The neighborhood eatery that aspires to be a destination restaurant is in vogue these days, as established San Diego restaurateurs take chances with new concepts they hope will resonate with adventurous diners.
Tracy Borkum, who attracted considerable attention several years ago when she transformed a fine-dining icon in Bankers Hill into a hip, casual Italian dining venue, has gutted her longtime Kensington Grill and reinvented it as an affordable seafood restaurant with a beachy aesthetic.
El Agave owner Juan Carlos Gomez is using La Jolla as a proving ground for his latest culinary brainstorm, a classic Spanish tapas restaurant with a more-contemporary twist.
And Wade Hageman, who a few years ago traded in his foie gras and duck confit creations for artisan pizza in Encinitas, is taking his penchant for Italian cuisine to Hillcrest, where he’ll focus on handmade pasta dishes - but no pizza.
Each of these restaurant owners already had come up with winning formulas at their existing establishments but say they’re eager to try out new concepts they believe will also be financially lucrative.
“This certainly was an opportunity as a restaurant group to develop a new concept we feel strongly about, and I love the neighborhood,” said Borkum, who is already replicating her successful Cucina Urbana restaurant in other locations, including Irvine and the Del Mar area. “I think the fact that this is seafood-centric will make it resonate, especially with the casual environment and the price point. It falls into the vein of Cucina.”
Location: Kensington, 4055 Adams Ave.
Opening date: Official opening was Tuesday
Sample dishes: Seafood boil, a seasonal dish served in a bucket filled with head-on prawns, mussels, clams, house-made sausage, corn and potatoes; ceviche with market fish; and lightly fried fish and chips.
Price range: $4 to $18
Cost to develop: Borkum declined to reveal her renovation expenses.
When Borkum took a multimillion-dollar gamble four years ago to reinvent the former Laurel restaurant into a casual California-inspired Italian eatery, she did so, in part, out of financial desperation. Laurel was struggling at a time when white tablecloth-style fine dining was on a downward slide.
That was not the case with Kensington Grill, although Borkum thought the neighborhood venue had run its course.
“This was not desperate measures,” she said.
In order to make a clean break with Kensington Grill, Borkum decided to create a whole new look, which she likens to a modern cottage feel, reminiscent of Cape Cod. The former banquettes, tables and chairs were removed and replaced with new seating options, including two large community tables and long banquettes with counter- and table-height seating.
The pantry kitchen area, where raw seafood, salads and desserts are prepared, has been opened up so diners can have a view of the action. A predominantly white and ocean blue color scheme, along with bead board and whitewashed wood trim help complete the seaside cottage décor.
The 3,500-square-foot restaurant, including a patio area, will seat about 130.
Pictured: Kensington Grill
Iberico Spanish Bistro
Location: La Jolla, 909 Prospect St.
Opening date: July 7
Sample dishes: Pork loin in a wine reduction sauce with cabrales cheese; Catalan flatbreads with toppings such as smoked salmon and ham; and an assortment of 50 different pinchos, or small tapas, each day.
Price range: $2.50 to $3 (for pinchos) to $45 (for steak, lobster, seafood platters)
Cost to develop: $1 million
Mexican food is the focus of Gomez’s longtime El Agave restaurant in Old Town, but he confesses he has long had the itch to pay tribute to the cuisine of his parents’ homeland, Spain. While he owns a Spanish restaurant in Mexico City that he inherited from his father, Gomez said he was eager to bring authentic Spanish dishes to San Diego as well.
La Jolla, he decided, would be a good neighborhood for showcasing upscale nouvelle Spanish gastronomy unique to various regions in Spain, from the Basque Country in the north to Málaga in the south.
“Now Spanish cuisine is becoming more hip, although we don’t want to go as extreme as molecular gastronomy,” said Gomez. “We still want it to be a family-style atmosphere but upscale, using all Spanish ingredients. We don’t want to lose the flair of the Spanish dish.”
The 3,500-square-foot venue, formerly occupied by Vigilucci’s Ristorante, will feature a central bar where diners can order tapas from the bartender and where all the cold offerings will be on display. The 180-seat restaurant will include a private dining area and seating for about 24 in an outdoor patio.
Blue Ribbon Rustic Kitchen
Location: Hillcrest, 530 University Ave.
Opening date: End of June
Sample dishes: Gnocchi with wild mushrooms, cipollini onions and black truffle sauce; grass-fed rib-eye with smashed fingerlings and rapini with shallot cherry vinaigrette; and trofie (handmade dumplings) with arugula walnut pesto.
Price range: $7 to $26
Cost to develop: A little more than $300,000
As popular as Blue Ribbon’s pizza has become among its regular patrons, don’t expect the artisan pies to make an appearance at Hageman’s latest restaurant endeavor. The focus will be on the handmade pastas. In the same way that he spent much time perfecting his pizza dough, Hageman and his chef experimented with at least 20 different batches of pasta dough over a three-month period.
“The dough is one of a kind, made from organic flour and semolina,” he explained. “The chef and I would take some flour away, add water, eggs until we were very happy with it.”
Hageman and his wife, Kristi, opted to locate in Hillcrest after many of his customers would frequently ask when he planned to open farther south. What the couple liked most about Hillcrest is the high foot traffic and the neighborhood feel, although Hageman acknowledges parking can be challenging.
Also helpful from a cost perspective is that they were able to open in a space that already had all the infrastructure needed to serve a restaurant. Previously occupying the space was Bayu’s Authentic Ethiopian Cuisine.
The new 2,000-square-foot restaurant is designed with a rustic industrial décor. The walls are adorned with brick, black metal trim rings the table edges and bar top, and there is a black mesh covering on the mirrors. Reclaimed wood was also incorporated into the new interior.
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