Darwinian Evolution in the San Diego Dining Scene

Once again, San Diego’s food scene is flourishing, but the focus and menus have changed to stay in the game.

Collectively, we San Diego foodies can breathe a little sigh of relief as we emerge from the gloomy haze following the death of fine dining caused by the recession. In true Darwinian fashion, myriad restaurants have reinvented themselves as neighborhood eateries, plump with affordable bites and casual sophistication as a compelling lure to bring out the wallets again.

The art of mixology has reached an all-time high because, let’s face it, when times are tough, liquor is a handy remedy. Whip-smart entrepreneurs have capitalized on this concept and, with the return of classic cocktails, given a nod to Depression days of the past. Suddenly Angostura, Aperol, and Averna are de rigueur and cocktail menu descriptions prove more complicated and detailed than that of the entrées.  And while food is certainly not an afterthought, the seven-course extravaganza, displaying a chef’s knowledge of French classic technique and enhanced by wine pairings, has taken a backseat to more affordable fun cuisine, handcrafted beers, and clever cocktails.

Downtown, Cucina Urbana led the charge when it transformed the more formal Laurel experience into a thriving casual scene with wood-fired flatbreads being hurled from the oven, cheese and charcuterie platters dotting tables, and graffiti artwork on the walls. Reservations became scarce and people started lining up, causing a lot of other restaurateurs to rethink their approach. Suddenly, the everything-under-twenty-dollars menu spread like wildfire with serious chefs hanging up their fine dining toques.

A successful example, Chef Wade Hageman left Solana Beach’s upscale Blanca, to open something on his own with his savvy wife Kristi. The duo came up with Blue Ribbon Artisan Pizzeria, a cozy Encinitas eatery where Hageman himself mans the brick oven and artisanal pies and Kristi helms the floor. The emphasis falls on fine ingredients without the high price tags and they succeed, especially in his starters where velvety soft burrata mingles with arugula and fresh la Quercia Rossa prosciutto finds great companionship with pommery mustard, housemade pickles and California’s finest cheese. The San Francisco vibe and long wooden bar call for hand-crafted beers with your steaming hot, fresh pizza.

Brian Malarkey

The new kid on the Gaslamp block opened its doors in August and has never looked back. For many good reasons, Searsucker is packed nightly. Perhaps it’s the pulse—high energy and upbeat to say the least. A playful vibe permeates the room, finding its source in owner/celebrity chef Brian Malarkey who navigates the room with a smile, riding a wave of panache and fame. Clearly a man enjoying the fruits of his labor, Malarkey’s joie de vivre trickles down to the staff, an array of handsome hipsters sporting seersucker aprons, who clearly like their jobs with an endless stream of people and tips flowing their way.

A personal favorite designer of mine, Thomas Schoos, of Tao, Huntley Hotel, and Table 8-resturant fame, turned the 7,000-square foot warehouse space into a massive flowing party lounge where amusements abound. The horseshoe bar experience seamlessly flows into the kick back living room area which edges up against a dining room filled with communal tables and great views of the exhibition kitchen where Marlarkey, in his signature straw fedora, commands the line, all the while bouncing to the beat. It’s as if he invited 300 of his closest friends over to his house for dinner. The superb drinks, curated by their mixologist team called Snake Oil, further heighten the experience with tipples like the Peter Rabbit, a dandy invention with Pimm’s #1, redolent with bruised basil, pressed lemon, and a pickled carrot to nibble, which proves to be a marvelous smooth sipper, as is the Treaty of Paris, where aged rum, burnt sugar cherry syrup, pressed lime, and tobacco cologne escorts you on a little tasty trip to the Caribbean.

The menu divides into bites, smalls, greens, ocean, ranch and farm. Malarkey is a man about protein and, my word, does he ever love bacon. Dishes like eggs and bacon exude decadence as a poached egg rests on pork belly all awash in hollandaise. Speaking of pig, the pork butt with grilled peaches and bacon emulsion triumphs, though we quite liked the carb-free chunky crabcake, binded by lemon aioli and redolent of tarragon. Bone marrow arrives in a bone canoe with peaches and toast points, while wild mushrooms commune with buratta and truffles. The Baja spicy shrimp has a nice piquant heat and is paired lovingly with bacon grits. (See recipe below.)

Service is low-fi and spot-on thanks to the talents of GM Christopher Puffer, a personality himself with a repertoire of accents and witticisms, a perfect match for Malarkey’s zeal. In regard to the “performance” aspect of Searsucker, Puffer himself chimes, “Come on down—the show starts daily at 5 p.m.”

Screaming Shrimp N Dirty Grits
4/4 friends
Brian Malarkey

Dirty Grits:
1 cup    Grits – instant (5 minutes)
follow the instruction on the box – 3 to 1 I think and then we get dirty
½ cup    buttermilk
½ stick    butter
½ cup    Cheddar cheese
¼ cup    bacon – diced and cooked
salt and pepper
Keep stirring/whisking until the “grits” are glorious and DIRTY GOOD!

Screaming Shrimp:
1 pound   shrimp (16/20) counts peeled, cleaned & butterflied
½ stick      butter
2 tbls    canola oil
4 each    tomatoes Roma – cubed
¼ cup    basil – sliced
¼ cup    garlic – chopped
¼ cup    lemon juice
2/3 tbls     Cajun seasoning
salt and pepper

In a large sauté pan over high heat add the oil and butter,  add the shrimp and cook until about half way done, add the garlic and continue cooking until golden brown, add the other ingredients and serve over the top of the “dirty good” grits, sit back and watch your friends lick their chops.

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