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Cats' Night Out

Soleil @ K

660 K Street, Downtown San Diego




My partner was still hors de combat with food poisoning from the latest flunk-out café, so I met up with Lynne and Sheila, our Aussie friend, at Soleil @K. If we'd had a Samantha to join us, we could've been Sex and the City -- The Sequel. (Actually, I'd need to take off some pounds and years to play Carrie, but you get the idea.) Cheryl was going to come, too, but had to back out to take her cat to the vet for last rites.

Soleil, on the ground floor of the new Gaslamp Marriott, is spiffy-looking, with lots of shiny chrome, walls the color of a mustard-mayo mix, and an open kitchen. Half the seating is at long communal tables where you can share a meal with strangers, assuming any strangers are present and you want to eat with them; the rest consists of cozy booths and small tables. But we saw not a soul eating inside, merely two couples on the sidewalk patio. You could tell by their outfits that they were from Tucson: Bermudas. One wife sipped soup, while the husband ate pasta; the other pair were finishing a pizza. That didn't look promising, but Lynne had enjoyed a meal here a few months back, and I remembered that early reviews had been favorable.

It was a balmy evening, not yet dark, and the music inside was too loud for our taste, so we, too, chose the patio, facing a street that's deeply quiet if there's no game at Petco. But the quiet ended abruptly: As we settled down, the staff turned up the piped-out music to party volume. While we were engrossed in talk of former cats we'd known and loved, the waitress delivered menus. "What will you have to drink? Do you need a wine list? You ready to order yet?" she blurted. We wanted the wine list. She whizzed away and promptly returned with both it and the bread plate.

We gnawed on a length of San Francisco-style sourdough served in a waxed-paper bag printed large with the restaurant's logo. It came with a mixture of parmesan cheese, lemon peel and extra-virgin olive oil, with cloves of roasted garlic to squish onto the bread -- a nostalgic echo of the roast-garlic fad that swept Bay Area bistros some 15 years ago.

We'd barely started to choose a wine (we were concluding our cat-chat) when the waitress popped back, STAT. "I know, I know, you're catching up on each other. What'll you have?" she said with undisguised impatience. I spotted a Brancott Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand ($22) and recalled its weed-free, grapefruity flavor -- good with seafood appetizers. Sheila, who's a wine expert in her spare time, approved. The waitress riposted, "Have you tried the Cakebread?" (a bottle costing considerably more). "Yes, many times," I said shortly. (Not that it's bad, but I'm bored with big Cal Chardonnays.)

As a New York minute is to Trinidad Time, so our waitress was to the group's preferred pace. We shooed her off again while we perused the menu of simple Cal-Mediterranean standards. I searched in vain for the dishes that had won earlier critics' plaudits. Nearly all had been lopped away, particularly luxuries such as foie gras and oysters. The omen presented by Zonies eating pizza proved true. "People were staying away from those items, so we took 'em off the menu," the chef later told me. The appetizers were reduced to a half-dozen salads and a few Cal-cuisine staples like steamed mussels and crabcakes. The "velvet garlic soup" was still listed, but it was too warm out for hot soup.

Lynne had enjoyed a fried calamari salad on her previous foray, and its recap that evening was our best dish before dessert. Tender batter-fried squid rings and tentacles were touched with a squirt of lemon juice and served amid a tangle of arugula, frisée, and halved cherry tomatoes in a zesty "Louis"-style dressing of tomato-spiked aioli. "These flavors just keep on giving," said Lynne.

The crabcakes are made with Dungeness, my favorite of the species. The plump pair were luscious -- nearly all-crab, bound with lemon aioli and a touch of panko. Served over avocado mousse, they were festooned with microgreens and more cherry tomatoes, as sweet as home-grown. But you have to eat the cakes while they're still hot and gooey: As they cooled, the mayo and salt seized dominance over the delicate seafood.

A pleasing but unfocused salad featured a multicolored array of heirloom tomatoes amid cucumber batons, baby radicchio leaves, and a mild champagne vinaigrette. Something vital was missing: The menu advertised fresh basil, but it was colorless, odorless, and tasteless. (It's odd, but when restaurants are near-empty, food and service often suffer. Too little stress, I guess.) Next day, I added a handful of the missing herb to the leftovers, along with a shake of balsamic, and the dish suddenly coalesced.

The next menu segment is devoted to half a dozen wood-fired pizzas. Since this town boasts the ubiquitous Sammy's, specializing in that very item, we passed and moved on to "hand-rolled pastas," choosing veal cannelloni. "Oh, great! That's our newest dish!" exclaimed our waitress with frightening enthusiasm. (As soon as she turned her back, we speculated on the possible causes of her over-amped condition.)

Cannelloni are traditionally made of crêpes rolled around a light, creamy veal forcemeat filling. Here, they seemed to be thick pasta sheets joined at the hip to rubbery provolone cheese -- not a separate layer of melted cheese, but fused to the skins, which were glazed with a sweet tomato-and-Port reduction sauce. Inside the wraps, minced veal bound in floury béchamel sauce was spiked with aggressive bits of smoky pancetta (tasting more like Southern country bacon). Alongside was a haystack of naked frisée, filling up the white space on the plate. "What are we supposed to do with that?" I asked rhetorically, poking a fork at the bitter heap. "Beats me," said the Lynnester. "I hate frisée. I don't get the point of it."

The showpiece entrée is a whole striped bass. "You understand it's a whole fish? With the head on?" asked the waitress. We nodded. "We get a lot of people here who freak out seeing the eyes," she said. "The native cuisine of my race is Chinese restaurant food," I reassured her, accidentally breaking into rhyme: "Since the age of three, I've looked at dead fish eyes, and they've looked at me." Then we gave her a chorus of the San Diego seafood-eaters' summertime mantra: "We're not Yuman! Don't overcook it." "We never do," she said, and proved truthful.

The tender bass swam in a thin, tasty tomato-garlic sauce, wearing crisp slices of fried fennel, which we gobbled down at a speed approaching that of the Lynnester's Boxster. Sheila cautiously took a bite of fish, assessing the exotic American species. "It tastes like -- dirt," she mused. I had to admit that it did have a faintly muddy undertone, like catfish. Subsequent research solved the riddle: Wild striped bass live in freshwater lakes, enjoying a diet of mosquitoes, dragonflies, waterbugs, et al. But this was farmed, pond-raised bass (hence that "dirt" taste), fattened up on Purina Game Fish Chow. It takes five pounds of fish food for each pound of weight gain, so what we had on the platter was about 12 pounds of chow transmogrified to fish-flesh, looking pretty but tasting funny.

A pair of thick Colorado lamb loin chops were grilled to medium (versus our "medium rare" order), sprinkled with herbage and set atop "five onion risotto" and something called "mint gastrique" -- vinegar and sugar cooked down to a syrup and flavored with fresh mint and shallots. "Too bad they're using American lamb," said Sheila. "It's fatty, compared to our Australian and New Zealand lamb." She was right, mucho fat was on and all through the chops. Lynn nibbled a little rice. "The best risottos -- I can't stop myself, I eat them till they're gone. This, I can take or leave." It was thick and glutinous, sweet from the mint syrup. We ordered a side dish of wild mushrooms as accompaniment. They were nice and wild, a mixture of small chanterelles and baby shiitakes sautéed in butter.

I'd turned the wine list over to the expert Sheila to choose a bottle that would go with our entrées. (With fish, pasta, and lamb arriving, it would be a challenge.) When her first choice turned out to be unavailable, the sommelier -- a nice young man from St. Louis -- came to our table to discuss a substitute. "I'm studying for my sommelier exam next week," he confided. "I can't just enjoy drinking wine now, I have to memorize. It's torture." Sheila tortured him some more, the two going round and round before agreeing on a Beckman California Grenache (about $10 higher than the original choice). It proved lively, jammy, not so much a match to the diverse entrées as an harmonious additional flavor.

The dessert course is where Soleil's chef shows his wit. Lavender-blueberry ice cream vanished fast, the perfumey sophistication of the herb twining around the Down East tart-sweetness of the berries, fascinating us into something like greed. A "mile-high lemon meringue cake" offered six inches of airy layer cake, surrounded by coconut syrup and topped with the sorbet du jour, an exotic strawberry-fig mixture. "Coffee and Do-Nuts" proved to be a Krispy Kreme bread pudding served in a coffee mug, topped with espresso gelato. The pudding tasted exactly like a melt-down of Krispy Kreme donuts. "Why do Americans like those things so much?" asked slender Sheila, who's an ER nurse by trade and appalled by the threat to our general health. "They're just terrific when they're hot off the line at the bakery," said slim Lynne. "Irresistible! But if you buy them at the grocery, they're disgusting -- when they're cold you taste all the sugar and trans-fats." Lynne and I (with Sheila abstaining) ravished the pudding for three or four spoonfuls, stopping when it cooled enough to lose the krispy-kremy magic.

We started post mortems at the table. "The entrées were kind of boring, but I'd probably come back for appetizers and desserts," said the Lynnester, to general agreement. Just then, the waitress returned, cutting short the discussion. Slapping the bill on the table, she didn't even ask if we wanted to box up the leftover lemon cake. I managed to take it home anyway, but if I told you how, I'd have to kill you.

ABOUT THE CHEF

"I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania," says Executive Chef Stephen Clickner. "In high school, starting at age 14, I got summer jobs in restaurants. I worked my way up from washing dishes to prep to finally working on the [cooking] line...I wanted to learn more, so it was either go to school or become an apprentice. I was accepted to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America], but I chose instead to become an apprentice under Chef Sigler at Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, at the Westin, which was a five-diamond resort. It's the same program as at cooking schools -- a three-year program with the same curriculum -- but I had the benefit of being one of eight chefs instead of one of 20 students to a class. I stayed on Hilton Head cooking in fine-dining restaurants there. Then I transferred to the Westin in New Orleans and stayed there for about a year. Ended up moving to San Francisco and working at Postrio for a little bit.

"Then I worked for a company called cb5 for five years." [The cb5 group is a corporate food-consultant which hires itself out to hotel chains and similar businesses to develop menus and recipes, and in some cases to run the restaurant after opening. For instance, they were in charge of Rice at the Hotel W for over a year, but sold it back to the hotel chain last fall.] "I opened up a bunch of restaurants for them, and I worked at the W here for a while. When they sold Rice back to the hotel, I left and took a year off to relax and regroup. I was tired of moving. I wanted to grow up, find a home, be more stable. Then cb5 called and told me about the opening at this hotel. At the beginning, cb5 designed and developed the Food and Beverage Department here, but they have nothing to do with the operation. One of the draws for me was that they wanted an independent restaurant at the hotel. I wanted the benefits of working for a large company, while still having the independence to do what a restaurant needs to do -- change quickly and evolve -- as well as running the day to day operations."

I asked about the disappearance of luxury appetizers from the menu. "It's the clientele we were getting," he answered. "We scaled the menu back to make it more user-friendly for our clientele. Our whole thrust now is to educate the staff so they really understand the classic techniques -- how to sauté, how good the meat comes out when you braise it until it's falling off the bone...Everything is house-made except for the bread. We went back to the basics of our culinary life, and developed a menu that had all the different styles of cooking, all the different techniques, and we brought in a young staff that we could train, that was still excited about learning. And we want to carry that to the front of the house as well -- to educate the clientele as to why you can't get a medium-rare braise. We've actually had people ask for shortribs braised rare.

"We're trying to be a place that will appeal to locals as well as conventioneers and vacationers. It's sort of been a roller coaster. Some nights, when the hotel isn't full and there's no game at Petco, we're slamming all evening. Other times, when the hotel occupancy is high and there's a game, we won't be busy at all, but the garage will be full up."

What are his favorite dishes on the menu? "I love the garlic soup, and the short ribs, and the whole fish. And the risotto. I just love risotto."

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