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Modigliani Mussels, Absinthe Fountain

Currant

Sofia Hotel, 140 W. Broadway, Downtown San Diego




The current may have swept away the Currant I reviewed glowingly a year ago, but it hasn’t drowned the restaurant’s civilized atmosphere. Last spring, big-shot chef Jonathan Pflueger departed (assisted by a gentle kick in the rear) for reasons that were top secret for all of two minutes, until the online communiqués spread from foodie to foodie and from blog to blog: At the California Restaurant Association annual gala awards banquet, said chef and his girlfriend weren’t just pixilated — they were obnoxicated. Not only were they seen out of the banquet, but the next day, the chef was tossed out of his gig. He was a terrific cook, but embracing his demons in front of the whole local restaurant industry was a tad indiscreet, no?

An interim chef was swiftly found, and the restaurant’s focus changed from Cal-Continental to “American brasserie.” By now, that chef has also left, replaced a little over a month ago by Michael Rubino, most recently executive chef of the local branch of Napa Valley Grille. “He’s so talented and was so stymied there by corporate restrictions, I was thrilled to get him,” says restaurant manager Sanjay Parekh. This review is actually terribly premature — I didn’t know until the day before my deadline that Michael was such a newcomer. In this short time, he has changed the kitchen organization and the breakfast and lunch and bar menus but has only begun to remake the dinner menu — where the three best appetizers are his own. He’s been fiddling with the interim chef’s entrées but hasn’t had time yet to thoroughly revise or replace them. No surprise, then, that the new appetizers are better than the old entrées.

I was drawn back to Currant by two reports: The Lynnester (always first on the scene, unless Ariana beats her to it) had eaten there recently and liked it enough to urge me to try it. And the local “newspaper of record” reported with total inaccuracy that the restaurant was offering a weeknight three-course menu for $30. Well, sorry, it isn’t. Once opera season starts, they’ll have a three-course “early bird” discount dinner, but it’s not there yet. On Monday nights, selected wines are half price, but the bad news is that most of the wines on the half-price “Bon Marché” list are very expensive — like $200. We did dig up a few interesting under-$50 bargains, but in general, if you’re on a budget, you’re better off with the regular wine menu, which has lots of affordable choices.

Yet, Currant remains one of the most pleasurable eating places in town, handsome and well run. The visual style is deliciously Parisian Art Deco, with high ceilings, black-and-white flooring, a well-populated but mellow center bar, and comfortable banquettes at most of the tables. The ambient music offers classic ’50s and ’60s jazz played softly, the mellowest of bebop, with lots of meditative alto or baritone sax, all in perfect tune with the decor. The restaurant had me at “Moanin’.”

Our waiter was a paragon, not just competent but kindly. He knew most of the answers to our questions, and when he didn’t, he’d ask somebody rather than try to snow us with BS. He seemed to share our enjoyments, making us feel as if we were collaborating to make the best possible dinner, as though money weren’t even involved.

Currant is one of a few local restaurants to serve absinthe, now that it’s legal again. The myths about the fabled potion, nicknamed the “Green Fairy,” were that it was mildly hallucinogenic, slightly poisonous (due to a substance called thujone, a component of wormwood, from which the drink is distilled), and rapaciously addictive. It was famously a favored intoxicant of Paris bohemians, including Oscar Wilde, poet Charles Baudelaire, artist Amedeo Modigliani, et al. In Edgar Degas’s famous painting, L’Absinthe, the subjects look like nodding junkies — haggard, sickly barflies. You could say the painting was exaggerated tabloid reportage: According to Wikipedia, the male model was drinking coffee, and the woman may have just eaten some bad lobster pot pie. Absinthe is no more hallucinogenic or poisonous than any other distilled liquor, although it is quite strong (45–75 percent alcohol by volume). However, the lore about its inspirational and destructive powers and its popularity with the artistic class inspired France (and soon afterwards, the U.S.) to ban it around 1915, when the country needed more healthy cannon fodder for World War I, not happy poetic drunks getting blotto in cafés. If hipsters love a recreational substance, however benign, repressive governments are sure to take up arms against it. (Absinthe did remain legal in other countries, including the British commonwealth — perhaps because it was not that popular there.)

It’s still powerful and tastes exotic. One glass sufficed for our foursome — we quickly learned that absinthe dothn’t make the heart grow fonder. A sugar cube in a small slotted spatula is set over a cocktail glass under a slow-dripping “absinthe fountain” of ice water. The brand they’re serving at Currant isn’t very green; it’s what’s called white absinthe. When the liquid turns cloudy, drink at will. You can see why hipper-than-thou would-be addicts (in thrall to an earlier version of 1970s-’80s “heroin chic”) loved it, since the procedure is as ritualistic as cooking junk in a spoon and tying off veins — something to provide ceremonial order and structure to the chaos of real life. The flavor is crisply herbal, anise-like, but less resinous than I expected. It’s not a liqueur but liquor.

It was fun to taste the myth at long last, but once our wine arrived, we abandoned the last few sips in favor of a lively $38 half-priceable white called “G-Licious” from G Cellars in Napa, a Chardonnay-Sauvignon blend. It certainly hit the, uh, spot. For the entrées, we chose a Santa Barbara Cabernet Franc from that list, called “Vixen.” Sounded sassy, tasted sassy, and proved extremely food-friendly, fruity, and fun to drink.

Dinner began with yeasty warm rolls and too-chilled butter that was sprinkled with coarse red sea salt from Hawaii. Our first course — all dishes from the new chef — was our best course. In the heirloom beet salad, the marinated red beets are just an excuse for the main attraction, an alluring, melted leek tart garnished with a big white pouf of fromage blanc (France’s version of queso fresco), all lightly touched with basil oil and balsamic reduction. For posse newcomer Micki Two (real name Michelle, but not the same Michelle as Jim’s regular squeeze), this was the evening’s best dish.

We all loved the moules frites — black mussels in an intriguing, slightly tart and dark-flavored broth based on Sauvignon Blanc, assertive herbs, and that trendy new condiment, fennel pollen. The ingredients created a sinuous and sophisticated new flavor that somehow evoked, for me, the Parisian bohemia that used to drink absinthe — a Modigliani for the mouth. You get fries with that, of course, and they’re narrow and good for as long as they’re hot.

Caramelized five-onion soup is a whole new twist on the classic, and it’s heartbreakingly wonderful. It’s actually a meat soup, filled with tender shreds and bites of short ribs among the very sweet onions and tangy liquid, plus (somewhere) black truffles. Instead of the traditional melted Gruyère, it’s topped with a crouton spread with roasted beef–marrow butter. If I wanted a light but utterly fulfilling dinner (or breakfast!), this soup, along with a warm buttered roll and a glass of wine, would do it for me — and for those 50 million Frenchmen who can’t be wrong. I feel sorry for the weary Greyhound passengers debarking at the station next door who almost certainly don’t know about this.

Shrimp pizzette with arugula, basil pesto, crisp pancetta, and Parmesan sounds good, tastes nice, but finally registers as an adept home cook’s “raid the fridge” desperation dinner, though its leftovers make a fun breakfast. Other starter choices include salads, ahi tartare, and share-plates of seafood, cheeses, charcuterie (which includes some house-made items), and hummus. Once the chef has time to start stretching out, he intends to do more with house-made charcuterie.

While the chef reworks or replaces the entrées, starters alone would make an ace grazing dinner! Mussels, onion soup, beet salad, perhaps ahi tartare, if you’re not too bored with the genre, or a charcuterie plate and/or cheese plate, or maybe the sautéed calamari and shrimp share plate, plus a shared dessert — and voila, a meal of all good things for about $30 a person, plus wine, tip, and tax. If the appetizers were rated separately from the entrées, they’d get at least a half star more — this chef has some fresh ideas.

The entrée we liked best — the only one mainly devised by the current Currant chef — offered fresh salmon lightly smoked in applewood. It’s not very smoky but is as tender at its narrow parts as in the thick center, surrounded by baby-veggie sprouts and plated over a revisionist succotash that substitutes carrot chunks and small chick peas for lima beans. The dish didn’t sing, but the fish fed us well.

Grilled Maine scallops were barely cooked, seared on the exterior and translucently melting at the centers. They were great, perfect. But beneath them (oh, far beneath them) was a sludge of butternut-squash risotto, the worst of all possible worlds. The squash purée was weighed down by the rice, and vice versa, a dysfunctional family soap opera on the plate. It is slated to disappear very soon.

Pork tenderloin, from a Duroc heritage-breed porker, comes well accompanied with braised fennel, Tuscan white bean purée, and currant gooseberry sauce. It has the potential for perfection, but when we asked for the pork “rosy, medium-rare,” it arrived well-done, 20 or 30 degrees too cooked. The chef has been torn between the camps of pork-fearers who want it cooked well done, and the foodies, who know that you can trust a well-reared heritage hog not to be carrying any nasty bugs. We talked about this issue when I phoned him, and he’s decided to go with rosy as the default in the future and to train the servers to ask if diners want it more cooked than that.

The lobster pot pie was the creation of the recently departed chef, and it ought to have departed from the menu yesterday. The menu says the sauce is béchamel, but our waiter warned us it would be brown sauce. We tried it anyway and regretted it thoroughly. Waste of good lobster meat, swamped in the mud.

Dessert is a strong suit, even though our first-choice “jasmine soufflé” wasn’t available that night. Pastry chef Maggie Nolan’s pumpkin profiteroles (mini cream puffs) with dark chocolate sauce offered spiced puréed squash as a velvety second sauce, with whipped cream as the filling. They were surprising and delightful with their perfect light pastry. A feuilleté (minus the accent mark on the menu) with persimmons, pears, and lemon verbena ice cream was rather heavy in comparison — not bad, but those cream puffs were dancing the cancan. Finding “saffron pistachio” ice cream on the menu was exciting — it was one of my favorite ice creams 20 years ago traveling in south Asia — in this case, the recipe comes from manager Sanjay’s mother. Highly enjoyable but subtle, it had big chunks of pistachios and merely a hint of saffron.

Currant’s food is not yet equal to original chef Jonathan Pflueger’s fiercely intelligent cooking (which earned four stars). This is a younger chef, newly freed from a corporate restaurant, still stretching his wings after years bound into slavery, and he’s just barely started to express himself here. But he’s hugely promising, and the restaurant itself remains a marvel of casual-chic enjoyment. I find myself envying travelers staying at the Hotel Sofia, who can hop downstairs for their meals and libations.

ABOUT THE CHEF
Like a lot of chefs born to the middle class, Michael Rubino fell into cooking because he didn’t like school. Raised in L.A., he was already in college and bored out of his gourd, floundering from one major to the next. After four years with no degree, his father finally told him, “You have to decide on something. Isn’t there something you like doing?” The answer was cooking. “I went to a community college in cooking, and then I was in the first Cordon Bleu class at the California Culinary in Pasadena.

“I was at Napa Valley Grille for 2 1/2 years, my first executive chef position. I came from Napa Valley Grille in Los Angeles, where I was chef de cuisine.” Before then he worked at a 100-year-old restaurant in Calabasas that specialized in game meats and at several fairly well-known Los Angeles restaurants. He and Currant manager Sanjay Parekh met by chance while he was working at NVG, and when Rubino saw the “help wanted” ad on craigslist, he answered it. Sanjay remembered their meeting and hired him.

“I’m thankful for everything I learned from corporate, but I’m so glad to be out of a corporate environment,” Michael says. “I’m so much more comfortable here. At Napa, you had free range on the menu, but at a certain point we were told where we could order from. I feel like you should order from a meat company, a fish company, a produce company, and I felt it was time to move on.” At Currant, he uses Specialty Produce, L.A. Specialty, and Moceri Produce (a cooperative company composed wholly of local North County growers) and meats from ex-chef turned meat-man Hans-Trevor Gossman at Hamilton Meats — hence, the clean, trustworthy pork. The fish come from an L.A. company Rubino trusts.

“We consider ourself a brasserie, but an American brasserie where it’s lighter and more creative than traditional brasseries. In San Diego, it should be all about the seasonality of the vegetables. I’ll keep some traditional dishes — I’m looking forward to cassoulet and making my own sausages for it — but also do lighter fare. We need more fresh white fish here, too. I can’t wait to get the fish ’n’ chips off the menu.” Also look for the scallops to become an appetizer course, plated over a sunchoke purée instead of risotto.

Budget Meal of the Week: Another great destination goes affordable at the start of the dinner hours, with Bernard’O restaurant offering Sunset Dinners from 4:30–5:30 p.m. on weeknights. Two courses are $24.75, three courses are $29, and there are superb choices from top chef Patrick Ponsaty (ex of El Bizcocho) for every course. Among the entrée possibilities: braised venison with celery root mousse and chestnuts, and chicken sous vide, with wild mushrooms and black truffle sauce. 12457 Rancho Bernardo Road, Rancho Bernardo, 858-487-7171; bernardorestaurant.com.

Currant
***
(Very Good)
140 West Broadway, downtown, 619-702-6309, currantrestaurant.com
HOURS: Breakfast, Monday–Friday 6:30–9:30 a.m., weekends 8:00 a.m.–noon; lunch, weekdays 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.; dinner, nightly 5:30–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers, $3–$14; appetizer platters to share, $14–$20; entrées, $17–$32; sides, $5–$7; desserts, $9–$12; house-made ice creams, $6.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: “American brasserie” food with a Mediterranean palate, local produce, and a lightened, seasonal touch. Wines, beers, full bar with creative cocktails, and absinthe service. Half-price wines on Monday from a select list of mainly budget-buster wines.
PICK HITS: Heirloom beet salad with melted leek tart; mussels and fries with fennel pollen; five-onion soup with short ribs and marrow; applewood-smoked salmon; Duroc pork ribs (specify medium-rare); pumpkin profiteroles, house-made ice creams.
NEED TO KNOW: Valet parking at the Sofia Hotel, on the west side of the building. Civilized, convivial, casual-chic; nice-casual garb.

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Comments

We couldn't recognize the restaurant that Naomi Wise reviewed.

Instead of "the tastiest late-’50s jazz" there is earsplitting noise from raucous happy-hour conversationalists and a crying baby (really). The decor is all hard surfaces and uncomfortable seating.

There is no detectable bone marrow in "the glorious five-onion soup with short-rib meat and beef marrow," just too much sugar.

The so-called cassoulet has undercooked al-dente beans, and strong inauthentic North African spices. The sausage and duck leg confit on the cassoulet were good, but they were obviously cooked separately. This dish is not cassoulet at all.

Prices are at the level of Rancho Santa Fe: $33 for the so-called cassoulet.

Service is friendly but uninformed. The menu says the cassoulet comes with a "crepiniere." (I may have misremembered the French word.) The waitress explained this incorectly. The kitchen did not produce it at all.

Correction to my review: The cassoulet came with a "crépinette." According to Wikipedia, this is "a small, flattened sausage made of minced or ground pork, lamb, veal, or chicken, wrapped in caul fat. Usually breaded and sautéed in butter." Indeed, the crépinette was on the cassoulet, and it was delicious. Too bad the waitress couldn't explain this.

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