Six Hundred Quarters

Is Quarter Kitchen the proverbial riddle wrapped in an enigma? The glam new high-end restaurant at the Ivy Hotel has been getting loads of "buzz" -- but the buzz-tones range from the happy murmur of honeybees in clover to the snarls of angry wasps. With a menu that's all over the map and prices that range into painful territory, it was bound to generate controversy. You can eat there without breaking the bank (in fact, that's one way to taste some of the best dishes), but a full three-course feast runs about the same as an equivalent dinner at El Bizcocho or A.R. Valentien -- around $150 per person, 600-odd quarters, even without indulging in Caspian caviar.

Is it worth it? Depends very much on what you order and whether or not you're attached to having an entrée rather than a whirl of appetizers. The huge restaurant has a few little high-style annoyances, enough to tip the rating a quarter-star downward (the food averaged 3.25), and some dishes went thud. But the good ones were very good indeed -- and the best were splendid. (Later, I'll propose a flexible plan for a light, sexy dinner to yield maximum pleasure for a relatively gentle price.)

We headed out on a Thursday night to avoid the weekend Gaslamp zoo -- the Lynnester, Fred, and a new Bay Area transplant whom I'll call Kent as his nom de restaurant. The crowd that evening was sparser and less swanky than I'd been led to believe. The only people in long, backless gowns were the hostesses. Nobody else was dressed to the nines, although some young women on dates, true to Gaslamp fashion, wore frocks starting low on the bosom and ending high on the thighs. ("You could say they're dressed to the threes," said Fred. "One-third dressed.")

The decor is spacious, chic, and comfortable; many tables afford a view of the bright, glassed-in open kitchen where you can watch cooks sweating over a hot stove. The ambient lighting is considerably dimmer, so it can be difficult to read the menu. The tables, slightly too cozy in size, are preset with "chargers" consisting of square, shallow wire baskets the size of dinner plates. Chargers generally strike me as pompous remnants of the Gilded Age, and these, especially, hindered reading the menu and wine list, while sadistically enforcing the ancient rule, "Mabel, Mabel, strong and able/ Keep your elbows off the table." You have to wonder whether restaurant designers ever try eating at tables furnished with their brilliant concepts.

The chef is British-born hotshot Damon Gordon, an alumnus of the English and American kitchens of legendary French chefs Michel Roux, Alain Ducasse, and Claude Troisgros, arriving here fresh from a stint at New York restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow's splashy Japanese-oid Ono. (Reviewing the last in the New York Times, Frank Bruni awarded it one star for "good," noting that it seemed like a theme park where "gimmickry trumps gastronomy" and complaining that the menu ran off in too many directions at once. I do wish, though, that Gordon had transplanted Ono's fabled "parfait" of foie gras mousse, sea urchin roe, and plum wine gelée to San Diego.)

Dinner began with good breads (including plain and seeded baguette slices) and ice-cold unspreadable butter squares (small annoyance #3 or #4, I lose count). The "amuse" was a tasty, warming demitasse of potato-horseradish soup. Then the killer appetizer arrived in a bent wrought-iron sculptural stand, cradling five caviar "tacos" -- but not tacos as you know them from the 'Bertos. These had shells of supernal delicacy, made of wafer-thin slices of potato (slow-baked, then flash-fried) curving around a lush filling of American paddlefish caviar, robed in crème fraîche amended with horseradish, red onion, and chives. (You can opt for endangered Caspian caviar, but the lower-priced spread was glorious as well as virtuous. It's from Tsar Nicoulai, probably the most expensive and highest-quality brand of paddlefish roe.) A mouth-filling combination with light, sensual textures, this was food for the gods, and I'm sure Poseidon and Yemanjá would be tickled blue by it. Lynne and I each wanted a whole portion to ourselves and would come back to Quarter Kitchen for that alone.

Salmon tartare is potentially a delight, despite an artsy-fartsy presentation that sacrifices flavor for visual flash. Three narrow, legless parfait-glass "vases," suspended in an armature, display ingredients layered from top to bottom: crème fraîche scattered with golden tobiko, raw chopped salmon and chives, and mashed avocado. In a tray at the bottom of the device are toasted baguette slices to spread the mixture on. The problem? Diving in from the top, your first two spoonfuls are nearly all crème fraîche, the next several spoonfuls are all salmon, and you don't hit the nouveau-guacamole until nearly all the fish is gone. If the elements were layered on a flat plate instead, you could taste this engaging combination of flavors simultaneously. Next time, I'll scoop the contents onto a bread plate, making heaps of each major ingredient to commingle at will.

A spicy crab soup is rich, rewarding, and decidedly pungent with hot chile oil in a thin coconut-milk broth flavored with Kaffir lime and laced generously with fresh-tasting crab hunks. Alongside are a pile of miniature spring rolls the size of lipsticks, stuffed with spicy crab, yet oddly dry and dull.

The revisionist Caesar salad disappointed us. Replacing the raw or coddled egg of the classic dressing is a whole, allegedly soft-boiled egg. But our refrigerator-cold egg was medium-cooked to solidity, yielding no sploosh of warm yolk. There were plenty of anchovies, though -- not the standard pink slivers but thick, pickled white ones from Spain. Instead of bite-sized croutons, there were long, toasted baguette slices, which I guess you're supposed to break up yourself if you want them mixed with the greenery and dressing. The Parmesan played a cameo role -- maybe we got shorted on it. We wished we'd ordered the manic-sounding "Kitchen Sink" salad of lettuce, shrimp, artichokes, "crispy" Brie, pancetta, etc., instead, or the Caprese with fried green tomatoes as well as red heirlooms. Another salad's sly anthropological title, "The Raw and the Cooked," tickled us but didn't tempt us as much. (Will we see a "Triste Tropiques" mango-and-durian combo on next summer's menu?)

The menu is divided into multiple mini-sections (sounds like Ono, no?), and one of them is devoted to Japanese Kobe beef, the most marbled, tender meat you can imagine. I've read raves about the restaurant's Kobe sirloin slices, cooked by diners on a hot stone at the table. It costs $18 an ounce, minimum four ounces. That's beyond my budget, given that four of us would probably want eight ounces ($144), so we ordered Kobe carpaccio instead ($28). As some anonymous food savant has observed, "Raw is the true rare." The paper-thin slices were buried under a heap of baby arugula, shallots, and Parmesan cream. My friends complained about the garnishes obliterating the meat, and so when the plate finally reached me, I pushed the greenery to the side to eat alternately with bites of straight-up beef. The meat was soft as room-temperature butter, the (now-separate) garnishes tasty. You don't get a lot of beef, but I was glad to taste Kobe raw to finally experience its essence. (There's also a Kobe tataki, lightly seared, for $26.)

Yet another appetizer group, labeled "Enough to Share," highlights upscale pub grub. Along with popcorn shrimp and BBQ lamb ribs, it includes two publicity-grabbers to lure young scenesters: One is a quartet of sliders -- two miniature Wagyu (American Kobe) beefburgers and two mini-lamburgers. The other is a 20-inch Kobe beef hot dog at $1 per inch (made especially for the restaurant by their meat company). We weighed these possibilities, quietly chorusing the old R&B hit "Big Ten Inch" (halving the hot dog). Ultimately, though, we passed in favor of appetizers that would show off more cooking creativity than media-grabbing skills.

As at so many other restaurants, the mains are minor compared to the starters. A lobster pot pie was far better than other local versions I've suffered, loaded with succulent hunks of real lobster meat (not trash "knuckle meat") in a tarragon-spiked lobster-cream sauce under a light, well-made crust. It somewhat resembled a crusted lobster thermidor, minus the sherry. Its root vegetables (parsnips, pearl onions) were toothsome, although softer species (e.g., asparagus) sogged out. But we all felt that the sauce's near-slutty richness called for a touch of one more darker flavor to focus it and balance out all the cream -- Hoisin? Soy? Maybe even thermidor's retro sherry? (But I'm not the chef; it's his job to come up with some smart solution.)

"Blackened" hamachi was gorgeously done to a tender, pearly opalescence -- a rarity around the Gaslamp, where even fishhouses often end up defaulting to Zonie preferences for fish cooked "through" (and through). The sweet-hot red miso glazing sauce divided our table between the spice-heads and the mildies. Fred and I loved it, while Lynne and Kent thought it overwhelmed the delicacy of the yellowtail filet, which was plated over a heap of wok-fried vegetables that pleased us all sufficiently, if none ecstatically.

Having just enjoyed El Comal's $8 chicken mole, we decided to pass on the deluxe version for $28, no matter how much research and talent the chef brought to it. But after the summer, when heavy fowls like duck tend to vanish from menus, the honey-glazed roasted half duck with local orange marmalade sounded attractive. The marmalade was earthy and interesting, but the Muscovy duck, normally a fine little bird (if not so fatty as the Long Island Pekin), failed us. It arrived in two pieces -- one of them dry, tough, and overcooked, the other medium-rare but still dry and excessively chewy (possibly a result of roasting too fast at high heat). Along with a tiny patch of spinach, the duck came with an abominable little potato cake that tasted as if it had flunked the quality-control patrol for a frozen Salisbury steak dinner. Bad dish, bad! Heel!

Since steakhouses are rampant locally, we didn't really want to order a steak, but we did, because a large menu section is devoted to them and we wanted to cover the bases. "The Prime New York strip is the chef's favorite," said the waitress. (Had the menu mentioned that all its steaks are genuinely dry-aged, I'd have said "the heck with the chef" and chosen the rib-eye for its deeper, gamier flavor.) The strip was fine, tender, rare to order, with a pleasant, thick deglazing sauce. Better yet, we ordered a side of truffled fries for it. They arrived slim, soignée, and piping hot -- the irresistible highlight of our entrée chapter. "It says something -- and not something good -- when a steak is the best entrée," Kent reflected. "Steak tells you nothing about a chef's skills. Anybody can buy a good piece of Prime, and unless they're an idiot and overcook it, it'll always come out good."

Negotiating the thick wine list was a chore -- lots of exorbitant boutique bottlings I've only vaguely heard of and very little that was affordable (i.e., under $50). I lucked into a terrific New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Sacred Hill's "Sauvage" ($37). It was typically crisp and very dry, with a fresh-grass aroma, but a richer fruit undertone than usual for the Marborough region, which normally runs straight to grapefruit. For the entrées, we wanted a Pinot Noir, and a California winery called Lynmar furnished a well-balanced bottle for $56. (It even went with the hamachi.) But the best strategy, considering those interfering wire chargers, is to pore over the wine list on the website before you go. Deep into its pages, there's a group of undervalued whites from the Loire region (Muscadets, Vouvrays, etc.) and another group of reasonable reds among the Côtes de Rhones (which oddly enough, cost less than California and Aussie Syrahs and Petite Syrahs of the same general taste profile).

All desserts are made in-house, and under the influence of owner Mike Kelly the list is rife with kiddie treats -- warm donuts, s'mores, cotton candy cones with bubble gum ice cream, frozen PB&J ice-cream sandwiches coated with Rice Krispies. Bypassing the baby food, we chose a cherry cheesecake on a chocolate crust. It was rich and dense, good if you like heavy cheesecake. A baked Alaska flamed at the table with Malibu coconut rum had mango ice cream coated in coconut cake and shredded-coconut meringue that tasted oddly like that commercial marshmallow goop in a jar. The best ending was my strong, slightly bitter, very Italian-tasting decaf espresso, and Kent liked his decaf cappuccino so well, he decided to skip his customary sugar. Compliments to the skilled barista -- he keeps his machinetta very clean.

Quarter Kitchen is clearly a restaurant aiming to be everything to every taste. That's why the buzz is so dissonant. At its core, there's some really good stuff when you wipe away the cobwebs of glitz. So -- what would I order here for an affordable light dinner for two (or perhaps a ménage à trois)? I'd start with two portions of caviar tacos ($48, worth every cent). Next, I'd choose any two of the following: East Coast--West Coast raw oysters (six for $16), a shared bowl of spicy crab soup ($16), Kitchen Sink salad ($18) and/or salmon tartare ($18). Finally, a filler-upper of the mini-burger quartet ($24) along with those luscious truffled fries ($10). That comes to about $116 for a couple or a threesome (before wine, tip, and tax). Feeling a little more flush, substitute four ounces of the legendary stone-cooked Kobe ($72) for the sliders, for a total food bill of $164, or split the hamachi ($38 or so), if you like spice. You wouldn't need a big, pricey red for any version of this menu; a Vouvray, Muscadet, or New Zealand Sauvignon would do the job. You'd eat remarkably well for much less than we spent and dance out lightly. If you choose the lavish over the large, Quarter Kitchen can richly reward you.

ABOUT THE CHEF

Executive chef Damon Gordon grew up in Ipswich, a medium-sized town (about the size of Escondido) near London. His chef aspirations started early. "It's a bit of cliché, but I always remember my mom baking," he says. "She was a very good cook, I remember watching her do that, and that's where the love affair started. I wanted to be a professional soccer player, which most kids do when they're growing up in England, but I wasn't good enough, so I turned my attention to cooking. I went to a local cooking school, did two years there, worked in a couple of local restaurants, and once I graduated, I moved to London, which is where it's happening, of course."

Early in his career, the chef he was working under recommended Gordon for a position at chef Michel Roux's famed three-star (Michelin) restaurant in Bray, the Waterside Inn. "I spent three days in a stage, a trial period, and they offered me the job," Damon says. "Obviously that was the real turning point in my career. Once you go to work in a three-star, you learn something new every day. Use the best ingredients, the best techniques, the 100 percent dedication every day when you work in a place like that.

"After that, I moved back to London, spent a little time working for Marco Pierre White, then I...got to work for Alain Ducasse at Spoon in London. I got transferred to the U.S., and I went to Miami first, Claude Troisgros's Blue Door at the Delano Hotel, and then the hotel management company transferred me to the Royalton Hotel in New York City in July 2001, just before 9/11. I consider New York my home. New York either pushes you away, or you want to be there forever...I was there for about 18 months, until a close friend asked me to go back to the Delano to fill in, and I went back for just over a year -- you always learn there -- but I still wanted to come back to New York City. I came back to run Mix in New York for Mr. Ducasse for a year, and after that I spent 18 months running the Gansevoort Hotel [Ono]. I learned a lot about contemporary Japanese cuisine. Always loved Japanese cuisine, I finally learned about the cooking side of it. It was a real eye-opener.

"But all this time I'd been under the same management company, called China Grill Management. I thought it was time to look and see what else was out there. I met a headhunter working for a search firm in Beverly Hills, and a week later he called and told me about the project at the Ivy. After several meetings in various cities, I had a fantastic meeting with the owner, Michael Kelly. His passion, his vision for the property -- I was pretty much offered the job on the spot. I came to San Diego for a weekend, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

"We want to give people a broad scope -- of simplicity, of sophistication. We don't have everything and anything on the menu, but if someone wants to have a Caesar salad and a grilled steak, we have that. Or if you want to go more decadent and have caviar, we have that. For people that are health-conscious, we offer a sashimi of the day. We wanted to bring something new to San Diego. That was the whole plan of it."

Damon is not one of those executive hotel chefs who hides in an office writing menus. He's still out on the line nearly every night. "I'm a cook first. Me and my executive sous-chef plate everything. We touch everything before it goes out." His philosophy of food? "I like simple things -- I don't like nine, ten ingredients on a plate. I don't like to mask things. I like to accentuate the ingredients we have on hand. I like tradition, but to execute things in a little more contemporary way."

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