Little Italy's new Kettner Exhange" src="http://www.pacificsandiego.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/20141103_A-CPhoto_Kettner_Exchange-38.jpg" alt="Inside Little Italy's new Kettner Exhange" width="580" height="434" />
Photos by Kate and Michael Auda
When America's Finest renamed Arctic Street to honor U.S. Representative William Kettner, it was a cold day in hell for San Francisco and Los Angeles. Both had battled in Washington to land the multiple military bases (Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Naval Training Center, Balboa Naval Medical Center) the four-term Democratic congressman from San Diego ultimately snared. It helped that Kettner, a congenial man who was not a career politician, became buddies with Franklin D. Roosevelt, then Woodrow Wilson's Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
The process of transforming an eager little city near the Mexican border into Navy Town U.S.A. started a century ago, and military muscle has been synonymous with San Diego so long that Kettner's role is rarely remembered.
His name lives on it Little Italy, however, and influenced restaurateurs Matt Spencer and Tyler Charman when they acquired a prime parcel at the intersection of Kettner Boulevard and Grape Street. Their weeks-old Kettner Exchange, aka KEX, boasts two floors of West-facing dining rooms and lounges whose views frequently feature Navy vessels. In the entry of the imposing, 7,400 square-foot showplace, a formal photo of the congressman hangs between a double-sided fireplace and a black glass ceiling embossed with a map of San Diego Bay.
"Kettner's story really spoke to me," says Spencer. "Since he brought the Navy here, KEX has a nautical vibe. But we didn't want to beat people over the head with it."
The partners also wrestled with the name, he says, making their final decision after considering the grandeur of the restaurant they were building.
"The place is so massive it reminds me of a commodities exchange or a stock exchange," Spencer says. "It's a place to exchange ideas, and early trading was an exchange of products, so we decided on Kettner Exchange."
KEX is a sleek example of what $3.6 million can buy when spent thoughtfully, or, as Spencer describes it, "partially by accident, partially by design."
"You could come here three or four times and have a completely different experience each time," he says.
A "tree chandelier" drops two stories from a ceiling skylight, whereas the open-air lounge upstairs is lighted by sunsets, stars and unrestricted views west. On the north side of the structure, five cabanas offer luxuries like customizable beer taps of which Spencer says, "If you like Blue Moon, you get Blue Moon."
In a restaurant that harbors several memorable spaces, Spencer, a Point Loma native, seems fondest of the hidden Chef's Table. Boldly navigating a kitchen fraught with furiously busy cooks and hot stoves, he steers to a remote alcove just big enough to accommodate 10. By intention, there is no other approach, since this "prep walk" immerses guests in the noise, activity and smells of a professional kitchen before they sit down. It's an experiential appetizer. Multi-course paired dinners (stylish food accompanied by tastings of wine, beer or spirits) are served at a table built of wood salvaged from the predecessor building's loading bays.
Considerably experienced chef Brian Redzikowski, who most recently ran the kitchens at other Spencer/Charman restaurants (the partners also own Firehouse American Eatery & Lounge in Pacific Beach - which is currently closed for remodel and slated to reopen January 1, 2015 - and Vin de Syrah and Analog in the Gaslamp), refers to Spencer as "El Gran Jefe," but he's king within his own domain.
Brass-caged lights glow in one area, echoed by other imposing fixtures common on ocean-going vessels a hundred years ago. But nothing howls "seafaring grog shop" at this contemporary, chef-powered restaurant. Metal and fine woods add both sharp and mellow edges; shades of black ripple over many of the ground floor's walls, ceilings and furnishings. The details, sometimes deluxe, include tufted-leather sofas anchored on the lounge side of the fireplace.
"I just keep it simple, staying very close to the classic roots of cuisine," Redzikowski says of the fare at KEX, which he describes as Progressive American. "We use presentation and modern garnishes and sauces to make our dishes forward-looking." Substituting inventive vinaigrettes for the heavier sauces of traditional cooking is one such look forward.
Redzikowski was part of the opening team at Chef of the Century (Joël Robuchon's restaurant at The Mansion in Las Vegas), where he mastered a potato recipe calling for a puree of ratte potatoes, which the chef, who likes naming things, calls "The Cadillac of potatoes." Deliciously nutty, the French-bred spuds arrive at KEX via FedEx to be boiled, peeled and muscled through a taut tamis strainer to keep starch from developing. After butter and cream are beaten in, the mixture is strained a second time, "which nobody does with potatoes," says one chef who does. "It's what creates the silkiness."
Spencer tagged Redzikowski for the post because he wanted someone capable of putting this restaurant on the map, and pronto.
"We're one-thousand-percent focused on our culinary program," Spencer says. "We'd like to be in the ballpark of winning a Best Restaurant of 2015 award. We aren't a bar that serves food, we're a restaurant with upscale dining."
With the paint barely dry at Kettner Exchange, it seems the Spencer/Charman team is already eyeing future projects. The plan: "To do cool shit," Spencer says. "To do stuff I like and enjoy first, and pray to God the money comes in afterwards."
Which is how William Kettner steered the Navy into San Diego Bay.
2001 Kettner Blvd., Little Italy