San Diego "Taste this," said my partner, handing over a forkful of his braised New Zealand Tai snapper. "What is it?" There were four hunks of snapper (or what looked like it) on his plate. This particular bite was flat, grill-marked, and suffused with sauce, but the texture was too firm to be fish. "That's -- uh, let me check," I said, pulling out the mini-menu I'd stashed in my purse at the entrance to Molly's. "Aha! It's Bread & Cie olive bread toast! It just looks and tastes like fish because it's sopped up so much of the seafood sauce." "You know," said my pard, "this chef is clever. I think we have a winner here!" The two snapper fillets proved to be a bold-flavored species, boldly garnished. One was crowned with a garlic-rich chervil aioli and shaved raw baby fennel. The other was topped with melted leeks and a zesty tomato-fennel seafood sauce, enriched by the juices of the clams and mussels served alongside.
That's when we went from enjoying the food at Molly's to falling in love with it. There's a new chef in town, Brian Sinnott, who's cooked at some of San Francisco's best eateries. Although the menu at Molly's looks short and simple, featuring California cuisine with a slight French tilt -- nothing there to scare the horses or the relatives from Duluth -- what comes from the kitchen is a long way from cautious hotel-restaurant fare. This entrée confirmed that the cooking at Molly's is not merely delicious, but as intelligent as it is sensual. The combinations are sharply conceived, not mechanical -- there are culinary crosswords to enjoy, taste-teasing mysteries to solve.
Of course, finding the restaurant is a bit of a puzzle in itself; this dauntingly vast hotel ought to post "U R Here" maps at every elevator. Once you arrive (let the doorman point you the way), Molly's is cozy and clubby, with sweet holiday decor. A gingerbread house, surrounded by multicolored lights and guarded by a gnome-size chocolate Santa's elf (with the face of calypso singer Black Stalin), welcomes you to the carpeted semicircular dining room. The linen-dressed tables with their comfortable captain chairs are well spaced -- if you overhear nearby conversations, it's because some people just talk louder as their evening goes along. For larger parties there are a few banquettes and several half-circle booths seating six or more. Prints and oils with a jazz theme hang on the walls, and high above the center of the room is a recessed ceiling mirror, fun for spying on fellow diners across the way. The table settings are functional: pairs of identical forks and knives, so nobody has to worry about which implements to use for which course.
The holiday crowd at Molly's is non-glam and non-local -- a combination of conventioneers in their business duds plus visiting aged parents in pastel suits, dining with their adult offspring. There are signs of caring from the moment you sit down. The service is unfailingly friendly, and everybody seems to do everything needed -- even the bartender and the sommelier will step in and wait on you when the wait staff is pressed.
The table bread is an assortment from Bread & Cie, served with Plugra butter slabs, and the appetizers are true harbingers of what's to come. My favorite is fried squash blossoms, in the airiest batter, plumply stuffed with ricotta and flecks of fresh basil and plated atop basil-infused olive oil. At the other end of the rectangular platter are sweet corn kernels from Chino Farms strewn on arugula leaves. The chef is smart to keep the corn separate, because it would be lost in the stuffing. Unfortunately, it's not available every night, because the early-bird crowd often gobbles the entire supply, so call ahead if this is your heart's desire. A mayo-dressed Dungeness crab salad similarly showcases its main ingredient without fussing. The perimeter of this heap is decorated with rectangles of apple and white-rinded, red-hearted Chinese "watermelon radish" (shinrimei -- "beautiful in the heart").
A luscious starter of "hand-cut" pappardelle features a cupful of house-made rectangular pasta, rolled very thin and sauced with sautéed chanterelles, pancetta, fresh spinach wisps, and shaved pepato, a sweet-flavored peppered sheep's-milk cheese (from Sonoma's renowned Bellwether Farms) that melts into a hint of cream sauce. This is a dish you normally find only in top-hat Italian restaurants.
As I recall, Alice Waters wed baby beets to warm goat cheese back around 1974, and ever since, the pair have been inseparable. Here, the cheese takes the fresh form of a miniature soufflé served at room temperature, with lean but creamy Laura Chenel chevre melting inside a firmer shell. Bathed in citrus vinaigrette, bicolor beets hunch at the other end of a plate decorated with microgreens, tiny Mandarin orange segments, and the inevitable balsamic slick. They taste almost as good as the soufflé, but the couple has run out of conversation during its 30-year marriage. It's time for an amicable divorce, or at least some outside fooling around.
Other too-familiar appetizers (which I was too bored to try) include Caesar salad and caramelized pear salad with watercress, candied walnuts, and bleu cheese. You'll also find the chef's favorite starter, a revisionist tuna tartare mixed with playfully reshaped elements of a classic salade Niçoise. I'm sure these are as advertised.
Unlike the many chefs who spend all their imagination on the starters and then go dim, chef Sinnott's entrées are the climax of the meal. Pan-seared Maine diver scallops reveal his baroque side: Plump, juicy bivalves sit atop celery-root purée, mingling with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (which resemble tiny brown chickens with ruffled feathers) and cubes of butternut squash, which look enough like carrots to be a happy surprise when you bite into them. Parsnips appear in the mix as both cubes and frizzles, and tiny brussels sprouts play a part, too. Sneaking around the edges are golden pools of buttery "thyme jus." None of these choir members are superfluous -- all voices thrill in this oratorio of ingredients.
A loin of lamb is simpler but no less compelling as literal food for thought. Served rare to our order, the lamb was crusted with a tapenade of herbs and crushed black olives, lending dark complexity to a simple grilled protein. It came with fresh Bloomsdale spinach and a "cassoulet" of flageolet beans studded with bits of braised lamb shank and spicy Tunisian-style merguez (lamb sausage). At ordering, I feared the cassoulet might be splotted all over the plate; instead, it is contained in a four-inch porcelain quiche dish, topped with toasted bread crumbs. While the loin tastes young and clean, the pieces mingling with the moist beans are fattier and more mature-tasting. The combination forms a multifaceted culinary portrait of a young sheep.
The Autumn Vegetable Tasting is too tempting to pass up -- a virtual Horn of Plenty. Four small square plates arrive on a square charger. One square holds two plump, thin-skinned ravioli filled with butternut squash and Parmesan, garnished with butter-browned chopped hazelnuts and a crisp, fried leaf of fresh sage. (Do nibble the sage between pasta bites; it's not there just for looks.) In another square sits pumpkin "risotto," made not of rice but of pastina pasta, which is lighter in texture, the size and shape of barley. It's flecked with fine-minced parsley and arugula, as well as diced pumpkin, and bathed in a savory broth of butternut squash, tomato, and basil. Baby brussels sprouts gain interest from a Parmesan cream sauce and a scattering of capers -- a balance of earthy, smooth, and sharp flavors. Last is Tuscan (lacinato) kale, which we found a little leathery and bitter. We supplemented this tasting plate with a side dish of tender sautéed spinach cooked with garlic, with a lemon wedge to season it yourself.
As we were finishing our entrées, I overheard a gent in a business suit at a nearby table demanding customized accompaniments to his filet mignon. "I don't want all that fancy stuff, I just want mashed potatoes," he was saying. "Well, we have a side dish of buttermilk-mashed Yukon golds," said the waiter, pointing to the menu listing. "Are those potatoes?" asked the Suit. I felt a little sorry for the chef, whose art would go unappreciated, but sorrier for the man.
The aptly named sommelier, Lisa Redwine (who doubles as room manager), is in charge of the wines and beer. The list is long and interesting, sidestepping all the tedious top-shelf supermarket bottlings you see at so many Cal-cuisine restaurants. The range runs from glasses to slips to bottles to magnums. Bottles run steep, but when you order by the glass, the wine arrives in a small carafe that's worth two normal pours, enough to see you easily through one course and into the next. When we had to wait at the bar for a table one evening (we hadn't reserved), I sipped the house Chardonnay, which comes from a small Santa Barbara vineyard called McManus. Soft, fruity, but with oaky backbone, it's a wine I'd love to have in my fridge.
Renowned German-born dessert chef Rudi Weider makes the pastries for the entire hotel. Among other impressive credits, he was pastry chef for the Reagan White House. Weider specializes in the exacting and rather frou-frou desserts that I imagine Nancy Reagan would favor for state dinners. The dessert sampler for two ($18) is probably the best way to partake of his craft, a panorama that includes rich, custardy vanilla bean crème brulée; a rather heavy, mousse-like espresso panna cotta; a simple trifle of mixed berries and whipped cream in a narrow parfait glass; a white peach financier cake with whipped cream subtly sprinkled with pepper, and -- best of all, to my tastes -- an airy passionfruit mousse cake. If you like Valrhona chocolate (which even as semi-sweet tastes like milk chocolate), it's the star of a molten chocolate cake. The popular favorite is bananas Foster, cooked at tableside with sparks shooting from the flambéed liqueurs. The coffee (local brand Café Moto) is good. With some sips of red wine left, I enjoyed a cheese plate -- you have a choice of over a dozen cheeses, served solo, or as a trio or a quintet. Just say "bing" when you hear one that sounds good to you, until you reach the number you want. The plate includes several complimentary fruity nibbles.
In its new incarnation, Molly's is a hidden San Diego treasure. Let's take it back from the conventioneers and make it our own.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Molly's is a long-standing restaurant, but until this year it was a mess. Chefs changed almost annually, turning out old-fashioned Continental hotel-food menus, until Steve Pagano, restaurant manager of Arterra at the Carmel Valley Marriott, was promoted to general manager of the Marriott Marina. A Northern California foodie, Pagano cast an eye on Molly's and decided it needed major changes -- starting with a serious chef and a house manager, so it could fulfill its role as the "fine-dining restaurant" of the huge hotel. Last April, he hired Brian Sinnott as Molly's chef and a few weeks later brought in Lisa Redwine (another veteran of San Francisco restaurants) to serve as sommelier and restaurant manager.
"I grew up in New Jersey," says Brian, now aged 34, "and my mother's family was Italian, so I've always been around good food. Starting at age 14, I worked at a grocery, dealing with produce, and developed my passion for food, starting with fresh produce, and that's what I try to highlight on my menu. When I change the menu, what drives it is the changing seasonal produce. Then I go down to fish, then meats.
"I majored in sociology in college, but during grad school in criminology in D.C., I said, 'Grad school isn't for me, I just want to keep on cooking.'" He moved to San Francisco in '97 to work in "the food capital of America" and did stints at Stars (where Jeremiah Towers was still marginally involved); Acquarella, under chef Suzette Gresham, who mentored him; and MC Square, under Japanese chef Yoshi Kohima. After the dot-com crash killed that restaurant and many others, he worked at small inns in the Sonoma County wine country (where he picked up on the hand-crafted local cheeses) and returned to the city for a longer gig at downtown Scalia's, where he learned to make pasta from scratch.
Eventually, via a girlfriend who wanted to move south, he landed in San Diego, quickly snagging the chef de cuisine job at Molly's; later, he moved to a rental in Golden Hill. "I'm very happy here," he says. "I plan to stay. I have complete freedom to do anything I want." The only problem is that he still has only four people in his kitchen, mostly new, and he needs one more hand since his food is labor-intensive, given the complex preps and handmade pastas. "Since I started working here in April," he says, "I've changed the menu about every six weeks, with seasonal fish and produce."
Arterra's San Francisco-educated chef helped him learn the local foodways. "Steve [Pagano] introduced me to Carl [Schroeder], who showed me around, introducing me to local produce and fish purveyors, like Chino Farms and Valdivia Farms (where I get my squash blossoms) and Bread & Cie. I'm still new here, so there are still people I want to meet, places I want to go. I don't have the contacts yet to get hooked up with all the local guys.
"My dishes are things that go together for a reason. No bullshit on the plate, just things that go together -- things that make sense."