper balance and texture, of plating food that looks like artwork.
On June 4, I awoke to an otherwise awesome Saturday, fired up the ol’ email, and clicked open a message from one of San Diego’s finest local chefs. What I saw horrified me. One of my favorite spots in San Diego was closing its doors…later that night! My first selfish thought was, Great, not even enough time to head over to get one more bite of some of the best, most current, tastiest, and beautifully plated dishes in the entire city. After emailing the chef for deets about the closing, my dismay conjured up questions I had no answers for, but plenty of opinions about.
Why did Red Velvet Wine Bar in Little Italy fail?
The official line is that Red Velvet’s sommelier and general manager quit within the same week, and rather than rebuild her staff from scratch, owner Wendy Segal decided to scrap the restaurant at the base of the building bearing her name. Yet the bottom line is this: no one would let the annoyance of an employee search drive them to board up a successful business. So, it’s a given that things were going less than optimally, and it’s probably because the business model wasn’t set up to succeed.
Glazed farmers' market asparagus with sauteed potato gnocchi, maitake mushrooms, finished with a burnt hollandaise sauce
Everything about the restaurant seemed too good to be true, except the prices. At over $100, having one of Chef Luke Johnson’s exquisitely unique tasting menus (which changed weekly) was an expensive proposition, even though most tasting menus at upscale spots in town are around $100, without wine, and even though Red Velvet’s came with seven generous pours of wines or seven bottles of beer. Johnson’s food was extremely labor-intensive, especially considering he worked in a cracker box of a kitchen, and all of it was dished up à la minute.
For a space that seats about 20, where the main draw is having a glass or two of vino — food being a bit of an afterthought — making enough money nightly to afford such a good chef and high-end ingredients, and to justify Johnson’s toiling, was a pie-in-the-sky notion. In fact, the whole concept — a smallish room where guests order as the whim hits them, have a dish prepared on the spot, delivered and explained by the chef — while certainly a dream for diners, isn’t feasible or sustainable for a business.
Red Velvet always came across as somebody’s lofty, unrealistic vision brought to life, more of can-I-do-this deal than a should-I-do-this decision that had been sufficiently scrutinized for profitability and long-term success. I always felt I was getting in on something that wouldn’t be around forever, and as much as I love being right, I hate that I was in this case.
Seared and chilled yellowtail served with tangerine ice and purée with a parsley purée and leaf, finished with a salad of shaved radish and celery
Where will Chef Johnson end up next?
I have no idea but can only hope it’s somewhere in San Diego. Anything edible this guy touches turns to gold, and any venue that employs him will be lucky to get him. Even in a more structured environment, he’s sure to excel, making food people will be ecstatic to get their mouths around. Johnson is a master of attaining proper balance and texture, of plating food that looks like artwork you almost feel guilty about tearing to pieces with your utensils — despite the incredible payoff.
It sounds like I’m exaggerating, but the cuisine at Red Velvet was killer, and that’s something every food writer in San Diego agreed on. That just about never happens and drives home how good Johnson is. Right now, he’s the hottest cordon bleu chip on the market, and with any luck, his next steps won’t beat a path out of town. That would be the biggest food travesty to befall San Diego in a long time.
Why can’t places like this, featuring immensely talented toques and food that’s a cut above what we typically find in San Diego, last long in my hometown?
Well, on top of unrealistic business planning and execution, I fear that, even with the strides we’ve made as a dining city, our palates aren’t ready to want, much less demand cuisinally heightened fare and places that specialize in it, like Red Velvet. I’ll concede that Red Velvet didn’t do much to get their name out there (they did employ a PR agency and received some press, but they were always a best-kept-secret-type place on a side street off of Little Italy’s main drag). But in top-tier dining cities, foodies do the legwork to find the next big thing or, after learning of it, venturing out to give it a shot. That’s not our mindset in laid-back San Diego.
I’m confident we will evolve into one of America’s top ten-food metropolises. I’ll even take things a step further: most people would be hard-pressed to name a more dining-dense burg outside of NYC, San Francisco, L.A., Chicago, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Napa, or Seattle — and I’m willing to toss down the gauntlet and say we vie for one of those two remaining spots. We have the best Mexican food and craft beer in the country, a five-star/five-diamond spot in Addison at the Grand Del Mar, dozens of fantastic upscale restaurants, culturally focused eateries, and original items like fish tacos.
Confit pork belly, avocado purée, charred tomatillo with Meyer lemon chip and segments
It’s just that nobody outside San Diego knows how good we are and how far we’ve come of late, because when tourists visit, they’re either from one of the eight aforementioned cities and have a chip on their shoulder, or they come from someplace lamer than San Diego and proceed to flock to familiar chains and Gaslamp mass-appeal tourist traps without getting even a glimpse of what we have to offer.
Despite this latest setback, I believe in and continue to root for my native county with the fervor of a cheerleader raging with the energy buzz of a massive sugar high. We will get there, and I’ll be that guy with knife and fork in hand, gobbling up everything in sight with a Kool-Aid Man smile. Keep the faith, San Diego foodies. It’s gonna happen. And with any luck, Chef Johnson will continue to be a key contributor to our city’s dining evolution.
As we went to press, I received a communiqué from Chef Johnson informing me about his latest venture, a concept heretofore unseen in San Diego (or just about anywhere), called A Simple Supper. He'll be offering invitation-only communal dining experiences featuring one-time-only menus at locations that change every time. To keep informed and jockey for seats at Johnson’s dinner table, check out asimplesupper.com and keep abreast of developments via twitter.com/asimplesupper.
Where To Now? Here are the best in San Diego at doing what Red Velvet did best.
Tasting Menu: Mercy of the chef at NINE-TEN in La Jolla. Chef Jason Knibb has one of those à la carte menus on which just about everything sounds appealing and choosing is difficult. Take the weight off your shoulders and let him hit you with his best shot. 910 Prospect Street, La Jolla, 858-964-5400, nine-ten.com
Rare Ingredients: Paul McCabe, the exec chef at L’Auberge Del Mar’s Kitchen 1540 has spent the last six months working up a catalog of over 200 dishes, many built around lesser-seen proteins (fish livers, abalone, offal), produce and herbs. 1540 Camino Del Mar, Del Mar, 858-793-6460, laubergedelmar.com/kitchen1540
Esoteric Wine List: The vibe at Wet Stone Wine Bar in Bankers Hill is a lot more laid-back, and the prices are lower than Red Velvet’s ever were, but there’s just as much variety. Exploration of rare grapes from around the world is a joy at this zen urban hideaway. 1927 Fourth Avenue, Downtown, 619-255-2856, wetstonewinebar.com ■