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JSix – A truly seasonal tasting menu

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

Hotel restaurants are often places we try to avoid. They tend to be synonyms for all things we don’t like about restaurants – large, low quality food, boring menus, and often impersonal, stressed, inattentive servers. But of course there are always exceptions to the rules. One boutique hotel chain we have visited frequently in the last few years is Kimpton Hotels. Not only are we normally quite pleased with their rooms and service but they tend to have surprisingly good restaurants.
We had so far dined at Fifth Floor at the Hotel Palomar in San Francisco where Chef Jennie Lorenzo is able to create an interesting California-French cuisine and at Blvd 16 at the Hotel Palomar in Los Angeles/Westwood. At Blvd 16 Chef Simon Dolinky has a market-driven, seasonal approach to his cooking using mainly local ingredients including herbs from his own rooftop organic herb garden. This strong emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients doesn’t come as a surprise because before heading the kitchen at Blvd 16 Chef Dolinky worked as sous chef under Christan Graves at JSix at the Hotel Solamar, the San Diego branch of the Kimpton boutique hotel chain.

Christian Graves has made an impression in the San Diego restaurant scene as a chef who is a strong believer in using local, seasonal produce, organic meats and “boat-to-pan” seafood following the “seafood watch list”. As a supporter of starting from scratch cooking and working together with local farmers he sums up his cooking style as “…the food that we do should be fairly simple in concept and not totally overdone. I very much believe in slow food, in doing artisanal cooking, in using interesting ingredients“. Chef Graves developed his interest in cooking once he moved with his family to San Francisco. After visiting cooking school he refined his cooking skills and developed his own cooking style by working in several highly acclaimed restaurants in San Francisco under well-known chefs as Bradley Ogden (One Market), Aqua (Michael Mina) and especially for five years at Farallon under Mark Franz.
We had samples of Chef Graves cooking skills at different occasions, like Cooks Confab and Chef Celebration so far and always enjoyed his philosophy of simplicity and focus on seasonality. Recently we finally decided to visit JSix itself and give Chef Graves’ five-course menu a try.

JSix is located in the ground floor of Hotel Solamar at the corner of 6th and J St in a brickstone like building.

The front part of the room is occupied by the bar whereas the back of the room houses the restaurant which has a smaller number of tables and booths than we had expected of a hotel. The restaurant has a very open design which makes it not really favorable for a romantic night but is none the less cozy.

The open kitchen acts as the central point of the restaurant.

All the bread is made fresh in-house and makes it one of the best bread baskets in San Diego. The accompanying tapenade prepared with black kalamata olives, olive oil, sundried tomatoes and anchovies was intense tasting and quite addictive.

1st Course: Endive salad with goat cheese, walnuts and cheese croutons
Very good tasting endive from Suzie’s Farms with was matched by not too mild goat cheese and fresh walnuts. The vinaigrette was light but still prominent enough to support the other ingredients. A seemingly simple dish - which was a good example of how the right balance can be found so that all the key ingredients shine. Paired wine: Martin Codax, Albarino, 2006, Spain – good balance between body and acidity with rich flavors of peach, apricot, melon and light lemon zest.

2nd Course: Black cod, arugula, grape tomatoes, bread salad, bacon, beurre blanc
JSix’s take on a simplified panzanella. Similar to the first course very fresh tasting arugula and grape tomatoes with bacon bits but the focus of the dish was the perfectly prepared black cod – moist, flakey and rich tasting. The light citrusy sauce helped to support the springlike character of the dish. Paired wine: Elizabeth Spencer, Sauvignon Blanc, 2008, France – refreshing, crisp wine with strong notes of melon, passionfruit and citrus.

3rd Course: House-made wild mushroom ricotta ravioli, snow peas, fava beans, grape tomatoes, balsamic brown butter
Very good, freshly made pasta with a strong flavored mushroom filling. As a continuous theme throughout the tasting menu this dish also had very fresh and perfectly prepared vegetables which always seemed to support the flavor of the main ingredient of the respective dish. The balsamic brown butter sauce gave an acid counterbalance to the substantial ravioli. Paired wine: Chateau Bonnet, Bordeaux Blanc, 2008, France – crisp and acidic wine with notes of citrus, apple, grapefruit.

4th Course: Grilled poussin, fingerling potatoes, asparagus, tomatoes, beurre blanc
This dish was a good showcase for excellent grilling skills. The very moist poussin, fingerling potatoes and asparagus had a nice grilling, smokey taste which didn’t overwhelm the delicate nature of the ingredients. Paired wine: Trefethen, Double T, Bordeaux Blend, 2007, Napa – mixture of mainly Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Flavors of blackberry and raspberry with a rich, long finish.

5th Course: Trio of desserts – Banana split with bruleed bananas, vanilla macerated berries and white chocolate - basil gelato
The dessert followed the theme of the night – creative dishes focusing on few, high quality ingredients. The banana split got an interesting textural spin by the bruleed bananas. The wonderful fresh flavor of the local berries got elevated to perfection by the hint of vanilla aroma. But the true highlight of the dessert for us was the white chocolate – basil gelato. First we were a bit skeptical about this flavor combination but we were proven wrong. Like two shifted waves you first taste a white chocolate flavor, after a few seconds a stronger basil flavor takes over and then both flavors slowly start to merge into one addictive flavor. One of the best gelato’s we had in a very long time. Paired wine: Chateau Liot, Barsac, Sauternes, France – not overly sweet with tones of pineapple.

When we discussed with our waiter about the tasting menu at the end of the night we mentioned how much we liked the white chocolate - basil gelato. A few minutes later he came back with two extra scoops. We were very, very happy…

Many chefs describe their cooking style as seasonal and market-driven but once you experience their tasting menus you often find only few seasonal ingredients. It is very refreshing to sample a tasting menu where the chef takes the meaning of seasonality and local serious throughout the whole night. We found it a strong statement when two out of four savory courses were vegetarian dishes showcasing local, seasonal produce. Chef Graves has a great skill of creating simple, as in few ingredients, but elegant dishes. He has a very good ability to balance his creations so that all ingredients can show their natural flavors but at the same time grow together to a dish which is better than the sum of its parts. The front of the house holds the same high standards as the kitchen. The typical laid back San Diego style is paired with professionalism, knowledge and interest in the food. It’s often the small details which distinguish good service from mediocre. When we had questions about sources of their ingredients our waiter was very knowledgeable. We asked at the beginning if they could serve the tasting European-style, also known as slow. Our waiter made sure throughout the evening that the pacing was perfect and we enjoyed a wonderful relaxing 3.5 hours dinner.
It is surprising that when people talk about great restaurants in downtown San Diego only Café Chloe and Cowboy Star come up (which we both like a lot, especially our “second home” Café Chloe) whereas JSix rarely gets mentioned. JSix is easily on the same level as these restaurants and Chef Graves deserves much more credit for his excellence. We are looking forward to visit JSix again and to follow Chef Graves on his journey through the “seasons” of San Diego.

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  1. Nice review honkman, was this was the Chef's Mercy pared w/wine? both food offerings and wines looked awesome.

    4 Replies
    1. re: cstr

      Great review. JSix is definitely overlooked and underappreciated, your report made me want to revisit the restaurant soon.

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      JSix Restaurant
      616 J Street, San Diego, CA 92101

      1. re: cstr

        Yes, that was the Chef's Mercy Menu with the wine pairing. I am sure that the regular menu at JSix will be equally well prepared but after talking with many chefs we feel that a tasting menu is the (only) way to really experience a chef. The regular menu has to be well prepared because it is the main reason why customer visit the restaurant but at the same time this also means the chef has to do a lot of compromises to make many people with different food preferences happy. With a tasting menu you will get much more unusual ingredients, cooking techniques etc. which are also of higher interest for the chef. Just one example from JSix - The grilled poussin was great but not on the regular menu because people are unfamiliar with it or don't like having to deal with bones. On the regular menu you would get a related dish with chicken breast which is OK but will never have the same great flavor as poussin.

          1. re: cstr

            At the beginning of the post is a link to the blog post which includes pictures of JSix and the different dishes.

      2. Thank you for the detailed review. The forums definitely need more like yours - it really makes me want to go soon.

        1 Reply
        1. re: shouzen

          Thanks for the kind words. I think that this CH board has a lot of different experts on many different cusines. (even though I have to admit that sometimes I wish people would tend to write a little bit more detailed about their experiences.)
          Another great source for information are the numerous San Diego foodbloggers. There are a good number of great foodblogs out covering many different kinds of restaurants.

        2. Enjoyed your post and the pictures really sealed the deal. Sounds and looks delicious! Sad to say I've stayed at Solamar for a few weekend intown getaways and never ate at JSix! Next time for sure. Thanks.

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          JSix Restaurant
          616 J Street, San Diego, CA 92101

          1. I had a not so great experience today. My wife and I decided to do the Chef's mercy menu. I had it paired with the wine--bad idea.

            The tapenade was very good, great idea to add a touch of anchovies to the olive mix.

            The amuse bouche was quite good, Some cured meat on a piece of toasted bread. I just had the meat and it was nice.

            1st course was a caprese with burrata, very good. It was paired with a SB and it worked very well.

            2nd was some sort of a deconstructed Nicoise salad. It was good, but did not pair well with a Pinot Grigio.

            3rd a chicken dish with dumplings. It was ok. The wine was a PN that I thought was slightly oxidised as it smelled and tasted like cherry liqueur. The server brought me another glass, from a freshly opened bottle. Tasted the same, so it must be the style.

            4th was by far the worst with scallops that were way overcooked and had the texture of rubber. We barely touched our plates. The wine was an overoaked mess of a Merlot.

            5th I got some banana Foster and my wife had a creme brulee. The creme brulee was so eggy we left it almost intact. Paired with a Tawny Port.

            Except for the first wine, all the others came after I was just about done with the dishes.

            They comped us for the wines, though I never complained about it.

            The place is about as noisy as it can get, not a place to carry a conversation. But I have to say that it was full of customers.

            Tomorrow I know I'll do a lot better at WineVault and next Saturday is Addison. I know they will make me forget this experience.

            2 Replies
            1. re: 4wino

              Disappointing to hear that the wine service wasn't good and some dishes not executed well. Wine pairings are always "risky" since you have to have a similar taste as the sommelier to like the pairings. I am surprised that you found it too loud. We thought thst JSix compared to many other popular places, e.g. Cafe Chloe, Wine Vault, Urban Solace etc. was sirprisingly quite even when crowded.

              1. re: 4wino

                I never get wine pairings with tasting menus anymore, anywhere. Too many disappointments over the years. I'm not sure most restuarnats offering a wine supplement to tasting menus really have anyone on premises with the skill to pair wines with dishes. And if they do, its been my experience the criterion that's employed is "how much does this wine cost" rather than "how good a match can I find for this dish".

                I'm much happier ordering or bringing in a quality wine that may not be a perfect match for each dish, and then ordering one or two from their by-the-glass list, if decent.

              2. Thanks for the reviews, honk and wino.

                First when I read this one (a couple of weeks ago) I thought they served different food to both diners but I guess that isn't the case. Must be mixing it up with another tasting menu. I'd very much prefer that they did different entrees for a group of two - just to be able to try more dishes.

                Anyhow, ate there last Saturday and got the cured meat plate, bacon wrapped pork (a real winner) with grilled peach and that banana dessert. Wife got the chicken dumplings. She liked the light sauce. Good cocktails.

                Place was pretty dead (since we were dining early (6:00 pm) before a concert at Balboa Theater) and the waiter even commented on it when we asked about the downtown steakhouses. But was pretty full by the time we left after 7:30.

                We'll make it down there again. It's been a few years since we've eaten anywhere in Gaslamp. Maybe since my jury duty or maybe that one time at Cafe Chloe. Been meaning to go there again.