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Restaurant Review: Wa Dining OKAN

It’s been a hot minute since I’ve done a restaurant review on this blog, as it’s actually a topic I don’t particularly care to write about. In this case, however, I’ll make an exception. After another wonderful meal at the still-under-the-radar homestyle Japanese restaurant, Wa Dining OKAN, I feel compelled to share it with you… even as I hope you never go and make it harder for me to get a reservation!

This place is a real jewel box– tucked away in a strip mall, like all places on Convoy Street, I guess–  OKAN seats a max of 25 people, most of whom are seated around a rectangular bar area where the day’s specials are presented in beautiful earthenware bowls and serving platters. For my birthday this past year, the mister and I were lucky enough to grab seats around the bar– it’s really the way to go to see all the fresh foods of the day, and ogle what the other patrons (mostly Japanese folks, not tourists or puti people) are ordering off the Japanese-language menu (which is way better and more extensive than the English menu, of course!). This time, with our party of four, we were seated at one of the three larger tables in the place, which was still lovely but definitely missing some of the ambience.

The decor inside is warm and inviting, almost like being in someone’s home. The hostesses last weekend, when I went, were in kimonos even– they don’t typically wear them, but it was the 3rd Anniversary celebration weekend for the restaurant, so the outfits were part of the festivities. Enough about the decor though– look at the food!

Wa Dining Okan specializes in small plates, but they offer much more than standard izakaya bar fare. They offer large rice pots, soups, and the like, but I enjoy ordering from the small plates and daily specials, which are always fresh and seasonal. They say they offer “homestyle Japanese cooking,” and I’ll believe them, even if I’ve never eaten in a Japanese person’s home before (anyone wanna invite me over for dinner?). Some of the highlights from this past weekend’s meal (though I’ve never had a dish I didn’t enjoy here) are pictured below.

scallops in sea urchin sauce

The scallop sashimi in sea urchin sauce was so delicate and boldly flavored at the same time– it was my first time eating scallops in the raw, and these had such a briney taste, as if they came directly from the sea to the plate. I didn’t try it, but our friend also raved about the leaf beneath the scallops– turned out it was shiso, which I’ve never had before. Good thing they sell it at the Nijiya market, next door to OKAN, in case I ever get the urge to try some at home.

A dish so good we ordered it twice– fried mochi in broth. I’ve never had mochi prepared this way, and it was wonderful. A great contrast in textures, and the broth was beautiful (as are all the broths made here). Pictured behind are skewers of fried beef tongue, which I’ve had before here and always really enjoy. It’s one of the menu items on the Japanese menu– I’m assuming the restaurant doesn’t think average Americans have the palate for it, and sadly they’re probably right.

A menu staple, and done right here– rice balls with salmon. Though seeing the special being brought to the next table– plain rice balls rolled in sea salt and served with broth– did give me some rice ball envy, that’s for sure.

Dinner at Wa Dining OKAN isn’t cheap, but neither is it outrageous, especially for the quality of food you get. For their third anniversary weekend, all small plates were 30% off, and Sapporo drafts were only $2. They seem to have special events quite often– following them on Facebook or Twitter will keep you abreast of what’s happening.

While I bitch about living in San Diego most days, I will say that there are a growing number of restaurants here that are really good– not just good for San Diego, but good for anywhere else. I’d add Wa Dining OKAN to that list, any time.

 

Wa Dining OKAN
3860 Convoy Street, Suite 110
San Diego, CA 92111
(858) 279-0941

Cultivating Food Justice… for whom?

Two weekends ago I attended the 4th Annual Cultivating Food Justice Event (not conference, as they were so keen to remind us), a free two-day extravaganza of panels, workshops, keynotes, and of course, delicious food put on every year by San Diego’s most staunch advocates for food justice. I went to this event last year for the first time, and while last year had the (worthy) glitter of the illustrious Raj Patel as keynote speaker, this year’s event was vastly improved (though hardly perfect). In lieu of a huge write up, because once again I’m running so behind, here are a few thoughts on the great, the good, and the things that need a little (or a LOT) of improvement.

THE GOOD

City Heights community garden

  • The change in location from SDSU to City Heights

Last year’s conference was on a college campus, and while it was super convenient, it also felt very remote and removed from, you know, the world outside the ivory tower. Not so this year. Basing the event in the heart of City Height’s business district was fantastic– “home base” was at the Farmer’s Market (more on that later) and other workshops were held at community centers such as a locally-run aquaponics farm, a community garden, a health center, local churches, etc. Spreading out the venue probably meant that some folks got lost, but that’s ok. I think that forcing people ostensibly interested in food justice– many of whom probably have never been nor never intended to go to City Heights before– to walk around a “food desert” composed primarily of working-class people of color is a necessary eye-opener. Did it actually change the dialogue on food justice that day? No, from what I saw (again, more on this below), but it’s perhaps a start to get privileged “foodies” out of their bubble.

city heights farmers market

  • Lunch  and workshops at and about the City Heights Farmer’s Market

On day one, folks were responsible for getting lunch on their own. It being Saturday and the day of the weekly City Heights Farmers Market, it was a perfect opportunity for conference attendees to visit the market and pick up produce or prepared foods from the vendors. One thing I noticed immediately was how small the market was compared to the massive Hillcrest Farmers Market, or even the North Park Farmers Market, one of the newer weekly markets just a mile or two down the road. A workshop I attended the next day facilitated by Fernanda De Campos really clarified for me why this was so– she is one of the organizers responsible for creating and maintaining City Heights Market, and it’s been a struggle just to get permits, permissions, and EBT access, let alone all the work that goes into drumming up vendors and farmers who will commit to a market without a “built-in clientele” (code speak for bougie folks with disposable income) to charge high prices for organic produce. Educating and organizing the community is also something Fernanda and others have been working hard at–  basic education on nutrition and the value of fresh fruits and vegetables over much cheaper processed foods, and then more awareness building on the upsides of organic and local produce. I can only imagine the kind of labor and time this takes, and huge props to Fernanda and the other organizers for taking on this role!

The second day of the event, a vegetarian lunch was provided by conference organizers. Not only was it delicious and good for you, it was also FREE! This day, instead of the usual market vendors, there were tables manned by community food justice groups, non-profits working against hunger, seed-swapping collectives, and socialists and anarchist groups. It was a very positive energy seeing local folks coming together to talk food politics, create sidewalk murals, and just hanging out. It would be nice to see this kind of thing more regularly at all our San Diego farmers markets, but I’ve heard from Fernanda that every 3rd Saturday there will be a Cultivating Food Justice tent at the City Heights Farmers Market, so maybe that’s a start…

fresh salad at sunday lunch

  • More diverse group of volunteers, planners, speakers, and workshop topics

At last year’s conference, from the opening check-in to the keynote closing speech by Raj Patel, I kept looking around the room for people that looked like me, and saw very few that did. From the volunteers to the workshop leaders, I noticed a dearth of under-30s people, and a shockingly low number of people of color in the mix. Not so this year. The average volunteer range must’ve been in the early- to mid-20s, and a good number of those folks were women of color. I don’t know for sure what came first– the planning of the conference or the rise of younger folks of color in the planning committee, but I for one felt a big difference and for the better in the energy and focus of the entire conference.

The issues being addressed, especially in the keynote talks, were issues that really hit home for me, whereas last year I felt alienated by a lot of the talk to “buy green” and “build victory gardens in my front yard” when I’m a) not a home-owner and can’t legally build anything on the property I live on; and 2) can only buy green insofar as I can afford it. This year, unlike last, there were far more workshops on the schedule that addressed questions of structural barriers to access and food equity, food justice projects being taken up by immigrants, refugees, and other communities of color, and on direct production/farming and not just consumption of organic food. There was still plenty of focus on living sustainably and “urban homesteading” (ugh, I hate that term!) but it wasn’t the only focus of the conference to the exclusion of necessary discussions about who gets to live sustainably and who is barred from it.

The keynote speakers this year really hit it out of the park. It was really empowering that both speakers this year were local organizers working in their communities for real change: N. Diane Moss of the People’s Produce Project, a multifaceted community organization working in Southeastern San Diego,  and Bilali Muya, a refugee from Somalia who is a leader in the New Roots Community Farm, an urban farm expressly for refugees in City Heights to sustain themselves and their families. Their talks were invigorating, empowering, and most of all, real. They made the stakes of their work very clear– that food justice is not just for individuals with enough purchasing power to buy green and live sustainably in their hybrid SUVs, but is part of broader systemic change, for entire communities to be able to survive and thrive in the face of economic, political, and cultural barriers to access, education, and livelihood. Don’t get me wrong, I love Raj Patel (his book Stuffed and Starved is a must-read), but this year’s speakers really solidified the need for local solutions to seemingly-insurmountable global issues.

aquaponics farm overlooking community health center

TO BE IMPROVED


  • Publicity- where was it?

Once again, this conference is amazing… if you can find it. I didn’t see any promotional materials up in local farmers markets or in the community beforehand, and didn’t even see any love on twitter! Last year’s conference had its own Twitter account and hashtag, but while I searched and searched beforehand, during, and after the event, I still think I was the only person tweeting about this event in real time. I’m hoping it’s because everyone that needed to be there was already there but I’m not so sure about that. The only way I found out about the event was through an email, sent days before, asking prior attendees if they’d like to volunteer this year. I can only hope the organizers did a better job promoting it in the local City Heights community and elsewhere.

  • Cancellations and other logistical oversights

I’m kind of anal (no surprise, right?) so I get kind of twitchy if I feel like I’m missing key information. Namely, that registration is ongoing throughout the day, and not just from the 8-9AM timeslot listed both on the website and in the printed program. I almost skipped the event the first day because I thought there wouldn’t be a booth after 9AM to register to get the information about the day’s events, especially since locations for the workshops were not listed online either. Luckily that wasn’t the case, but I wonder how many other people didn’t show because they thought they missed their opportunity.

Also, I know it’s beyond the control of the organizers, but some of the last-minute cancellations really bummed me out. The cancelled workshops were high on my list too as they were on topics explicitly dealing with farmworker conditions and “on-the-ground” projects by people of color. I wonder what could have been done, if anything, to keep these folks from cancelling, or being able to replace them with similar workshops?

  • Bad academics who had no business leading workshops

I really respect the work of food justice organizers, even those whose focii are not necessarily my own. I think that the more people the merrier doing this work, and that folks from all backgrounds– from scientists and specialists, to farmers, to blue-collar workers, to students, and so on– have a place in the struggle. BUT. If you are going to hold a panel ostensibly on food trucks, fast food, and Los Angeles, and proceed to give a jargon-y, avant garde performance-y, totally historically ungrounded talk instead, then I say you’re a terrible person who is doing real violence to theory, to Ethnic Studies as an academic field, to food justice organizing, and to communities of color all at once. It’s not even worth getting into the details of this talk except to say that I was probably one of the few people there who’s read the Deleuze, complexity theory, literary theory and Chicana Studies scholarship this academic claimed to base their work in, as well as have had the community organizing experience and food justice politics background to boot… and this talk still didn’t make real sense. The things that one could take away from the talk, moreover, were just plain wrong and could lead to the perpetuation of more violence against immigrants and communities of color. In a word, NO. Also: please never let this person speak at this conference again. Kthanx.

  • Finally: why do white folks take up so much space? Are we speaking another language? A meditation.

Throughout the weekend, at different panels and workshops of various topics ranging from victory gardens to refugees in San Diego, there seemed to be the same group of people taking up a lot of room in the Q&A, asking the same three questions. These folks were either really peppy undergraduate students from one of the two large public universities in San Diego or older middle- to middle-upper class white folks wearing similar shades of pale clothing suitable when home gardening. I consistently saw them talking over others, shouting out questions while people of color were politely raising their hands and waiting to speak. Moreover, their questions were not always relevant to the discussion at hand, and in fact seemed to move us, always, towards the same discussions about legality (“how can we legalize these community gardens so everyone can plant a garden?”), procedure (“what is the paperwork process like to make your community garden/farmers market/fruit stand legal?”), and environmental safety (“why doesn’t your community garden/farmers market/fruit stand have organic certification? what kinds of fertilizers/water/planters do you use to keep away bugs without harming the environment?”).  These questions are not necessarily bad but hearing them over and over again really made me realize:

Many white “food justice” activists literally and metaphorically speak another language: that of “environmental sustainability” and not that of “food equity” or “food sovereignty”

I need to write much more about this, but I guess the clearest example of this was in the final workshop I attended, run by the community leaders involved with the New Roots Community Farm. There were three main speakers from different refugee communities who work at the farm– Bob Ou (Cambodian), Hermalinda Figuerroa (Chicana), and Khadija Msame (Somalian)– and a fourth speaker, Amy Lint, who works with the International Rescue Committee and has been instrumental to the continuation of New Roots. Both Hermalinda and Khadija had interpreters as they did not speak English well or at all. Hearing Bob, Hermalinda, and Khadija speak was one of the highlights of the weekend- about what farming has done for themselves and their families; of the challenges they have faced but also of the satisfaction of producing what they need to survive. Khadija especially was so fierce– even in translation, it was clear how passionate she is and about how much she wants to empower the Somalian community in San Diego.

When it came time for the Q&A, however, four older white folks asked all the questions, and they were all about the logistics, legality, and enivronmental sustainability of the farm. Some of these same folks were in earlier panels I had attended on Victory Gardens, and the questions were nearly the same. Not a single question came up dealing with the fact that these farmers are not the middle-class homeowners the green movement paints as “urban homesteaders”; there was no discussion of what makes New Roots Farm different from most other community gardens we see in San Diego— the farmers themselves. The conditions the New Roots Farmers are working in, their stakes in the farm, are so much different because of their positionality, because of their race, class, and nationality– how could this basic fact be so overlooked? Moreover,  the questions were primarily directed at Amy and not to Bob, Hermalinda, and Khadija. Did the audience members think they wouldn’t understand their questions because of the language barrier? Because of the cultural barrier? Because they weren’t trained like Amy has been, or is perceived to have been? Not only was it patronizing, it was infuriating. This kind of interaction happened throughout the conference, but this incident was the icing on top of the proverbial cake. Disappointing, definitely, but it also crystallized for me the need to continue working on food justice issues, and on getting us speaking the same language. Or, at the very least, getting some folks to be silent sometimes, and listen and learn from others.

So much for not writing a huge post– I guess I got carried away. Even with some of the disappointments, this was a fantastic event to attend– I learned so much, especially from the following individuals and groups, who deserve a special shout-out:  The New Roots Community Farm; The City Heights Farmers Market and Fernanda De Campos; N. Diane Moss and The People’s Produce Project; and finally, Lacie Watkins-Bush, whose “Race and Class Deconstruction” workshop I had the privilege of attending last year and who continues to inspire and instruct me in how to teach compassionately yet critically about race, power, and food justice. It’s definitely an educational and eye-opening experience every time, and I hope to see you there next year!

(The photos I took, above, are of farming and agriculture projects started by and for City Heights community members. Even in a food desert do flowers and plants bloom.)

Most Improved: The Linkery

Hello, lovelies. Hope you’re all enjoying the holiday… I wish I could say I was, but alas, am down to the wire on a major project so have been working through the weekend. That being said, I did make time for a date night with the Mister on Friday, and decided to pop on over to the Linkery in North Park.

Linkery just celebrated their one-year anniversary at their 30th street location this weekend, but they’ve been around a bit longer than that. Since they opened in the old space, the Mister and I have been popping by every six months or so, to see what they’ve been up to. After our last visit in the fall, the Mister and I came to a sad consensus: that, despite its aspirations, the Linkery was just failing to excite us any more.

Lo and behold, they must’ve read our minds, because after this last trip, we’re more thrilled with the Linkery than we’ve ever been before. A big part of this is their expanded menu– where it was fresh sausage all the time before, they’ve now thankfully diversified, and with great success.

Win No. 1: Seafood!

Linkery oysters

Where the Linkery once had a huge black hole, they’ve now filled with some beautiful seafood. These Baja oysters were incredibly sweet and very clean- no briny flavor, no sediment. It was served with lime and three minuets- green garlic, and two others I’m forgetting just now. The ‘pink one’ was very nice– fruit based, I think. Six for $13

Score No. 2: More weird cuts o’ meat!

pickled pigs ear

Pickled Pigs Ear. Yep, you heard me right. Hey, it was $2 and who doesn’t like an adventure? It was served with just a touch of hot sauce, a nice complement to offset the acidity of the pickling juice. I enjoyed these, but the Mister wasn’t a fan. I guess you have to be used to the texture of soft cartilage– a bit like tripe, actually.

The excellent Linkery blog had alerted me beforehand to the restaurant’s featuring of stone fruit throughout the weekend, so of course I knew we had to order this:

lonzino and peaches

Hampshire pork lonzino, wrapped around raw Snow Queen peaches, with a bit of Brooks cherries on the side and a very light splash of olive oil. $7 for three pieces (the Mister ate one before I could snap the picture) and worth it– the pork was fantastic. I actually liked the pork better without the peaches, but eaten with the cherries. That stone fruit *was* beautiful, guys. Great find.

Finally, it was time for the mains. And this is where the Linkery has really improved the most. See, in past incarnations (or at least the previous times we’ve been there), the menu has primarily revolved around whatever three or four fresh links they had for the day– you’d choose your link(s), and a preparation- in a ‘picnic plate,’ as part of a choucroute, etc. There was a smattering of other options- I think a burger or two, maybe a few interesting sides– but that really felt like it. I could be wrong, but if there were other main dish options, they certainly weren’t interesting enough for us to remember.

But now it feels like a whole new game. Several vegetarian options, an entire section for burgers and sandwiches, five or six different main entree options (and not all featuring sausage!), a section for flatbreads… I could go on. Very exciting growth, and I was so excited to keep it light on the sausage for a change. I know, it’s probably sacrilege, but since the Mister’s been making his own sausage at home, I think I’ve been getting spoiled.

Oh, right. So back to our dinner. The Mister, consummate New Englander he is, couldn’t resist the boiled seafood:

lowcountry boil

This “lowcountry boil” was the priciest item on the menu, topping out at $29, but it was a whole lotta plate for that price. Lots of fresh manila clams and slamming shrimp, along with corn, two kinds of potatoes, and a heaping helping of corn bread. They did us right and served it on a large flat tin plate, with wax paper.

As good as that was, I think my entree was the stand out of the night:

grass fed Talure beef

Tulare cherry-braised grass fed beef ($20).

Forgive the graininess of the photo (it was dark in there!) and just try to imagine succulent cuts of organic beef, with a bit of a crust but falling -apart soft, in a sauce so delicate it could be an aus jus if not for the extra bit of sweetness from the Tulare cherries. The fresh baby carrots and red potatoes were roasted to perfection as well, and just…. damn. So friggin’ good.

I made it through about half of my dish before giving up, and would’ve left it at that except for the dessert menu. I just had to try the LICS:

LICS

And that would be a Lardo Ice Cream Sandwich. With a slice of carmelized bacon on top. Um. Seriously. I think that alone was a week’s worth of cholesterol and fat intake. It tasted a bit like olive oil gelato only, you know, made with animal fat instead. So much for healthy eating! But oh, so so worth it… or at least half of it.

The Linkery’s also built up their wine and beer list quite a bit since our last visit. They have a large selection of local brews and wine– very nice selection, and I enjoyed my Cucapá Obscura beer (from Mexicali) a lot. Nice brown ale in the German style, like Bohemia and other good Mexican browns.

At the end of the night, our grand total came out to about $130- not cheap, but not bad for the quality of food we had eaten. At the Linkery, all tables pay an upfront 18% charge, so they don’t accept extra tips. If tips are left, they donate it to a local charity. Sweet deal, I think.

I’ve always really appreciated what the Linkery’s been doing for the San Diego food and bar scene. They’ve always put local meats and produce first, and cook seasonally based on what’s available at market. Now that they’ve diversified the menu, we’ll definitely be back more often. And hey, you gotta love a restaurant that’s as keen on blogging as we fatties foodies are! Pay them a visit and let me know what’s on your menu!

The Linkery
3794 30th St
San Diego, CA
619. 255. 8778

Summer Lovin’ at the Hillcrest Farmer’s Market

farmers market

Just came back from a massive fruit and veggie run at the Hillcrest Farmer’s Market, just a hop skip away from home. Though it was super crowded due to the holiday weekend, there was still plenty of beautiful produce when the Mister and I rolled in around noon.

Now, I never remember the names of the different farms selling at the farmer’s market (oops) but I do have my favorites– as long as their booth is in the right place, I know where to go! I saw some new(er) additions this time around- one of the standouts was Spring Hill Cheese Co., all the way from Petaluma. They put out tons of samples, and the goat cheddar and jersey garlic jack were delish. I held off on buying since I’ll be heading to the land of cheese pretty darn soon (I swear, I’ll get to telling you!), but I hope Spring Hill sticks around the farmer’s market for a while.

I think, though, I was most excited for this booth..

cherries

After dining at The Linkery on Friday night, where they were featuring stone fruits throughout the menu, I just needed more of these beautiful Rainier cherries. I also found some beautiful white peaches and snagged those up too. Seriously, having access to stone fruit like this in the spring and summer is one of my favorite things about living in California.

Just so you know how buck wild I got at the market today, here’s a list of the haul the Mister and I brought home:
– 3 Philippine mangoes ($1 each)– best kind of mangoes ever, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise
– bag of squash blossoms – another SoCal favorite
– 1 basket of garlic ($2/6 heads)
– six (beefsteak?) tomatoes
– bunch carrots ($2)
– bunch green onions ($1.50)
– red and green peppers
– 1/2 lb cherries ($2.50)
– 2 white peaches
– bananas ($3)
– 4 hass avocados ($5)
– small bouquet of wildflowers ($2.50)
– 2 10oz. flatiron steaks from Brandt Beef ($10 each)- also ridiculously amazing
-plus iced coffee from the Joe’s on the Nose coffee truck and the best fresh tamales in SD for a quick lunch.

Whew!

What’s your favorite farmer’s market, and what have been your best finds there?

Update: for farmer’s market newbies, a helpful video with tips for shopping your local farmer’s market is here!

Things to Say Goodbye to, pt. 1: Sweet Balls of Dough

I’ve vowed that this summer will be the summer of good eating. I’ve made a commitment not just to putting as much fresh, non-processed foods into my body, but to also be cutting down on red meats, fats, and all those yummy things that are no good for my waistline. It’s going to be a challenge, since this summer I’ll be living someplace well known for particular indulgences (more on that later!), but one that is long overdue! (I’ve been cooking tofu more and more often, people. This is huge.)

So, a fond farewell to you, yummy donuts at Donut Haven, that faded-pink Vietnamese-owned donut shop in the strip mall in Hillcrest. You were a lovely treat on occasional Sunday mornings, but you will have to go.

No more peeking into the glass counters, seeing what was new and fresh for the day…

P1020506

Goodbye to walking in with the Mister, ordering two pieces each of the doughy deliciousness, and while carrying the red tray with sweets over to the table, being told by a very drunk and disheveled old white man that “of course you could eat all of that, since all women are greedy whores.” Ah, the memories, so sweet…

P1020509

I will always remember trying to eat more than one donut or eclair or other treat at a time, and miserably failing… unless the donuts were plain glazed, in which case, I would emerge the champion. A battle for the ages, no longer.

P1020510

Oh, Donut Haven. How much will I miss thee. Your donuts were so good that I would brave your perpetually burned, scalding-hot coffee served in tiny cups with no insulation, and the barrage of drunk bums that like to frequent you as well, any hour of the day and night. Goodbye, goodbye. I do hope that you’ll find new friends to replace me soon. Something tells me you already have…

Donut Haven
420 Robinson Avenue, Suite F
San Diego, CA 92103

Easter Brunch @ Alchemy

I just love food-related holidays. Yes, I know it’s an oxymoron of sorts– don’t all holidays involve food of some kind?– but you know that some are better for fatties foodies than others. Thanksgiving, obviously. Christmas dinner, for those of you of the Jesus persuasion.

For my family, Easter brunch was the motherlode. First, it was the only holiday during which it was perfectly acceptable, or even preferred, to not have to cook the food ourselves. This gave us free license to hit up the biggest Easter buffet possible, and load up without having to prep, cook, or (most importantly, from a child’s perspective) clean at the end of it all. I’m sure this may be different in the motherland (aka the Philippines) but for my Americanized family in Florida, hitting up the buffet at the Hilton was where it was at.

No surprise that out of all the weekend brunches in the year, Easter brunch is my favorite.

Unfortunately, it’s also notoriously overpriced, and even the most humble of local establishments is packed to the gills with other holiday eaters looking for some brunch, too. The Mister was tasked with finding a suitable brunch location this year, and when he told me he’d booked reservations at a new place he found on Google, I have to admit I was a little skeptical.

Alchemy is the newest resto in South Park, the gentrifying neighborhood that everyone’s been saying is going to “blow up any minute now” (in the positive sense, not the combustive), for the past several years. Especially in this economy, though, any new place in the neighborhood is going to have to work very hard to keep people coming, and it looks like the Alchemy folks are pulling out the big guns to make this place happen. (Forgive me for all the violent metaphors, I’ve been reading about war all morning for the class I’m teaching on Monday).

The space itself is beautifully designed– it’s a very open yet still intimate space, and with a lot of custom features from the undulating mahogany bar to the giant silver sculpture in the middle of the room. [I particularly liked the bathroom sinks, myself]. We were seated in a back corner table, and though the restaurant was nearly full, I wasn’t distracted by other guests’ conversations at all (a pet peeve of mine and the Mister’s like no other).

For Easter, they put together a very generous 3-course prix fixe menu: $25 for three tapas/appetizers (you get all three), a choice of entree, and dessert. For an additional $10, they were offering a beverage pairing (with generous pourings, too).

Here were the three mini-appetizers (I hate saying tapas, if it’s not the real deal). For this course, I had a passion fruit bellini, and could actually taste the champagne– yay!

Alchemy granola

The deconstructed granola was delicious, but very difficult to eat. I felt like this was a Top Chef challenge, and could imagine Colicchio berating them for unnecessary pretension. I also would have preferred a plain yogurt, as the strawberry flavored variety actually masked the flavor of the real strawberries and fruits on the plate.

Alchemy omelette

A Spanish omelet, prepared in a traditional manner. I don’t know if this was intentional or just a matter of poor execution, but the omelet itself was nearly flavorless unless eaten with a good handful of greens, which were drizzed in a nice olive oil and vinegar with seasonings. If nothing else, it made sure that the Mister ate all his veggies, which is a near-impossible feat.

Alchemy asparagus espresso

A white asparagus ‘espresso,’ with bacon cracklings on top. I just had to laugh during the presentation of this– our poor waitress kept trying to convince us to eat it “despite its unique presentation,” as if soup served in small drink containers had never been tried before! A reminder just how behind San Diego is in terms of food trends– I actually find this trend to be both passe and, again, totally pretentious. The soup was delicious, however– perfectly seasoned, just the right temperature for sipping, with the bacon adding just the right among of texture and saltiness. By far the best starter of the meal.

Then it was time for the mains. There were about five different options, if I remember correctly, ranging from more breakfast-y choices to the more savory. As our reservation was on the later side (1pm), we went for the heavy stuff. The Mister’s choice:

Alchemy shrimp and grits

Shrimp and grits. Very large, grilled shrimp over a bed of very smoothly pureed grits. Shrimp were very fresh and flavorful, and the grits well seasoned though a bit too smooth for my taste. Alas, nothing will ever compare to the texture of the grits at Cochon— how I still dream of them!

And my choice, paired with a standard Rioja (nothing special, but solid):

Alchemy lamb

A leg of lamb, with mint-infused couscous as the side. This dish was… how do I put it? Oh, yes. Amazing. Falling off the bone, with a beautiful glaze. I’m not quite sure, but it tasted very much like it was cooked Moroccan-style in a tagine, especially with the way it was presented with the couscous. The couscous was a bit too minty for my taste, though it too had great texture. I really liked this twist on the American classic ‘lamb with mint’ which I’ve never found particularly interesting.

After I finished demolishing my lamb, it was time for dessert. The Mister went with classic beignets, served with powdered sugar and a dash of chocolate. A bit on the small side, but maybe we are just too used to Cafe du Monde’s!

Alchemy beignets

I decided on a cheese plate, despite my love of sweets, mainly because I wanted the Madeira that would be paired with it. Imagine my disappointment to receive this plate:

Alchemy cheese plate

Totally monochromatic, with no bread, olives, oil, or anything resembling a pairing. Really? Honestly, even saltine crackers would be better than nothing. Remedial cheese plate rules were broken in so many ways here. There was one soft and three hard cheese with very similar taste profiles, and while the cheese itself was fresh, I was bored by the second bite and had it boxed to go. I would rather eat these at home with my accouterments than have the empty calories and no satisfaction at the restaurant. I truly hope this was a fluke and they had an off day with the cheese– otherwise, they need a lesson from a cheesemonger, stat!

Tragic cheese plate aside, I was very pleased with our brunch at Alchemy, not the least because of the price. We’re planning on returning soon for dinner, especially to try more of the beer and spirits from their impressive bar. Another selling point: their kitchen is open late, until 11pm most nights, and serving until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays! How I miss late night dinners out, another thing San Diego is still behind on doing.

Alchemy’s a new restaurant, and I’d love to see them thrive. You can tell from the care put into the space alone just how much of a labor of love this restaurant is.

Have any of you been to Alchemy? Share your comments here!

Alchemy
1503 30th Street
San Diego, CA 92102
619.255.0616

for the love of sushi

I’m on a roll lately (excuse the pun), so I thought I’d share some pictures of the last fantastic sushi I had at San Diego’s own Sushi Ota. It’s generally accepted knowledge that this is the sushi joint to go to in San Diego, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The Mister and I went here on my birthday last month, and I gorged myself accordingly.

Typical starters: miso and seaweed salad. I knew I’d be getting a lot of fish, but damn if I can’t resist a good seaweed salad.

ota-miso

ota-salad

Silly me, I didn’t think to sit at the bar and order the day’s specials from Chef Ota himself. Next time, next time.

What we did have: chirashi for the Mister, a nigiri sampler for me. The toro and blue tail tuna were magnificent, melt-in-your-mouth out of this world good. The salmon roe was literally bursting with flavor, and from the presentation to the preparation these dishes were perfection.

chirashi-ota

sushiota1
(Pardon the lighting in these pictures, it was quite dim inside!)

And the uni… where do I start with the uni? Another picture– ignore the rest of the washed-out photo, and take a look at that bright yellow gorgeousness:

uni

I don’t think I’ve ever really enjoyed sea urchin before; there are just too many bad examples of it in most Japanese sushi joints, and most of the time I would never bother. But here, it was exactly right: full of that ocean taste without the briny-ness, with this pillowy texture and mouthfeel I can’t even begin to describe properly. Oh, I will dream of that uni for many days to come.

Best of all, the bill at Sushi Ota was incredibly reasonable for the quality– under $120 for the sushi, starters, and a bottle of Mukku sake (delicious and well balanced, by the way) including tax, before tip. It was hardly more than any other sushi restaurant here in San Diego though it is leagues ahead. And you know we would easily have spent twice or three times as much for far inferior product if we were still living in New York. Some days it really is good to live in Southern California.

Sushi Ota
4529 Mission Bay Drive
San Diego, CA 92109
858.270.5670

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