SD downtown trip report - long
After having started a thread or two and having read many more, I visited your fair city a few weeks ago. Here are my impressions; sorry for the length, but obviously you can skip this post if it’s too long.
I was in the Convention Center area and didn’t have (and didn’t want to rent) a car, so mainly just the restaurants in a walkable radius were in play. Since I travel and eat alone, I mostly sit at the bar if that’s available; since I don’t want to overeat late in the day, I try to stick mostly with small plates. Generally I only had free time after 6:00, so just dinners. With that as background:
Sunday night was Red Light District. Yes, I know Sunday night in the business is time for the B team, but this time I’m not sure even the B team showed up. The place was almost completely empty – I was the only person sitting at the bar, and there was one large mixed-age family group who seemed to be friends with the owner or manager on duty. Toward the end maybe two other couples showed up and took street-side booths. But anyway, the fail parade started with my drink order: I called for a Sapphire Gibson, the bartender clearly poured and shook it, then started searching around for a while only to come and tell me he had no onions, could he give me a piece of lime instead? I said then it wouldn’t be a Gibson, would it? So I called for a vodka gimlet, and he brought me a mixture of vodka and plain (unsweetened) lime juice. Being too polite to toss a second cocktail, I sucked it up. You’d think a place that tries to be sort of “cocktail culture” and, more importantly, charges an average of $12 for a drink would employ a bartender who knows something. But on to the food.
First was a creamy soup, as I recall spring onion and potato or something like that. Very nice flavor, just served at gas-plasma temperature. A fairly delicate, creamy soup does not need to be at a thousand degrees. Second was a “razor clam and asparagus salad.” Except the server came back to say they were out of razor clams, could they substitute littlenecks? I said sure. The salad, a few lonely spears of asparagus under a mountain of baby greens came with vaguely clam-shaped pieces of rubber. Folks, I was born and raised on Long Island; I’ve clammed in the Great South Bay, I know what littlenecks are. If you have to cut it up to serve it, it’s not a littleneck. If your teeth hurt from chewing it, it’s not a littleneck. Those pieces of bivalve flesh were borderline inedible. The only thing that kept the evening from being a total disaster was my last dish, the Wagyu bone marrow. Hard to do that badly, and it was served with some kind of crostini and a very good red onion marmalade. I felt I needed a bit more in my stomach so I had an order of fries as well, which were very good also, if way too much. Just about $75 with tax and tip, and I felt majorly ripped off.
Monday night, based on a recommendation I heard from someone in the hotel bar, was J Six. Again I sat at the bar, again it was nearly empty, although most of the rest of the place was taken up with a private party. Nice beer selection, as I felt like keeping away from cocktails just in case. Started with a charcuterie plate, which was good but not anything to go out of the way for, then had cavatelli negro with octopus and bacon, which was excellent. Rich, smoky, the octopus was tender, the bacon was artisanal, the cavatelli were just right. A clear winner; I considered going back later in the week, although that ended up not happening.
Tuesday night, based on my earlier inquiries and reading here, I went to Hane. It seemed a little closer on Google Maps than it actually was, and I walked there, which turned out to be mostly uphill and through some pretty barren neighborhoods. But anyway, I had to cool my heels for 15 minutes at the bar, then seated myself at the sushi bar in front of what looked like the most senior of the itamae. I said “it’s up to you, I eat everything”, and I was not disappointed. This was pretty much everything I was expecting from an upper-end sushi experience. Maybe he stuck a little on the conventional side in terms of ingredients, but this was my first time there and he didn’t know me. Quality and presentation were top-notch, and the uni and ikura hand roll he finished off with will stick in my memory for quite a while. The $75 omakase charge (plus tax and tip and wine, of course) was a bargain, as far as I was concerned. The idea of walking back after that didn’t appeal to me, so I had them call me a cab.
Wednesday night I went to Cowboy Star. Sweetbreads, a rib-eye and a glass of Pinot Noir. Hard to go wrong. Sitting at the bar was nice, too, to watch the kitchen working, although it was actually relatively slow that night. Only bit of a complaint was that to me, rare really means rare, with a cold center, dripping blood, and my steak spent at least a minute too long on the flame. But again, I’m polite, and it would have to be more egregious for me to send back a $30+ piece of beef. A very nice place, all in all, but there are good-quality steakhouses everywhere.
Thursday was my last night. I didn’t want to go far, but I didn’t want to head back to Disneyland (sorry, Gaslamp) so based on some reading here or elsewhere I walked up to Prep Kitchen in Little Italy. Having lived in New York, Boston and Providence this wasn’t much of a Little Italy, but no matter. However, I was genuinely expecting a restaurant, not a meat market. Had I been much younger and much singler than I actually am, it might have appealed to me. As it was, it was a very loud place with great eye candy (at least 70% unattached women, in my estimation, in groups of 2 to 5-6, aged from 20’s to 50’s) and so-so food. While a grilled squid appetizer was very good, the “WNL Burger” was a barely edible obscenity from the “more is more” school. I’ve had many kinds of “high-end” burgers in various craft restaurants, and no matter the price, they have to work as a burger, which is hand food. This thing fell apart completely as soon as I picked it up, and from that point knife and fork was the only way to get through the 50% or so of it that I was able to consume. Yes, gluttony is still one of the deadly sins.
That was my week. Some highlights, some lowlights. Off to put on my flame-retardant underwear. And thanks to the regulars on this board who answered my initial questions and gave me other leads (whether you knew it or not.)
I don't think you'll need flame retardant anything. Your observations and dining experiences mesh pretty well with the locals. Now you know why most of us aren't really too keen on the Gaslamp or Little Italy.They're not the easiest places to find a good meal
Good report and your two less than average experiences are very much inline with what I have heard about these two restaurants (and the main reason not to visit them yet) - RLD and PK seen to be more about style and substance.
I seriously doubt anyone will disagree that Little Italy and Gaslamp are over priced, over hyped, and rare to impress. As a local I figure I'll need to drive a long way between good eats here.
It's important to remember, our culinary scene is sort of the opposite of LA and New York. Residents here embrace mediocre food, and penalize risk takers.
Jumping back in to thank the voices of support. I was a bit conflicted, because my mother always taught me that when you're visiting someone, you keep your criticisms to yourself. But I figure she was talking about going to someone's home - when a restaurant has certain pretensions and prices itself in a way that I can spend $75 for dinner for one without breaking a sweat, I will have certain expectations.
That said, to answer a couple of questions, I had beef rib-eye at CS. I'm not sure if they had bison on the menu, as I'm not a fan and wouldn't have ordered it anyway. I don't mind walking, so the distances were no big deal; I'm in Europe at least once a year, where walking is far more common than in California. But I can't endorse my shoes without jeopardizing my amateur status.
As to some of the big misses, I do keep seeing recommendations here for Prep Kitchen, which really surprise me,as I saw no indication that anyone goes there for the food. I certainly wouldn't.
I don't anticipate being back in SD for several years at best, but I appreciate the offer of companionship.
I agree with the other replies. It's not surprising that someone with your obvious food knowledge and East Coast pedigree would hit some low notes in the Gaslamp and environs. I believe I'm the only one around here who has ever recommended RLD, so for that poor experience I feel sorry and a little responsible. I haven't been there for 3 months since getting nickeled and dimed on a coupon issue. At the bar it sounds like they're more interested in promoting their own weird specialty drinks than doing classics well. And as for the clams...well, clams are something I'd have tried to talk you out of on a Sunday night just about anywhere in S.D. Especially if those offered on the menu were unavailable.
I, too, need my steaks rare as you've described, have ordered them that way at C.S., and I've always been happy with what came out. Oh, and our Little Italy is intimate and charming, but as you now know is nothing like an East Coast version. Finally, I'm glad Hane Sushi turned out well after that walk!