If you think you know all there is to know about Brian Malarkey, arguably San Diego's most high-profile chef, spoiler alert: You haven't seen anything yet.
The Malarkey we all thought we knew - TV celebrity Malarkey, overexposed Malarkey, overextended Malarkey, flashy, flash-in-the-sauté pan Malarkey - has just opened the most thoughtful, exquisitely executed, stylish restaurant of the year.
Little Italy 's Herb & Wood does not signal Malarkey's return to the top because in all his years opening a string of restaurants throughout the county, he never achieved these ambitious heights before.
There were glimpses of his culinary adroitness elsewhere, most notably at Gabardine in Point Loma. But with his propensity for keeping his eye on the camera instead of the prize, he obscured the full picture of what he could be.
Today, he's fully focused on creating a singular experience at Herb & Wood, located on Kettner Boulevard - which, amid Juniper & Ivy, Kettner Exchange and Bracero, has become a veritable restaurant Murderers' Row.
In the weeks leading up to Herb & Wood's debut, Malarkey promised it would be defined by "less pizazz and more substance." Have no doubt, there is pizazz.
The 7,000-square-foot indoor-outdoor space, designed primarily by Malarkey's longtime collaborator Christopher Puffer, is simply stunning. Its various design elements, from Craftsman touches to fireplace-side booths to Modigliani-esque nudes on the wall combine for a playful, urbane, warm and super cool feel. If it weren't so crowded all the time, you might actually be able to take it all in.
Herb & Wood
Where: 2210 Kettner Blvd., Little Italy
Phone: (619) 955-8495
Who couldn't predict Malarkey would spark a scene, especially in white-hot Little Italy? But what about the substance?
At the risk of gushing, I've never eaten food from a brand-new kitchen that was so ready for prime time. Malarkey and co-chef/partner Shane McIntyre have created a straightforward and accessible menu (crudos, salads, vegetable plates, pastas, pizzas, familiar proteins) that's anything but ordinary.
Premium-quality ingredients, farm-fresh everything and house-made you-name-it are treated with appropriate reverence. Nothing seems overwrought or weighted down by complexity. Which isn't to say there's no technique or artistry to the preparations. This kitchen has mastered putting out plates with balance and texture to spare. And flavors are particularly dynamic and vibrant, a lot like being at Herb & Wood itself.
The old Malarkey used to think salt and butter were the secret to success. Now, he said, he knows it's acid - citrus, vinegars, anything that pops.
Over the course of two visits, friends and I tried 25 dishes and only one was somewhat flawed - spongy, grilled king trumpet mushrooms in tarragon butter - and even then, just a better sear would have been an easy fix. The rest were altogether on point.
The dishes I can't wait to have again are the smokey, succulent roasted half chicken with lemon caper, herb salsa, pristine loup de mer and uni crudo in a vivid apple-cucumber sauce, multidimensional grilled eggplant, blended with mojo de ajo, basil salsa verde and tahini, and any of pastry chef Adrian Mendoza's innovative creations (even the fiery habanero-cherry ice cream).
The true standouts were the three expertly made pastas I had, luxurious gnocchi with oxtail, garlic, parsley, chive sherry, Parmesan and horseradish, kicked-up gemelli with Manila clams, tomato, lardo, chili and basil and soulful agnolotti with rabbit sausage, meyer lemon, burrata and pistachios.
Turns out Malarkey is serving some of the best pasta in Little Italy.