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Bright Brit Bites

Jaynes Gastropub

4677 30th Street, North Park




A "gastropub" sounds a lot like a gastropod (e.g., snail), which literally means a creature whose stomach (gastro) is in its foot (pod). (It must be a very diplomatic animal, as one hates to think what would happen should it put its foot in its mouth.) A gastropub, in contrast, is a newish coinage referring to a modern British-style pub that feeds its patrons something fancier than steak and kidney pie, plowman's lunch, and the ever-appalling bangers 'n' mash as ballast for copious pours of ale.

Jaynes Gastropub, one of the new neighborhood spots springing up in North Park, wears its Britishness proudly, with a Union Jack draped across one of the off-white dining room walls. The rest of the decor is less "warm, cozy pub" than "redecorated coffee shop" -- a modest-sized room with large mirrors, handsome vintage-style flooring of small hexagonal tiles, bare wooden tables (mainly two-tops), and small, unpadded wooden chairs that exemplify the stiff-lower-hip style of English design. There's an open kitchen at the end of the bar in the adjoining front room. There may not be much to excite the eye, but with all the hard surfaces bouncing every noise, you get an earful. The background music adds to the denseness of the sound mix, but I couldn't discern the music's genre over the general din. The place has become such an instant hit with neighbors and food bloggers that on a Thursday night, we could only reserve for either 6:30 or 8:00 -- and rightly so. By 7:00, nearly every table and barstool was occupied.

All our starters proved delightful. Fried calamari were crisp-surfaced with a light breadcrumb batter and tender, juicy meats. "Normally, I'm not a big calamari fan," said the Chocoholic Samurai, reaching for another ring, "because they're so chewy." "I'm with you," said Michelle. "These are exceptional." They come with both a tasty housemade tartar sauce dotted with capers and a superfluous cocktail sauce.

Gambas al ajillo, a classic Spanish tapa of shrimp sautéed with garlic, includes the unclassic south-of-the-border addition of minced hot red Serrano chiles. Jim and I enjoyed the lively flavor, but it was too spicy for the Lynnester, since it blew away a dish she much preferred, a creamy white bean dip gently flavored with roasted garlic, to be spread on thick slabs of pain levain bread from Bread & Cie, which (according to Charles Kaufman, the bakery's owner) is a naturally leavened (sourdough) loaf made from organic whole-wheat flour. "Do you think this bread is a bit overpowering for such a subtle-tasting purée?" Michelle asked the rest of us. Good question. We tried some on the lighter, thinner grilled baguette that came with the shrimp, and indeed, that bread let the dip shine more clearly. "Maybe they worried that people would find the purée too bland, so they serve it with a hearty peasant bread," said Lynne. Tending to confirm this supposition was an accompanying ramekin of soft oblate spheroids -- South African "Piquante Peppadew" red chiles pickled in a sweet brine. The peppers left a pleasant afterburn on the tongue.

A salad of organic mixed greens with slices of fresh blood orange, dressed in a slightly sweet shallot vinaigrette (which tasted as though it included blood orange juice) pleased us all. Its garnish was a slice of baguette toast spread with mild, creamy goat cheese.

We all know how many restaurants with interesting appetizers proceed to flop on entrées, as though the chef's energy and imagination were spent on the starters. Jaynes flopped harder than most. If the appetizers were cosmopolitan, the entrées were comfort foods like Mom's -- when Mom's cooking is no better than commonplace.

After the sensitive treatment of the squid, we had high hopes for the fish and chips, which some blogs have praised. But the fish here is not cod, nor any similar light-fleshed traditional species; it's sea bass, dense and steaklike. Not even the Newcastle ale in the batter could lighten things enough to make it a fit frying fish. The medium-thin French fries were ordinary; after a few nibbles, all hands abandoned chips. Tartar sauce reappeared, along with Heinz ketchup. Malt vinegar, traditionally sprinkled on everything in this dish, is supposed to arrive automatically and would help a lot; that slamming evening, our table didn't receive it. The best item on the plate was a ramekin of ravishing sugar snap peas sautéed with garlic.

All meats and fowl on the Jaynes menu come with pedigrees -- the cows and pigs are free-range and well raised by Niman Ranch, known for humane, wholesome husbandry practices. The chicken is free-range as well. That busy night, they all came to a bad end -- not just dead but lifeless, with dry, chewy textures. The pork porterhouse (which should be tender, from the cut next door to the tenderloin) was cooked to our specification of medium rare (pink) but nonetheless was a labor to masticate, while the black-eyed peas were tough from undercooking. (Al dente beans are apparently trendy lately. Eww.) The stringy braised short ribs would have benefited from another hour in the pot with more liquid, at lower heat. They came with baby root vegetables and smooth, seductive garlic mashed potatoes, plus a Port wine--reduction gravy -- a great dish lacking only great meat. The herb-roasted chicken pieces (heavy on breast) were boring, including the couscous they rested on, and the raw greens decorating the plate looked like lawn-thatch and tasted like Bermuda grass.

"This must be English cooking," said Michelle. "Aren't they famous for bland food?" "And fiery curries at the zillions of Paki restaurants that they flee to for an escape," I said. "But this stuff doesn't taste much like what I ate in London 25 years ago, back before the English started to serve more exciting stuff than roast beef in high-end restaurants. This is more like my mother's cooking, and except for her mashed potatoes, she was a terrible cook. At least Jaynes does well with fresh veggies, compared with both my mom and the Brits."

Helping us make it through the night was Tammy, a bright, genuinely professional waitress. She not only memorized our complicated order but had tasted all the wines on the list and could describe them as articulately as a Wine Spectator columnist. Her description of the Lo Brujo Macabeo from Spain ("lively, dry, slightly spicy -- it goes very well with our cooking") and the "velvety" Laird Cabernet were right on the money. Wines are served in Reidel stemless glasses -- top-notch but informal glassware that's apt for a gastropub that takes atmosphere lightly and wine seriously.

The meal took an upturn again with the desserts: Butterscotch lent renewed interest to the creamy crème brulée. A bittersweet, nut-studded chocolate brownie was irreproachable, although its topping of vanilla Gelato Vera was more a distraction than an asset for chocoholics Samurai Jim and Michelle.

Michelle ordered coffee and was unimpressed enough to douse it with cream and sugar. Upon tasting my decaf espresso, I let out a loud "gaak!" worthy of Cathy, the comic strip neurotic. The others, masochistically curious to sample the substance that had provoked this passionate reaction, begged for sips. "Gaaks!" followed the demitasse around the table. "Tastes like used coffee grounds," said Jim. "Maybe the coffeemaker needs cleaning," said Michelle. I've been taking espresso black since age 14, but this was a desperate case. "Maybe if I add sugar, I can turn it into a café Cubano," I murmured, pouring in a packet of Domino. Still yecchh. I stirred in a packet of brown sugar and was poking around for a package of Splenda when Lynne said, "That coffee is going to turn into a solid." I gave it up. Later, it vengefully kept me up until 5:00 a.m., decaf or no.

The moral of the story: Jaynes is a charming neighborhood spot to sample interesting wines or brews and graze on appetizers until you're full -- or maybe have a burger if you're really hungry. What's good here is really good. But forget the pricey entrées for now and skip ahead to dessert. Above all, don't even think about espresso. If it doesn't make you wish your stomach were in your foot -- at the far end of your body from your mouth -- I'll make like an embarrassed gastropod and eat my shoe.

ABOUT JAYNE

There is, indeed, a Jayne. Owner Jayne Battle is the devastating blonde who presides at the bar and serves some of the food at busy times. "I came here from San Francisco about three years ago, after I worked for a lot of different restaurants there as a server and a bartender. I eventually gravitated more toward the kitchen -- just really fell in love with food. It's an easy city to do that in.

"I relocated here to be back with my family and saw that San Diego could use more good restaurants. I'm originally from Liverpool, England, but we emigrated when I was eight years old, and my family settled here. The gastropub idea came from...I was back in London a few years ago, and I saw how the pubs had been redone -- instead of the usual steak and kidney pie, now they have really nice menus. And a lot of young couples were taking them over and redoing them this way, these great old spaces. It seemed like a good concept. I wanted something that felt casual, with a nice atmosphere, but I also wanted to pay attention to the quality of the food. My father's involved as well. He would have liked something more like a real pub. So we compromised on a gastropub.

"I had worked at Parallel 33, and I hired a chef from there, Daniel Manrique. He does the cooking from a menu I put together with him. I sometimes cook, but I'm more out on the floor nowadays. These are just dishes I love to cook at home. I want quality comfort food. We use Bread & Cie breads, Niman Ranch meats -- I fell in love with them when I was in the Bay Area -- and we try to support local businesses, like, we use Cafe Moto coffee, Gelato Vera for ice creams and sorbets, although we make all our other desserts in-house."

Jayne and her fiancé did most of the work to convert the premises from a run-down coffee shop with concrete floors to its current incarnation, including the Victorian floor tiling. "We wanted San Francisco charm. We put in the tiling, the tin ceilings." I asked her about the noise. "I've been reading up on it, and Paris brasseries put in tile floors deliberately to get a kind of lively sound level, but a lot of people have been asking us about it. We're thinking about getting something behind the mirrors and such to soften the noise a little. And we're going to be opening up the patio in a couple of weeks, with heaters, so that should become a nice option and spread it out a little and help with the noise, when a lot of the people are outside."

About the paragon waitress: "I used to work with Tammy at Parallel 33. She's a dream, so professional. I stole her from there -- I had to have her. She's just really into it, someone who has a passion. I always take her along when I'm doing wine tastings; she gives great input."

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