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Ballast Point Tasting Room & Kitchen

2215 India Street, Little Italy

I'd heard Ballast Point was open. (See Brandon Hernández' extensive pre-opening report.) Loved the idea that this bunch of guys who started as a home brew outfit in a tiny uncool strip-mall got voted small brewery champion at the World Beer Cup in 2010. Best small brewery in da woild!

Boy, have they come a long way. Here, up at India and Ivy in Little Italy, I come across this brand-new and totally crowded tasting room.

Inside is a big U-shaped bar with hanging blue lights, black tables stocked with really cool customers, and actual working brew vats.

So I head for the line at the food section in back.

Fish is a big deal here. Ballast Point is named after the place sailors in the 19th century used to come to to pick up ballast rocks at to weigh their sailing ships down before they returned empty around the dreaded Cape Horn. (So you can bet that bits of San Diego remain scattered around the ports of the world to this day.)

Big blackboard says ono is the catch of the day. And that you can add protein to any dish for $4, like short ribs, pork belly, fish, or chicken breast.

The actual menu is divided into "land," "sea," and "garden." "Land" has things like sausage roll with apple sauerkraut, in puff pastry with Ballast Point beer mustards. Costs $9. It recommends you drink their Sculpin IPA or Piper Down Scottish Ale with that. Or burger and fries for $12, with choice of cheeses like brie and blue. They say you should swig their Calico amber ale with it.

"Sea" has calamari for $9, surf and turf (albacore and pork belly) for $14, or 6 oysters for $12, and "local fish tacos" for $11.

The "Garden" section has plates like pickled beet salad ($9), grilled veggie sandwich on ciabatta with goat cheese for $10.

I end up asking Sasha, the guy taking food orders, for ideas. "The gnocchi ($8)," he says. "That light potato mix plus the sweetness of pear..."

I've always thought of gnocchi as one of the boring pasta line-up in Italian cooking that don't interest me one bit. Dough, period.

But I order it, mainly because of the pear presence. Plus I go for a $4 add of short ribs, and then a sample size of a pumpkin beer special. Couple of bucks.

Sasha's right about the gnocchi. Honestly I've never been sure what da heck they are. But these are potato mixed with dough, fried, and tossed around with poached pear, butternut squash, bacon, and "brown butter." Which turns out to be white, like cottage cheese.

So it may be boring gnocchi, but have to say that sweet pear taste along with the bacon makes it beautiful.

The chunks of short rib are tender, but have no real taste to them. I see that they're also a dish on their own (”braised short rib lettuce cups") where they come with pear chutney, feta cheese, and a chipotle vinaigrette. That would bring you the taste I'm missing here.

Dana, dressed as Lady Gaga for Halloween, brings my gnocchi

Actually, what's just as interesting is the beers. I try a "Victory at Sea" porter loaded with coffee and vanilla, an Indra Kunindra with - believe it! - curry, cumin, cayenne and kaffir lime leaf and coconut crammed in, and a Piper Down, a Scottish-style ale that's all malt and no hops. Good, but I guess I've gotten too hop-kick-addicted. It just lacks the punch of, say, their Tongue Buckler über-hoppy red.

"Ballast changed my life," this guy Sean with handlebar mustaches is saying. "My dad was a smoker, a Miller Lite guy. I hated beer. Then I came into the Ballast Point home brew store and tried their Indra Kunindra. I never knew beer could have crazy things like curry, coconut, kaffir limes in it. Now I'm a total beer nerd."

Lana and Sean

Sean says he had the short ribs on the lettuce wrap and it was great. His Russian girlfriend Lana says her chicken sandwich with brie was fine. But Herman, a guy further down the bar, says his fish in the $14 fish sandwich felt overcooked, hard.

"But I'd still order it again," he says, "because the tartar sauce was so great."

This is when Jess, one of the bartenders...

Jess, dressed as Bride of Frankenstein

...gives me a bite of a house-made pretzel she's been eating. (They cost $7, come with House-made mustard and a little pot of beer cheese.) Ooh. Delish. Caraway seeds in there, I swear. Maybe it's in the cheese dip.

By the time I get up, an entire Jackson has blown out of my pocket. But have to say, atmosphere, company, food and da beer, good deal, good atmosphere, good feel.

For a place that's only been up and running for three weeks, they're doing pretty good.

Long as you can put up with droves of Ballast Point groupies.

Also: Guess I'm going to have to stop telling gnocchi gnocchi jokes.

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