Friday, December 31, 2010

Chris Walsh Bites back. Honestly.

Not too long ago, hearing the words ‘American comfort food’ elicited a sigh of relief among those of us who (sometimes) want nothing more than to roll up our sleeves and dig into food like Mom made when she was feeling lazy. Something with cheese, bread, bacon, spuds or all of the above; ingredients that taste good on their own, in addition to each other, and with many other foods. Straightforward preparations, economical ingredients with long shelf lives and food often eaten with our hands beckons a return to those simpler days, sweetened by nostalgia.  It’s no wonder restaurateurs can’t resist hoppin’ on the gravy train; American comfort food is easy to make and well-received.
Mac and cheese is the reigning favorite that comes to mind and there’s got to be around 30 renditions within greater San Diego’s 10 mile radius. With choices like panko-fried balls at Proper Pub, ’Duckaroni’ at Urban Solace and Dussini’s lobster mac, how does one go about deciding what to eat? The reality is that American classics are actually quite boring, and it takes a creative chef to stand out on a city wide menu that consists of similar items.
Before the gastropub bombardment in San Diego, chef Chris Walsh was cooking some seriously fab California cuisine with French and Italian influences, small plates-style at his first independent venture Bite in Hillcrest. Today, Walsh contextualizes the closure of his restaurant by explaining that ‘People don’t want to eat that way anymore… they want to eat the food they grew up with.’ In a short lapse of time since Bite’s closure, Walsh is back in the kitchen at the restaurant where his chic, cutting edge, moderately priced, foodie followed dishes were born: Confidential. With one minor detail… it’s no longer Confidential. The former downtown disco-ish haunt traded its white walls and euro-slick vibe for a slightly dressed up 19th century log cabin named The Lincoln Room, serving– you guessed it– American comfort food classics.
Despite a change of cuisine, Walsh’s voice remains loud, clear, and totally west coast. A native San Diegan and enthusiastic gardener since he was a kid, Walsh’s homage to his childhood and mother comes in the form of a wilted lettuce salad ($6). ‘I grew up during a time when the iceberg wedge was the salad to eat. One time I grew some lettuces that my mom didn’t know what to do with… so she wilted the salad with bacon fat.’
A mix of delicate, colored lettuces go soft from warm bacon fat and champagne vinaigrette. Bacon is rendered with leeks to keep it from crisping, and both toothsome additions confetti the tangy, vibrant salad. This is the type of ($6) pig and veggie combo you’ll lust after and return for, because every ingredient is in harmony and comes together as one. Bravo!
Next up was the fried green tomato stack ($5), which did not photograph well, but was beautiful in person and up there with some of the most sinful food I’ve eaten all year. Panko breading sticks to the meaty green tomatoes like cornmeal batter to a hot dog, and layers of oozing mozzarella plus strips of perfectly crisped bacon hit this shit out of the park. A comfortable starter that made me think of a hot day at a county fair somewhere in the south, Walsh’s touch of basil pesto aioli on the corners of the plate brought me back to Cali. I will eat you again and again, I say!
Walsh’s lobster bisque with vanilla chantilly cream (once served at Bite) is something of panty-dropping legend in my book, so I didn’t hesitate when I noticed oyster chowder on The Lincoln Room’s menu (plus it’s listed on the menu under ‘Abe would be proud’).  True to the style of his bisque, the chowder was bowl-to-bowl oyster flavor. In a nice, rustic chowder (that I wouldn’t consider ‘thick’ by the crappy standards set in this town) swam thin, round slices of fingerling potatoes, baby carrots and leeks that all had al dente bite. The addition of a puff pastry crouton of sorts made this more like a shellfish pot pie, especially with all the vegetables. Without a doubt the flavors were fantastic, but I questioned the use of whole, delicately poached oysters in the hot soup. Although they’re heated through, mouthing these plump, juicy beasts reminded me of eating oysters on the half shell, which I enjoy, but don’t necessarily want to associate with a steaming bowl of creamy soup.
So far so good, right? Well, sometimes I can’t resist ordering the dish that creates a little doubt in my mind, which is why I went with the chipotle fried chicken and white cheddar grits ($10). Walsh told me it was its first nite on the menu, so I shared my criticisms with him afterwards. My biggest beef was that I didn’t taste much chipotle, an ingredient he says is used in the chicken’s buttermilk marinade. Second, the breading wasn’t all-around crispy; rather, it was crispy in parts. I do think there’s potential, though, with the addition of a hot sauce, or a gravy. It seemed like the chicken and cheese grits were disjointed, and a sauce that could be used on both might assist in this realm.
I took the chef’s reccomendation for dessert, and ordered the ‘warm cast iron chocolate chip cookie sundae with caramel sauce’ ($6). Walsh described it to me as ‘kind of crunchy on the outside like a cookie, but like cake in the middle.’ It arrives hot in a skillet with a scoop of vanilla bean gelato already melting; piercing its outer shell and discovering the cakey center goo’d up with molten chocolate made me want to take my top off at the dinner table. I’ve vowed to visit that hot cookie again soon.
Walsh’s atypical take on American comfort food also includes a few retro dishes that seemingly disappeared from menus altogether, and some supposed President Lincoln faves. Steak Diane (medallions of beef tenderloin, crimini shrooms and Dijon cognac sauce) is the most expensive (main) dish on the menu for $16.50. Walsh says before ranch dressing was the dressing, it was the green goddess (bibb lettuce with poached shrimp, croutons and red onion), $9 on the menu. Oyster chowder is listed as an Abe favorite, along with Chicken Fricasee (breast of chicken served on herbed buttermilk biscuit for $13), and the dish that Mary Todd wooed Abe with, the ‘Lincoln cake’ with amaretto custard sauce ($4.50).
‘Bar grub’ translates to appetizers, and there’s 13 to choose from spanning Confidential born bacon wrapped dates ($6) to slow roasted Lincoln wings with chipotle sauce and gorgonzola dressing ($5.50), classic shrimp cocktail with homemade cocktail sauce and fresh grated horseradish ($9), chicken tenderloin tempura with sweet and sour soy ginger dipping sauce ($6), and the obligatory mac and cheese but with fontina, crispy smoked bacon and toasted bread crumbs ($6).
Chicken liver pate with sweet onion marmalade and whole grain mustard ($6), also under ‘Bar grub’ but anything but, really.
There’s sandwiches and burgers (all $8 and under) from the classic Muffaletta of New Orleans fame, to the 1/3 lb turkey burger, and a beer battered fried cod fillet sandwich with cheddar cheese and remoulade.
Debunk the notion that American comfort food is stick-to-your ribs southern and mid-western fare with Walsh’s Cali’d classics at The Lincoln Room, where all dishes are under $20 and several under $10.  Open daily from 5pm-12am on the corner of 4th and E.
(At the time of this review, The Lincoln Room was open for just over 1 week.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A colorful afternoon with Jocelyn Duke

There’s a lot to take in at Jocelyn Duke’s North Park art studio; vivid colors, entrancing patterns and mixed messages of love and torment compose the paintings on her walls.
Jocelyn’s ‘Laugh’ painting (acrylic on canvas) from her series LOVESICK recently graced the cover of San Diego CityBeat.
My personal favorites from LOVESICK.
LOVESICK brainstorm on one of Jocelyn’s studio walls.
Color galore!
I dressed the part.
Come see Jocelyn Duke’s art tonite at Quality Social Club for Landmark Events holiday party ‘Wear Red’, benefiting the American Heart Association.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Holiday Baking

A popular holiday coping mechanism, puff it up and watch this jolly season’s stress go up in smoke.
Talented cinematographer/photographer Chris B. Cornell emailed me this sample of the ‘miniature scenes’ he’s been toying with. Love this festive shot.

Shop @ Pigment

In case you didn’t know, succulents and cactus are nearly impossible to kill because they don’t require a ton of space or attention (ideal in an urban setting). There’s a variety of both at Pigment, and books to guide you along the way.

Feeling like your urban dwellings need a lift? Lack an outdoor garden and wish you had space for indoor plants? Or (like in my case), do you absolutely suck at nurturing life outside of the sprouting potatoes long forgotten in the depths of your pantry? No matter your drab domestic situation, Pigment in North Park is stocked with all the colorful and– gasp– low maintenance (!?) life forms that’ll do just the trick.

There’s several Eco Orbs to choose from, and a great selection of ‘air plants’, colored sands and other fillers that you can mix and match to create the bubble-garden look that strikes your fancy. If you’d like to purchase a complete kit, they come pre-packaged with everything you’ll need to simply assemble yourself at home. The kits come in 4 sizes and colors from $30-$65. Deal!

In lieu of the holidays, there’s ornament style orbs that fit the smallest variety of air plants. Air plants can live in a totally dry environment, but do require an overnight soak in water once a week.

There’s hope! Ceiling and wall suspended plants will fit in any closet sized-home.

Besides indoor plants, Pigment features a vast selection of jewelery,  home decorflooring options, art and design books and more. Most of the jewelery (and there’s a lot) is made locally and ranges in price from $30 to over $200. (The pieces that piqued my interest had an average price of about $100.) Perfect for your Boo this holiday season.
Amy Paul is a San Diego based artist and owner of Pigment. You can see her art here, or fall in love with it in person at her shop. I particularly love Amy’s homage to north San Diego in the ‘cityscapes’ series. Think iconic landmarks, patterns of telephone wires against the sky, and Lindbergh bound airplanes.