A Legend Reborn

Stingaree

454 Sixth Avenue, Downtown San Diego

(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)

One of the hottest new spots is Stingaree -- a giant (22,000 square feet) disco palace with a serious restaurant on the first floor, under the charge of chef Antonio Friscia (previously at Alfieres at the Sheraton Harbor Island). Stingaree draws its moniker from an old nickname for the lower Gaslamp Quarter. In the Gilded Age, the Stingaree was San Diego's version of the Barbary Coast -- a shady playground for nonstop sin: drinking, gambling, and consorting with ladies of the evening. (At least two of these "entertainment enterprises" were owned by the legendary Wyatt Earp, of OK Corral fame.)

To check out the latest Stingaree, two hot blondes accompanied me and my partner -- my colleague Provvi, a tall, elegant foodie interested in the decorative arts, and our neighbor Heather, a slight, outspoken interior designer. They both looked over the room with interest, pointing out the combination of old and new trends.

The latest restaurant must-haves include a water wall behind the bar -- the one here extends to the second floor. A wrought-iron staircase rises three floors to the mezzanine-level nightclub and rooftop patio (open free of cover charge on Sundays as a hangout for the hungover). These mingle with colors and shapes reprising corporate design of the postwar '40s -- neutral rectangular color blocks (battleship gray, olive drab, parachute pink) and, framing the booths, patterned mahogany and cream plastic cornices. Nonetheless, we were comfortable at our shiny table for four, which was roomy enough to fit six without crowding.

The evening started quietly with soothing world music, moved on to mellow '50s jazz, segued into Latin dance beats, and finally, heavy-pounding club music -- '70s disco reborn. As people eat, drink, and talk -- and as the place fills -- the party grows loud. Did I mention this was a nightclub a full month before it gained a kitchen? The week we ate there, a dermatologists' convention was in town, and the stentorian skin docs at the next table were letting loose like schoolkids on spring break. (They were not discussing the skin trade -- not in the medical sense, anyway.)

The menu's attractive folder provides a short narrative on the historic Stingaree district. Headings speak Italian and run to several pages, with sections titled Piccolo (soups, salads, small appetizers), Mezzo (medium-large appetizers), and Piu Grande Di Mezzo (entrées) -- plus Verdura (veggie sides) and Dolci (desserts). Within each category, items are identically priced. (The one exception is a line-caught sea-bass entrée with a $10 surcharge.) Bread is baked in-house and comes with a bagna (olive oil with tomato purée) dip, which gave us time to search for something refreshing on that hot and muggy night.

We chose a couple of dishes from the Piccolo, bypassing tempting-sounding soups -- even (over my severe objections) a chilled vichyssoise (potato-leek cream purée) topped with sevruga caviar, vetoed by my tablemates for its potato content! I should have ordered it anyway, with a signing statement that I would take home any leftovers. (I later learned that it's one of chef Antonio's personal favorites. Darn those skinny blondes!) Instead, an inspired combination of long, tender-firm grilled asparagus spears and torpedo onions arrived on a torpedo-shaped platter with strips of savory red peppers laced through the stalks and toasted almonds arranged geometrically alongside.

A wholesome salad of Chino Farms greens was sized for four to share, showcasing red wine-poached pear slices, whole hazelnuts, and crostini of toasted Italian bread slices spread with mild, tangy Robiola cheese. These were scattered among assorted ultra-fresh lettuces dressed in a delicate Sherry vinaigrette. Everyone agreed it hit the spot.

The Mezzo section offers some of the most interesting dishes. Especially the "Duo of foie gras" -- a stunning contrast between an elegant poached torchon and a seared slab of fowl liver. The torchon was extraordinary, up there with Tapenade's benchmark version: an ethereal marshmallow texture that melts in the mouth, plated atop a brioche crostini. The seared piece, on the other hand, was a thinnish slice on an overtoasted slab of bread. It was cooked dark and -- to my tastes -- dry, reminding me of Aunt Frieda's chopped liver pâté.

Ménage à Trois is a mixed fry of calamari, Atlantic scallops, and prawns, served with a garlicky Meyer lemon aioli. The herbal batter is so airy it's hard to believe it includes any calories, and the mixture is spiced with slivers of hot cherry peppers. (Make sure you have plenty to drink on hand.) The squid pieces include tentacles as well as rings, and along with the other critters, it arrives tender and stays tender. A Sicilian shrimp and crab cake also held a jolt of chile, plus corn kernels. "I like fishy flavors," said Provvi, herself Sicilian, "but this is too fishy. I don't know why. I think it's the crab they're using." It tasted like good-enough lump crab meat to me, although there was more filler and salt than I prefer. Maybe the addition of shrimp jangled her taste buds.

At the chef's last outpost, Alfiere's, Friscia made a thin-skinned ravioli stuffed with braised short rib meat. (It'll be on Stingaree's menu in the colder months.) It was a knockout. So is the Porcini Ravioli here -- but at the wrong end of the punch. In this version, the ravioli skins were as thin as I expected but...what the heck was in the stuffing? None of us much liked the mild-mannered mushroom mousse that barely plumped out the shell. The sauce combined morels, asparagus, and mint in a light, pale broth. While it reads like a roster of champion ingredients, everyone decided the dish was down for the count.

The Piu Grande Di Mezzo (entrée) choices for summer include six meats, five seafoods, and two birds. Although chef Friscia grew up in a family of San Francisco fishmongers (their motto was "Friscia Fresha Fisha!"), red meat seems his strong suit. As part-owner of Stingaree, he has full purchasing power and serves pedigreed natural meats from the likes of Niman Ranch and Vande Rose. The Kobe Australian flat-iron "steak frites" was a hit. Served very rare as ordered with a peppercorn demi-glaze, it was toothsome -- especially for a cut that's often tough. (The burgers are Kobe too, chuck steak ground in-house.) It came with fragrant fries sprinkled with truffled salt, Parmesan, and parsley. "I've never tasted fries with these flavors before," said Heather. "But they're a little mealy, like McDonald's fries," my partner said. "Cooked crisper, they'd be fabulous."

Caramelized George's Bank scallops from New England are precious diver-caught specimens some evenings, common dry-pack other nights, depending on what's available. Ours were cooked to opalescence, but evidently we arrived on a dry-pack night -- they lacked that touch of freshness you get from diver. They came with a Meyer lemon-saffron beurre blanc and a clever mixture of watercress and premium bacon, which earned thumbs-up all around.

A harpoon-caught swordfish from local waters was also perfectly cooked, but the texture of the great white slab of fish was mushy. "If this was spear-caught," said my partner, "they must have used one of those exploding whale harpoons." It was bedded atop a combination of diced organic celery and savory fresh shell beans. "I like these a lot," said Provvi. "I wonder where he got these beans?" (The answer: Chino Farms.) Alongside were cooked sun-dried tomatoes and another handful of truffled fries.

Most disappointing was a stuffed half Onagadori chicken. This small Japanese breed, carefully raised on natural feeds, has become a craze among conscientious high-end chefs, the poultry equivalent of Kurobuta pork and Kobe beef, so I was eager to try it. (Last winter, Friscia used these birds for a critically celebrated coq au vin, which he plans to bring back this fall.) Here, it was stuffed with wild rice and served with porcini mushrooms, garnished with brunoise (diced vegetables) and sauced with Madeira jus. There were just two problems, but they were serious. Most of the rice, although nicely embellished with diced carrots and onions, was underdone -- not just al dente but potentially tooth-breaking. And the chicken was overcooked until dry. The meat and skin were beautifully suffused with herbs and had a wonderful flavor -- but four of us barely made a dent in it. Additional garnishes were roasted yellow Chinese carrots, a small roast red pepper, and a heavy, stemmy length of choy.

Although every plate comes with vegetables, we had to try one of the à la carte sides, specifically something called "pimped-out potato skin." This is a baked Kennebec, Maine, potato -- hollowed out and refilled with steamed russet flesh; olive oil-roasted porcini mushrooms; Boursin, Gruyère, and Appenzeller cheeses; topped with minced chives and Italian-seasoned focaccia crumbs. (Don't try these at home, kids, unless you've got a great grocery and all day to cook.) The texture was soft, not puffy or crisped. Nice concept, but more comfortable than exciting to taste -- like pimping out your daddy's Buick.

Antonio is a master sommelier who oversees the wine list. Most of the bottles are on the pricey side, but there are affordable gems. "We need a white! And not Chardonnay -- something light!" begged Provvi as I was looking over the list. "Viognier? Entré Deux Mers?" I proposed. Then I spotted a Vouvray, a slightly sweet Chenin Blanc from the Chateau country on the chilly banks of the Loire. Now that was the nectar of heaven we needed on a sultry night.

All the desserts are made in-house under the supervision of pastry chef Wenny Santos. Provvi needed a chocoholic fix so we ordered the espresso cake -- a great choice. It's based on an Oreo cookie crust and drizzled with caramel coulis, while the body is tall, tan, and dainty, just sweet enough for after dinner. "What do they mean by a 'Rangoon'?" asked Heather, seeing Banana Rangoon on the menu. We ordered it to find out that it was a spin-off on the old Trader Vic hors d'oeuvres of a similar name, based on fried won tons. Here, instead of cream cheese, the filling is baked bananas, and the whole concoction is coated in chocolate-caramel sauce. I liked the crispness of the wrapper, but overall the flavors were predictable.

A berry panna cotta was controversial. Arriving drizzled with a red berry sauce, the creamy rectangle was rich and heavy. "It tastes more like custard than like panna cotta," said Provvi, who's grown up eating the ethereal Italian version. "Mom's vanilla pudding," my partner added. The waiter agreed, too. "It tastes more like a flan than an airy panna cotta," he said. "I've talked to the kitchen about it, but this is how they want to make it." (I learned later, though, that the dessert contains no egg; the berry flavoring and heavy cream are cooked down, giving it heft.) Both the coffee and espresso proved subpar, served cold and bitter.

This is a good place to graze and hang with the gang. It's still a nightclub at heart -- the noise can be overwhelming, and sometimes the food is underwhelming -- perhaps cooked hurriedly to meet the demands of high-volume, high-proof alcohol consumption (is this not the Stingaree?) and diners who barely focus on their plates. But depending on your expectations, it can be a real party.

ABOUT THE CHEF

"Growing up in a family in the seafood business, our lifestyle revolved around dining. The meal was the main event of the day. My dad, Tony Friscia, is in the wholesale fish business in North Beach. His slogan is 'Shellfish Delish,' and my grand-uncle Louis Friscia had the 'Friscia Fresha Fisha' trucks you still see all over San Francisco. I grew up delivering fish to the back doors of the great restaurants...and that's what got me interested in becoming a chef.

"I went to culinary school at San Francisco City College, and then I studied at Scuola Albergheria in the Veneto region....Then I worked and traveled in Southeast Asia and was influenced by its spices and ingredients. After working at a lot of restaurants back in San Francisco, I had my own place in North Beach, Buca Giovanni, from '94 to '98. We served a lot of game -- rabbit, wild boar ravioli...it was fun."

His wife's family is in San Diego, and when she got pregnant in 1998, Antonio sold his restaurant and the couple moved here. Chef Antonio quickly found work as executive chef for all the restaurants at the Sheraton Harbor Island Hotel, accepting the job on condition that he could eventually create a restaurant following his own concepts. That restaurant came to be Alfieres.

Stingaree represented a new opportunity. "It made me an owner as well as a partner," says Antonio. "That was the one big draw -- I got a piece. And we're a group of younger people that are interested in doing more than just one place, so there were going to be opportunities for growth within the company, and a lot of challenges.

"It's a much different environment. We're still over- shadowed to some extent by the nightclub, and it's much busier than Alfieres, which was all à la carte. Here we're also a banquet facility -- we've done events for as many as 2000 people. But I have a lot of freedom to structure the menu; that was another draw. At Alfieres I had freedom, but the structure was strictly Italian. Here I can bring multicultural influences to the food."

I asked if chef Antonio still did any cooking on the line. "Of course," he answered. "All the recipes are still developed by me. I still go out to the farms -- Chino's and so forth -- personally, every day, before I leave for work. I'll never be the corporate kind of guy where I'm not catching the food. I have to cook. Mainly I like to use Italian and French techniques, and then using the freshest, highest-quality ingredients that I can get my hands on here in San Diego. But honestly, I think San Francisco is more of a food playground because it's a hub of distribution.... The chefs down here generally get second choice of the quality, because so much of it comes through there and gets scooped up...There's just more available up there. But a lot of San Diego chefs have started pushing the big purveyors to support the local farms, Crow's Pass and other small farmers in the Fallbrook area, and they're finally starting to respond."

His plans for the future? A strictly catering facility above Sidebar is under construction now. "And we have plans to do a restaurant in Hillcrest, more of a neighborhood place. Stingaree is still big and loud; this would be more of a low-key diners' environment, with a global, home-style feel, comfort food from all over, and the restaurant completely blocked off from the lounge. And I want to be open late there, to give an option for the [restaurant] industry people to go to after work. I'll still oversee things here, but I'll probably spend most of my time up there."

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