A look at Herb & Sea, Puffer Malarkey’s new Encinitas restaurant
Billed as the ‘younger sister of Herb & Wood,’ new eatery has an ‘East Coast meets West Coast seafood’ vibe
When diners walk through the doors of the newly opened Encinitas restaurant Herb & Sea, co-founders Brian Malarkey and Chris Puffer hope they will be swept away by the feeling that they’ve come home for dinner.
That is, if they’re accustomed to a very decadent home. The 6,500-square-foot restaurant’s oversize centerpiece kitchen has a luxurious Tiffany blue-toned Hesten oven, a Pullman wood-fired stone hearth and enough room for a 20-member kitchen team led by executive chef Sara Harris.
Harris said the unique showplace kitchen is the main reason she wanted to cook at the Puffer Malarkey Collective’s new Herb & Sea.
“It reminds me of my family dinners at home when I was growing up,” she said. “This is my kitchen where I can cook for the guests and I can enjoy seeing them eat my food.”
Herb & Sea, which opened Monday at D Street and Highway 101 in downtown Encinitas, is billed as the “little sister” to Herb & Wood, a fine-dining restaurant that chef-partner Malarkey and managing partner-designer Puffer opened three years ago in Little Italy.
As a sibling eatery, H&S serves some of H&W’s most popular dishes, like Malarkey’s roasted baby carrots with Aleppo yogurt and carrot top pesto. But most of the dishes that Harris has imported from Little Italy have been revamped to her own tastes to make them lighter, brighter and more approachable. For example, both restaurants serve a roasted whole branzino, but the Herb & Sea version isn’t served wrapped in cured speck pork.
Herb & Sea prices are significantly lower than at the more upscale Herb & Wood. Raw items start at $12, small plates range from $13 to $24, pasta entrees are $16 to $24, wood-fired pizzas are $15 to $19 and large plates range from $23 for a roasted half-chicken to $35 for a roasted eye of rib with peppercorn chimichurri.
“We want this to be a comfortable place where people can eat three times a week rather than three times a year,” Puffer said.
As the name implies, Herb & Sea is all about seafood. The restaurant has a showy, curved oyster bar and Harris has spent the better part of the past year developing new fish and shellfish recipes. One of her new signature dishes is a twist on oysters Rockefeller that pairs roasted oysters with bone marrow. There’s also an avocado toast version of crab Louie, an eye-catching hamachi crudo with white ponzu, an “octopus and artichokes” appetizer and Salt Spring mussels with harissa beer.
Both the seafood and the decor at Herb & Sea have what Malarkey calls an “East Coast meets West Coast” vibe that reflects its owners’ heritage. Malarkey grew up on the Oregon coast and Puffer hails from New England. Puffer worked with the San Diego design firm Bells & Whistles to create an interior inspired by one of his favorite childhood spots, the charming coastal village of Pemaquid Point, Maine.
Leading a visitor through the restaurant as last-minute construction was under way last week, Puffer pointed out the hand-selected ocean-inspired decor, like glowing pearl-shaped lamps, chandeliers with clay beads that look like shells from afar and silvery lampshades made with shapes that resemble sardines or surfboards. The overall look, he said, is upscale seaside resort.
Harris is a San Diego native who grew up secretly wanting to be a chef, but went the practical route in college and earned a business management degree from San Jose State. After graduation, she followed her heart to culinary school. Then, after a six-month stint cooking at a woman-owned farm-to-table restaurant in Menlo Park, Harris moved home to San Diego in 2014.
She landed at Searsucker in Del Mar — then under the leadership of Malarkey and Puffer — where she worked her way up from pantry chef to executive sous chef over four years. In early 2018, she took a creative break and traveled through Europe with her husband for six months, cooking and studying cuisine in France, Italy and Spain.
While she was abroad, Puffer and Malarkey struck a deal to lease the 1920s-era art-deco building in Encinitas, and Malarkey lured her back in June 2018 with the promise of helming her own kitchen at Herb & Sea. Malarkey said he wanted to bring Harris back because she’s one of the smartest chefs he’s ever worked with.
“She’s wise beyond her years. We work together easily as collaborators. It’s effortless,” Malarkey said. “She knows how to motivate employees and we have the same goals in our culinary lives. I love her. She’s like my little sister.”
Unfortunately, permitting and construction delays pushed back the opening of Herb & Sea by a year, so Harris has bided her time ever since by creating recipes for Herb & Sea and fine-tuning the menus at some of Puffer Malarkey’s smaller restaurant venues, restoring what she calls the “Malarkey touch.”
“When Brian is in the restaurant, his presence is felt. There’s a magic and culture there,” she said. “He is inspired by three things — acid, salt and herbs — so I went in and restored those elements and made sure everything was on trend.”
After starting renovations on the Encinitas property last year, Puffer said it quickly became clear that the structure was unsound and would require a much longer overhaul. Over the past century, the building had hosted a grocery store, a library, a police station and jail, a series of restaurants and — during World War II — a factory for manufacturing gun sights. The many remodelings and re-roofings over the years left the ceiling near collapse. Contractors were forced to take the building practically down to its studs and start over, although the building’s original ornamental art-deco roof line was preserved.
Because Herb & Sea opened a year behind schedule, it arrived practically on the heels of Puffer Malarkey’s biggest project to date, the ultra-luxurious Asian-inspired restaurant Animae. The $5.5 million project, which opened in September in the Embarcadero district, features spectacular chandeliers, lavish curtains and banquettes and plush carpeting.
Puffer said his goal with Animae was to create the quietest restaurant in San Diego, where food preparation is kept behind closed doors. That’s the opposite approach of Herb & Sea, where diners can watch their meals being prepared.
“Where Animae is a theatrical stage, Herb & Sea is dinner theater,” Puffer said.
Puffer’s passion is design, but Malarkey’s heart is in the kitchen, and he promises that Herb & Sea’s food will ultimately be the new restaurant’s star attraction.
“I want to encourage my staff to push it,” he said. “The food must be amazing. We don’t want ordinary food. We want extraordinary food.”
Herb & Sea
Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m. daily. Happy hour will be added in mid-November from 4:30 to 6 p.m. in the bar and lounge only. Weekend brunch, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., will begin at the end of November.
Where: 131 West D St., Encinitas
Phone: (619) 955-8495
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