3 to try: A Trust Group restaurant remake, new Mexican in Old Town and French flair in Little Italy
Here’s where, and what, we’re eating at the new steakhouse Rare Society, Tahona tequila and mezcal bar and L.A.-based bistro Zinqué
A restaurant remake, new Mexican in Old Town and French flair in Little Italy: Here’s what we’ve been tasting at Rare Society, Tahona and Zinqué.
You’re the owners of a failing cocktail bar on a boring stretch of Park Boulevard, what do you do? Drown your sorrows in all that undrunk inventory? Walk away to just focus on your other thriving businesses? Or roll up your sleeves and come up with a successful replacement?
Earlier this year, chef Brad Wise and his Trust Restaurant Group partner-general manager Steve Schwob faced those prospects as their watering hole Hundred Proof faltered. We don’t know how much inventory they may have consumed, but we do know Wise and Schwob didn’t just shut the bar down and turn their impressive talents to their stellar restaurants Trust, in Hillcrest, and Mission Hills’ Fort Oak or the upcoming Cardellino down the street.
Instead, they transformed Hundred Proof into an updated version of an old-school neighborhood steakhouse, Rare Society. Open just two weeks, Rare Society is already anchored by the two key ingredients that have made Trust and Fort Oak two of San Diego’s culinary stand-outs: Wise’s incomparable wood-fired cooking and Schwob’s on-the-ball, attentive, front-of-the-house finesse.
After a 10-week remodel, the mid-century-inspired steakhouse, located on a strip of Park Boulevard that straddles University Heights, North Park and Hillcrest, Rare Society bears only a faint resemblance to the defunct lounge.
Out went the bar-height seating — and half of the actual bar — and in came warm lighting, striking gold-toned, stamped vinyl ceiling and wall tiles, tufted booths and banquettes, a wall of mismatched mirrors, and a clever, curved wall that nestles a series of intimate, two-person tables. A wall was partially cut out to allow a window into the raised kitchen. The dining room now sports an understated, retro vibe that’s similar to Fort Oak’s, just more youthful and eclectic. (And kudos for mostly covering up the overly suggestive pin-up girl mural with a floor-to-ceiling red velvet curtain. It’s 2019, not 1949.)
Rare Society’s menu reads like a love letter to the steakhouse classics — Caesar salad, oysters Rockefeller, Parker house rolls, linguine and clams, shrimp cocktail, creamed spinach, fettucine Alfredo, cheesecake, etc. But this is Wise and his team cooking, so dishes taste very of-the-moment San Diego.
To put his signature smoky stamp on Rare Society’s cuisine, Wise installed a Santa Maria-style grill in the kitchen. The chef’s wife is from Santa Maria, and that’s where he fell in love with that Central Coast-style of wood-fired cooking. A toast to love, then, because a deep, flavor-developing char might one day replace the taco as San Diego’s dining trademark.
The three meats we tasted on the $85 Associate platter — Australian Wagyu tri-tip, Denver-cut Australian Wagyu and filet mignon — all bore the subtle smokey scent from wood grilling, without being overpowered by it. The accompanying sauces were all tasty, particularly the T1 Steak Sauce (T as in Trust Group), but we preferred eating our steaks deliciously stripped down.
The meat board is a wonderful way to try different cuts of beef; they come perfectly sliced and ready to share. At $145, the Executive platter will sate those craving costlier steaks like ribeye and dry-aged New York strip. And while back in August, Wise and Schwob said they envisioned Rare Society to be a mid-priced neighborhood eatery, the protein prices are comparable to higher-end steakhouses. However, appetizers ($8-$21), side dishes ($7-$11) and the wine list (multiple selections in the $40-$70 range) are more moderately priced, so your check won’t necessarily have to rocket into the steakhouse stratosphere.
There are several dishes you simply can’t miss. The Caesar dressing, with lemon, fried anchovy and “a lot of Pecorino,” as the menu says, make the salad so zippy, it elevates it to the top tier in town. The roasted mushrooms with thyme and garlic are turned into a bowl of woodsy silk by the golden egg yolk you stir in.
We’ve always swooned over Wise’s pasta (ricotta angolotti at Trust; goat milk cavatelli at Fort Oak), and Rare Society’s small tangle of fettuccine Alfredo is as perfect as any version I’ve had of that Roman standard.
We don’t think it’s a coincidence that Wise recently returned from a trip to Rome and — exciting epiphany alert! — wants Cardellino to lean more toward Italy Italian food than Italian-American fare. If Rare Society’s fettuccine is a harbinger of what’s to come, 2020 will continue San Diego current Italian food scene upswing.
Trust group executive pastry chef Jeremy Harville is once again serving up sensational sweets. I just wish I had loved his Parker house rolls more. We tried all four of Rare Society’s cakes and when asked to pick a favorite, I couldn’t. The chocolate cake with ganache is the quintessential chocolate layer. The New York-style cheesecake is a light as a cloud, and not too sweet. The carrot cake is the baseline standard. And the butter cake is ridiculously moist.
With its full-scale bakery, Cardellino will be an even bigger showcase for Harville. So as much we loved time travel back to the days of the classic steakhouse with Rare Society, we just have one question: Is it 2020 yet?
4130 Park Blvd., University Heights. (619) 501-6404. raresocietysd.com
Why did it take me a year to go to Tahona? Maybe it was because I was still haunted by my last meal in Old Town. The year was 2003 and my parents insisted on taking me to a place with gut-busting enchilada-chimichanga combo plates, bottomless blue margaritas and piñatas and sombreros everywhere.
But my scars have finally healed, thanks to dinner last week at Tahona, the modern Mexican restaurant and mezcal tasting bar that just celebrated its first birthday. This cooly contemporary piñata-free zone is serving up ambitious Mexican cuisine from executive chef Adrian Villareal, who is inspired by some of the best chefs in the world.
Villareal, who worked with chef René Redzepi at Copenhagen’s cult Michelin-starred destination Noma, has found Mexican muses in chefs Enrique Olvera and Gabriela Cámara, whose restaurants Pujol and Contramar, respectively, are in Mexico City. The two best dishes we had at Tahona — the pork belly taco and the ahi tostadas — descended from Olvera and Cámara’s canon.
The pork belly taco came with a profoundly rich, one-year-old mole negro, contrasted by bright pickled red onions and sweet apple purée. Villareal, it was explained, is hoping to build on the “madre mole” — à la Olvera at Pujol — to let the flavor deepen over time. It’s pretty wonderful already.
And the mini ahi tostada bites, which our waiter explained were inspired by Cámara’s at Contramar, are prepared with citrus and chile ponzu, avocado, morita chili aioli, sesame seeds and herbs that make them little explosions of vibrant flavor.
Other highlights at Tahona were the earthy tamal with huitlacoche, crunchy maitake mushroom taco with coloradito mole, creamy cornbread flan with caramelized pumpkin, tamal dulce with milky, masa atole blanco and caramelized apples, and the churros with decadent chocolate ganache. Only the sopesitos of smoked mushroom and barbacoa fell short; they were under-seasoned and the corn dough was too heavy.
This being an agave bar, I ordered an exceptional mezcal old fashioned, and my friend and I later sipped on sweet and smoky straight Ánimas Espadin. It was so smooth, my friend, who started the night as a mezcal skeptic, was converted. Tahona’s mezcal bar offers over 100 artisan bottlings and private tastings by reservation.
And just a few weeks ago, Tahona opened its long-awaited 25-seat speakeasy, Oculto 477, named for the 477 souls buried at the adjacent historic El Campo Santo Cemetery. The snug, candle-lit space is sexy, not scary. And I will not feel haunted going to there again.
2414 San Diego Ave., Old Town. (619) 255-2090. tahonabar.com
This three-month old French bistro cafe and wine bar has filled one of the few niches that was missing in Little Italy’s array of culinary riches.
Zinqué is part of an L.A-based family of casual, all-day eateries with locations in Venice, West Hollywood, Newport Beach and downtown L.A. The San Diego outpost, a 3,000-square-foot space on the ground floor of the new AV8 mixed-use building, is airy and modern, with lots of exposed concrete. A wood bar (not zinc?) wood tables and wood beams warm up the room. The patio fronting Kettner is prime seating.
A friend and I went early enough for happy hour and ordered up a storm. We were happy with nine of our 10 plates. The only miss were the two soggy-crusted, fairly flavorless quiches, Lorraine and zucchini.
Flatbread Alsacienne, with pancetta, onion and gruyère, roasted mini sausages, crispy frites, silky smoked salmon tartine, salame on toasted, buttered poilâne bread, tart cherry clafoutis and warm berry crumble were all rustic and right on a quiet Monday night. The grilled salmon was perfectly cooked and not overwhelmed by its spicy yogurt sauce. Brown rice and ratatouille round out this very satisfying entrée.
With all his purchasing power, maybe owner Emmanuel Dossetti can seek out some better-priced wines. By the glass prices range from $12 to $19; by the bottle, only a Montepulciano, at $48, dips, below $50.
And though it’s located in some of the trendiest areas in Southern California, Zinqué has a pretty low-rent website that gives you no sense of how pleasing and charming this bistro is. You’ll need to check it out for yourself.
2101 Kettner Blvd., Little Italy. (619) 915-6172. lezinque.com
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