San Diego is littered with the tombstones of restaurants that looked a lot better than they tasted. Jack's in La Jolla and Bondi, Airr Supper Club and Katsuya downtown had spectacular dining rooms, but only decent, often overpriced food.
But Parq Restaurant - which opened in October at Sixth and Broadway - can boast a menu that's just as inviting as its eye-popping interior.
Chef Errol LeBlanc is serving an affordable, approachable "progressive American" menu in a dining room that captures the "urban wonderland" essence of New York's Central Park .
Two years in development, Parq has opened in the long-shuttered On Broadway Events Center space. It includes the 5,000-square-foot, 150-seat restaurant and the 20,000-square-foot Parq nightclub, which are connected via a faux stone tunnel like those in Central Park.
LeBlanc spent 17 years cooking at restaurants in Las Vegas, where oversized and over-the-top theme restaurants are the norm. LeBlanc arrived in San Diego two years ago to oversee the Cafe Sevilla restaurant kitchens after competing for (and winning) the job on Food Network's "Chef Wanted with Anne Burrell." Before creating his menu at Parq, LeBlanc said he ate his way through the Gaslamp Quarter and downtown to figure out what cuisine was missing in the oversaturated restaurant market.
Parq's seasonal menu is heavy on small and shareable plates reasonably priced from $9-$14, with plated entrees (complete with sides) priced from $13 to $32. That's a bargain in downtown San Diego, and combined with the ambience and friendly service, it's a deal.
The dining room is filled with man-made trees covered in fairy lights, distressed brick walls, an open-beam wood-frame ceiling and a glass roof that opens to the stars. The entry wall looks like free-form modern art, but it's actually a bird's-eye-view map of Central Park, complete with the grassy lawns and lakes. The service, like the menu, isn't stuffy. There's a burger, steak frites and the ever-present beet salad and roasted Brussels sprout dishes found in every San Diego restaurant.
But thanks to LeBlanc's experience, technique and craftsmanship, even standard dishes have a depth of flavor, finesse and plate appeal that makes for a memorable meal.
The Lacquered Pork Belly starter ($12), served with a lick-your-fingers honey/ginger glaze, literally melts in your mouth, thanks to a 36-hour sous-vide slow cook. The Warm Burrata Caprese salad ($13) is both salty and sweet, with a delicate house-made white balsamic dressing, garlic and crunchy smoked salt.
A quarter of the menu is devoted to "Jars and Such," do-it-yourself plates of fresh-baked Parker House rolls with assorted schmears, like duck confit, grilled artichoke or steak tartar. I tried the Lobster spread ($15), which was pleasingly clean and simple - just big chunks of fresh Maine lobster with a light garlic mayo and squeeze of citrus. The hot and cold jar dish starters are priced from $8 to $15 and serve two.
One of the menu's top sellers is the 24-Hour Shortrib ($25), another slow-cooked winner, with ultra-tender beef, crispy wild mushrooms and "velvet" mashed potatoes which fit their name, thanks to their ultra- creamy mouthfeel. Also delicious is the Brown Butter Shrimp ($27), a generous plate of prawns sauteed in brown butter with smoked popcorn grits and slabs of crispy pork belly. This update on the Southern classic has both class and a comforting, stick-to-the-ribs quality.
Even if you don't have room for dessert, order the bread pudding. It's worth every calorie. LeBlanc bakes all of his breads in-house, including the light bread bowl this surprising pudding - more like a souffle or creme brulee - is baked inside.
Visiting Parq for the first time is like making a delightful discovery, and the same can be said of every dish on the menu.
Address: 615 Broadway (entrance on Sixth), downtown San Diego
Phone: (619) 727-6789