Restaurateur Christian Gomez loves to prowl the globe and will gladly whisk you away to exotic destinations in the Third World, the New World, the Old World and deep inside his imagination. He also aims to knock you off your feet with the global-inspired décor and cuisine at his wine-forward new Fools and Kings restaurant in Mission Hills.
Gomez, who also operates the WetStone Wine Bar in Bankers Hill, took over a well-aged space on Goldfinch Street partly because the 20-foot ceilings allow room for a trove of international lamps, lanterns and chandeliers. Mixed in with the eclectic collection of lighting, intriguing murals created by local artist Josh Hunter take the eyes from a close-up scene of a Cuban cigar maker at work to a fictional city of Cubist houses painted in a rainbow of colors. It’s meant to express the concept of community. There are exposed brick walls, a breezy, semi-open room in front and, hidden near the wine bar, a small private room.
“The layout is long and narrow, like a lot of bars overseas,” Gomez said. “So I styled Fools and Kings after Old World spaces in Barcelona’s Barrio Gotic and the Barranco neighborhood outside Milleflores near Lima. I want people to feel like they’re traveling when they come here, to get away from San Diego.”
Music is certainly part of the experience, as well as the inspiration for the restaurant’s unusual name. Gomez likes a French electronic band named AIR because, “stylistically, the music works here. It’s funky, it’s spacey, it’s international, it’s fun.” But as importantly, he said, “I was aiming to do something that wouldn’t pigeonhole the place. As a kid I fell in love with Nature Boy, a Nat King Cole song that my father used to whistle in the kitchen. The lyrics suggest to me that a fool and a king, a busser and a CEO, all are welcome here.”
The menu dallies with well-known and unfamiliar plates from all over the map, mostly small and meant to be shared. Order two or three and parlay them into a reasonably filling meal. It’s obvious Gomez has traveled in Peru when seeing the spelling of “cebiche panamericano,” which usually is written as “ceviche” hereabouts. The generous serving of perky, citrus-marinated white fish is accompanied by utterly original, pickled corn coblets (corn-on-the-cob cut into inch-wide discs for convenient nibbling) and a sweet potato puree, which cuts the sharpness of the marinade.
Gomez worked for some years as a private chef, and as a child absorbed the differing culinary viewpoints of a mother from Panama and a father from the Philippines (both of whom came to San Diego courtesy of the United States Navy). In addition to working as a self-trained chef, he also styled food for Los Angeles magazines and film and television studios in the early years of the century.
“I brought that experience here,” he said, adding, “I developed the menu around my fascination with adventure and travel. I wanted to do something original, without any trends in mind, and I didn’t want anything fake.” As Exhibit A of his approach, Gomez cited his raw ahi tuna carpaccio paired with duck liver mousse as “a sort of surf ‘n turf."
On the menu, the international accents are many, both subtle and bold. Sumac, a seasoning used widely by Middle Eastern cuisines, is rubbed over slices of roasted lamb shoulder bedded on braised garbanzo beans. If you know the Italian influences common in Argentinian big-city cooking, then you recognize the Buenos Aires origins of filet mignon skewers with gorgonzola cream sauce and chimichurri, a garlicky delight of many herbs. Chicken and potatoes in a massaman yellow curry make a distinctly unusual topping for a flatbread entree.
And so the menu goes, circling the globe enticingly with roasted baby carrots tossed with golden raisins and the racy Moroccan spice mixture call ras el hanout, tempura shrimp from Japan, and, perhaps in the hope that travel to Cuba will become an everyday experience, an uncomplicated dessert of fried plantains fit for both fools and kings.
Fools and Kings: 4015 Goldfinch St., Mission Hills, 619.578.2542, foolsandkings.bar