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Jun 6, 2010 07:00 PM

Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant – Restaurant of missed opportunities

Full review and photos: http://twofoodiesonejourney.blogspot....

Very few chefs in San Diego have such a high reputation as Carl Schroeder, chef and co-owner of Market in Del Mar. After graduating from the CIA in Hyde Park he worked at several well established restaurants in increasingly responsible roles which included sous chef positions at The White Elephant (Nantucket) and The Lark Creek Inn (Larkspur). At Lark Creek Inn he worked with Bradley Ogden who later convinced him to come to San Diego and become Executive Chef at Arterra. Chef Schroeder was able to establish Arterra very fast as one of the leading restaurants in San Diego due to his very creative cooking style which is even more remarkable since Arterra is part of the Marriott Hotel in Del Mar and hotel restaurants most often don’t promise good food in San Diego. As with most talented chefs he decided at some point of his career to open his own restaurant – Market (Del Mar) in 2006.

When we heard over the last few months that he was planning to open Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant as his version of a bistro-style restaurant we were very much looking forward to see how his creative style of cooking would play out in such a setting. Similar to the Market Restaurant Carl Schroeder also partnered this project with Terryl Gavre, also known for her downtown Café 222.

Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant is in the old location of the Modus Restaurant on the corner of 4th Avenue and Ivy. The outside looks quite nice with unique doors and gives already an idea of the rustic interior of the restaurant.

The restaurant is an interesting mix between rustic and industrial feel which is not uncomfortable, but we didn’t like that all the walls which don’t have a wood paneling are painted in black. It gives the restaurant an overall too dark ambience.

When we got the menus handed we were quite surprised how uninspired and boring most of these dishes sounded. We had serious problems to find any dishes which piqued our interests and which we hadn’t seen countless times on menus elsewhere. After some discussions we decided on a few dishes which seemed to be the most interesting.

Small Plate 1: Steamed mussels & Andouille sausage, roasted sweet peppers, garlic-parsley toast. Rather standard presentation of mussels but the broth was overly salty and the taste of the andouille sausage was too overwhelming so that it was hard to taste the mussels or anything else.

Small Plate 2: Crispy Dungeness crab & rockshrimp cakes, beluga lentil-arugula salad, chili aioli. Good crab cakes with common sides of cucumber, arugula and lentils. Not overly exciting but one of the better dishes of the night.

Entrée 1: Duck confit, warm red potatoes, grain mustard vinaigrette, mustarda. Large amounts of potatoes with a rather small piece of bland duck confit. Good duck confit should always have a crispy skin but unfortunately this one had only soft, flabby skin. The whole dish was unbalanced and a great disappointment.

Entrée 2: Cabernet braised beef shortribs, Yukon gold whipped potatoes, roasted vegetables. The whipped potatoes were very salty whereas the beef shortribs needed more salt. The best part of the dish were the roasted brussels sprouts.

Cocktail: The sweet withdrawal – Grey Goose vodka, Campari, sweet vermouth, Grand Marnier and orange flower water. We enjoy the recent explosion of good cocktail places especially in Los Angeles, e.g. Library Bar, Rivera, Roger Room where market-driven cocktails are one of the best recent food trends and San Diego has also a growing number of good cocktail places like Cowboy Star, Grant Grill Lounge etc. A good cocktail should be well balanced with all ingredients working next to each other. It should have a good punch from the alcohol without being overwhelmed by it. This cocktail was a prime example of how it shouldn’t be done. Any hints of orange and Campari were covered by an unbalanced, unpleasant alcohol taste.

Dessert: Almond lemon bread pudding, roasted strawberries, vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce. The dessert menu was also a bit unspectacular, including the ubiquitous butterscotch pudding but the bread pudding turned out to be the highlight of the night with a nice addition of very good roasted strawberries.

San Diego is sometimes a rather tough place for restaurants to balance staying in business and cooking creative food and there are numerous restaurants and chefs who overestimate the tolerance of restaurant customers in San Diego for very creative food. But in recent years quite a large number of restaurants in San Diego especially those who cook bistro-style/comfort food similar to the Bankers Hill Restaurant, like Alchemy, Urban Solace, Café Chloe, Starlite, Jayne’s Gastropub, Farmhouse Café were able to successfully balance business success with creative cooking. Each of these restaurants has its own unique menu and identity. Based on this promising trend it was a great disappointment, especially with the good reputation of Carl Schroeder, for us to see such an uninspiring and boring menu at Bankers Hill filled with the same old, same old standards one has seen before in countless other restaurants elsewhere. It felt like that the restaurant looked on the menus from all successful restaurants over the last ten years, picked all popular dishes and then instead of adding their own creativity dumped them down further to make sure that even customers who only eat at the Cheesecake Factory won’t find any unexpected dish or ingredient. The restaurant is a poster child for what didn’t work with many restaurants in San Diego a few years ago when they often only tried to be copycats of successful restaurants outside of San Diego without own creativity and cooking for the absolute mainstream and the lowest common denominator. Bankers Hill feels like a restaurant without its own identity which seems to rely only on the reputation of Carl Schroeder. If the same restaurant would have been opened by an unknown chef with less PR power many customers would have been deeply disappointed by its direction.
Even a disappointing menu could have been partially saved by at least well executed dishes. Unfortunately the kitchen showed several slips throughout the evening, starting from a duck confit which never should have left the kitchen to under- or overseasoned dishes.

Service at restaurants in San Diego often tend to be too laid-back and informal but still reasonably professional. Many lapses throughout the service at Bankers Hill made an already not great night quite uncomfortable:

- Server asked what we wanted to drink when he hasn’t even brought the beverage menus. We asked then twice if they also serve cocktails and have a cocktail list. Since he didn’t bring one we assumed the restaurant doesn’t serve any. As we found out later this is not the case.
- A minute after we ordered our food suddenly a server comes to our table, grabs our bread and bread plates, says that we are done with our evening and moves away. It took quite some time and efforts until we got some bread back but still no bread plates.
- It is customary in restaurants that you get an extra plate if you order a mussels dish to put the empty shells somewhere. Apparently not at Bankers Hill where we had to flag down somebody.
- Either they change their layout of the tables or train their servers better not to bump into chairs every few minutes. We stopped counting after the tenth time. Obviously we weren’t the only table with this problem since other tables made very vocal complains to be moved to other tables only to be replaced by other customers who after ten minutes complained for the same reason.
- Some restaurants confuse good service with five different servers asking if everything is fine within four minutes.
- It is hard to remember when we have seen such dirty restrooms anywhere.
- After we finished our entrees we asked our server, like we normally do, that we would like to have a small break between courses and if he could bring us the dessert menus in about ten minutes. He agreed only to come back one minute later with the menus and the question if we want to order dessert now. We explained again that we would like to wait about ten minutes, he agreed again, turns to the table next to us only to come back to us after 30 seconds and asking again if we want to order now. This time we made it very clear what we wanted.
- As mentioned above we asked at the beginning of the night for cocktails and the server seemed to imply that the restaurant doesn’t serve any. Throughout the night we saw later other tables getting cocktails and so we wanted to have some as a “liquid dessert”. When asked for dessert we asked our server again if they serve cocktails and he looks at us surprised – “Cocktails ?” as if it would be strange from us to think that this restaurant serves cocktails. This time we pointed towards two tables away from us which had two cocktails. Server looks at it – “Oh yes, we have cocktails” as if it would be strange not to expect cocktails in this restaurant. He looks at us for about ten seconds without saying anything and we ask again for a cocktail menu. The server looks surprised at us – “Oh, you want cocktails ?” At this point even the table next to us who followed our discussions with the server started laughing and we started to look for the hidden camera.

Overall our visit to Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant was a very underwhelming experience. Issues like bad service and badly executed dishes should never happen in this frequency but are all fixable with better training. What disappointed us much more was the whole concept and uninspired menu of the restaurant which was just a poor copy of many other restaurants without any own creativity. It will be interesting to see if Terryl Gavre and Carl Schroeder will continue this path or at some point will try to create their own unique menu and identity.

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  1. Thanks for the Cheesecake link. I'll have to try it out :).

    Seriously though, good review, but since this website is about getting folks to the good chow rather than a straightup reviewing site, I am not sure what to make of some of your info. I.e. that that the food is "unspectacular" and "not overly exciting" and stuff, but was anything you ate tasty or worth seeking out? On the other thread about the restaurant, everybody seems to love the butterscotch pudding, yet you describe is only as "ubiquitous"- meaning all over the place as common in restaurants and therefore not worth SaltyRaisins ordering it at some point? Or just everywhere within the dessert proper?

    The cocktail thing is kinda funny, but it sounds like the waiter was just used to folks ordering the cocktails before dinner, is all.

    Cheers and looking forward to your next review!

    2 Replies
    1. re: SaltyRaisins

      "..but was anything you ate tasty or worth seeking out ?" - We didn't compare each dish with similar dishes we had elsewhere but as mentioned in the review you can have much more creative and better executed bistro-style food for a similar price at numerous other places in SD, e.g. Alchemy, Farmhouse Cafe, Cafe Chloe etc. So to answer your question - We don;'t think it is worth seeking out and there are better place in SD for similar food.

      "yet you describe is only as "ubiquitous"- meaning all over the place as common in restaurants and therefore not worth SaltyRaisins ordering it at some point?" - Every review on CH is always subjective and everybody has different expectations and most important also a different background of how often and in which restaurants you normally go. We go very often to restaurants and hope to have first of all well executed food and also hope that the chef is not only replicating dishes we have seen numerous time in other restaurants. Unfortunately the food at Bankers Hill was not well executed and the dishes are everything else but creative. Butterscotch pudding is one of the trendy desserts which pop up on many restaurants menu for the last 3-4 years. For us it is very ubiquitous and just the another copy of the same dish and simply boring and we see no reason to order it.

      "The cocktail thing is kinda funny, but it sounds like the waiter was just used to folks ordering the cocktails before dinner, is all." - As mentioned in the review, we asked the server at the beginning of the dinner twice if they have cocktails and if he could bring us the cocktail list and he never brought any list or mentioned anything. No, the waiter was not just used to folks ordering the cocktails before dinner (what we orginally asked for) but just badly trained and clueless.

      1. re: honkman

        So is this place better, same or worse than Modus?

        Interested on everyone's take.

    2. Sounds like this place needs some work. Especially on the service side of things. That cocktail debacle sounded ridiculous.

      Out of curiosity, what was the time and which night?

      Was it crowded?

      3 Replies
      1. re: stevewag23

        A Friday night starting at 8pm. It was reasonable crowded at the beginning but after we were half way through the meal several tables around us weren't turned over with new guests.

        1. re: stevewag23

          We had the same thing happen with cocktails. My wife thought they must have some speciality cocktails, we asked our server, and he said they didn't have any, but they would in the future, but they did have one. We then had to ask him what it was, he told us the name (the entire exchange, he seemed like he wanted to leave). Finally, after coaxing enough info out of him (the name, the ingredients), we ordered it. It was good, too.

          Between that, and telling us the beef is grass-fed when it isn't, I'm not in a rush to go back, no matter how good the pudding was. (Not having dined as extensively as the OP, I've not yet been turned off from a good butterscotch pudding by its evident ubiquity.)

          1. re: Josh

            Whoa... they told you the beef was grass-fed when it wasn't? That's just bad.

        2. Great review honkman. I totally agree with you. Thank you for not making me feel like I was the only one who thought this. I stated a lot of the same issues on my review, but no one seemed to comment on it. How can someone who actually has a strong following and presence in San Diego do such a uninspired menu? How are we going to move forward as a dinning city when are "top chefs" are not giving us the innovativeness we so need and want. We have to stop accepting medicore restuarants and demanding our chefs who we support to take a chance and help push SD forward!

          4 Replies
          1. re: SDGourmand

            I guess I agree for the most part. We found the service pretty good, although the waiter was really rushed. We enjoyed that everything came pretty slowly so that we could enjoy the evening. I absolutely loved the succulent wall design, and there seemed to be more light than there was at modus (it wasnt dark yet though)

            I also chose that cocktail and found it just tasted of alcohol, but thats what you'd expect from a martini, so I just know not to order it again. Hubby really enjoyed his dirty martini.

            I found the crab cakes a bit dull, the salad they were on was totally delicious, and I loved the addition of beluga lentils. I was hoping to get the devilled eggs, but there was bacon on/in so I didnt bother.

            I had the salmon and it was good, husband had the burger, which was also good, not the best in San Diego. I agree with Alice Q's review where she said all she could smell was the truffle oil. I much prefer my fries just plain with salt.

            I had the peach pie and it was just as delicious as everyone said.

            We probably wont be rushing back, the menu seems a bit boring (except for the desserts) and its probably just going to get too hyped up and busy. Its also very meat centric and I dont eat meat.

            1. re: SDGourmand

              "How can someone who actually has a strong following and presence in San Diego do such a uninspired menu?"

              I was very disappointed with my one visit to Arterra.

              1. re: stevewag23

                Arterra went down hill fast. I guess after a party they had there. The degisnated driver was more drunk then the people he was driving. Ended up killing someone, mangement got rid of everyone from front and back of house. Who knows what's going to happen there. I only had one good meal there and that was about 4 years ago. The other three times maybe one dish out of seven were good.

                Arterra Restaurant
                11966 El Camino Real, San Diego, CA 92130

                1. re: SDGourmand

                  My meal there was probably 6 years ago.

                  Even then the place seemed like a restaurant on the decline.

            2. Terryl Garve is an albatros around Carl Schroeder's neck.

              1. Well, I realize I just fell of the bok choy truck, but allow me to comment.

                Restaurants are businesses that exist to make money. Some places make money by being innovators striving to new great heights and new flavors. Others make money by buying ingredients that are the cheapest available and creating (after endless focus group testing) menus with as broad appeal as possible. Others make money by specializing in a single theme, be it ethnicity or speed of service. Or burgers. Other places make money by dressing up ordinary food with interesting atmosphere (remember Foggy's Notion?). Some places make money by associating themselves with destinations- truckstops.

                But they are all there to make money.

                You've made it clear that this place is not your cup of tea, and I respect that. But to continue to toss the entire maternity ward out with the contents of a spongebath is stretching it a bit.

                I like deviled eggs, but am not ready to accept them as haute cuisine. But the salmon dish I had there was both affordable and perfectly prepared and cooked. I mean perfectly. The fish itself was of very high quality, fresh and seasoned with just the right balance.

                You don't get that everywhere.

                Sure, you can get affordable meals anywhere. But where is the love for high-level preparation of solid ingredients? What about the craft- have you no respect for that talent?

                We agree on poor service, and feel free to lamblast a waiter if that's what makes you feel more powerful. Every business has it's faults, and this recently-opened place is no exception.

                But I disagree that every restaurant must be il Bulli or damned to the "San Diego is a cultural wasteland" funeral pyre.

                9 Replies
                  1. re: Fake Name

                    Absolutely agree. The menu is pretty basic, but that has its virtues. I think it's tough to write an extremely negative "reiew" of a place after one visit. They need to work on their service and not everything is perfect, but it seldom is - anywhere.

                    1. re: Alice Q

                      As mentioned before service issues and missed dishes can happen but what really disappointed us was the concept of the menu. Nothing wrong with a basic menu but there is a difference between a basic menu and just a boring and uninspired menu.

                    2. re: Fake Name

                      I guess you haven't really read what is written in the review. Nobody expects El Bulli level of food or even higher-end food at that restaurant but just good bistro-style food which is well executed. Someting we haven't found at Bankers Hill. You are asking for "where is the love for high-level preparation of solid ingredients ?" - I agree that is something we were looking for at Bankers Hill and haven't seen there (perhaps with some exceptions at the dessert menu). But we have seen it at numerous other places in SD which serve similar bistro-style food but have less well known chefs.
                      And you also asked "What about the craft- have you no respect for that talent?" - Especially with the talent Carl Schroeder has shown at Arterra and Market we have a lot of respect for it but the quality of the menu and the dishes which come out at Bankers Hill don't show this talent in anyway. I think too many people are just impressed by the reputation of his name and feel that they have to like the food at Bankers Hill even though they would be disappointed with it at restaurant from less established chefs.
                      Again, nobody expects to Bankers Hills to push the culinary boundaries but just make good food which is comparable to other good place is in SD with similar concepts. In our opinion they failed with it and there is nothing wrong to write about this disappointment.

                      1. re: honkman

                        "I think too many people are just impressed by the reputation of his name and feel that they have to like the food at Bankers Hill even though they would be disappointed with it at restaurant from less established chefs"

                        Great point!

                        I agree no one is saying bankers hill should be the next el bulli it would never work if it was. I'm saying take note from Bouchon, Animal in LA, SPQR in SF, etc... these are the types of places we need. These places are in the same price range as Bankers Hill just with more interesting dishes that are consistently prepared well (which is key) and with solid service.

                        1. re: SDGourmand

                          Yes! Yes! Yes! And while we're on the subject, we need to get at least one really kick ass pizza place going. We have a few contenders, but nothing up to the level of Pizzeria Delfina, Mozza, etc. It shouldn't be that hard.

                          1. re: Alice Q

                            If you like Pizzeria Mozza you should try Gjelina. Similar careful selection of high quality toppings but better (and thinner) dough.

                      2. re: Fake Name

                        "But I disagree that every restaurant must be il Bulli or damned to the "San Diego is a cultural wasteland" funeral pyre."

                        That is a little overly dramatic.

                        I think the op is trying to say the place had somewhat high expectations (as it should with a pseudo-san diego star chef) and didn't meet them.

                        1. re: Fake Name

                          Whoa...Foggy's Notion had food?!?!?? Damn, all I remember are the drinks...and dancing...did I mention the drinks?