That Breathless Charm

Inn at the Park

3615 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill




A few days before the grand opening of the splashy new Dish restaurant-nightclub in Hillcrest, I decided to check out one of its forerunners. Dish had been bombarding my email with publicity releases that glittered with Tinkerbell sparkles about how this would be a pioneering venue where gays and straights would (gasp) mix and mingle.

That’s new? Puh-leeze. Top of my head, I flashed on the “Dish” of Manhattan in the late 1960s, Max’s Kansas City (where my cousin Peg waitressed), a Warhol-crowd favorite where every conceivable earthly gender (and possibly some extraterrestrial life forms) trouped in for dinner. (Afterwards: dancing to the juke at the Broome Street Expressway, or maybe the newest Charles Ludlam play from the Ridiculous Theatrical Company.) At least in big cities, there probably have always been a few all-inclusive bohemian venues where everybody mixes it up.

One of our own long-term institutions of comfortable mixing and mingling is Hillcrest’s Inn at the Park dinner house in the Park Manor, a charming old Hillcrest hotel. (A rooftop venue called Top of the Park serves lunches on weekdays.) About a year ago, chef Anthony Wilhelm was promoted to executive chef, and his upgrades to the menu afforded another good reason to check it out.

The attractive, well-populated bar faces the dining room across a wide aisle. The bar includes a piano, with live musicians every night after 7:00 p.m., solos or duos, bathing the area with the ironic-tinged sentimentalities of classic Broadway show tunes. The dining room has dim lighting, white tablecloths, plushy banquettes, and ornately framed reproductions of sun-dappled Impressionist eye-candy (Renoir, oui; Van Gogh, maybe no).

Jim hadn’t eaten here in years but does drop in regularly for drinks. (“The piano bar is a cool date spot midweek,” he said, “although you’d better warn your readers that the Friday night scene is a little different — it’s nicknamed ‘Boy’s Night.’ ”) Arriving with Jim, James, and Jonathan (we should form a jug band called “the Jay Birds”), I looked around the room and was doubly surprised: by the number of Gen-Y heteros (maybe 15 percent) and by the many faces that looked like people I’d like to know. People are having a good time here, and enjoyment lights up their features.

Service was attentive, competent, smart. Food? Well…It’s not “foodie” food to astonish or thrill or impress, more like background music for the piano tunes. With a little added mango here and chipotle there, it’s an update of the faintly Continental comfort food that you might have eaten, pre-1970 (or in Sacramento even today), at the “nice” college-town restaurant when your parents came to visit. The regular crowd at the Inn is conservative in its tastes, meat-and-potatoes guys, and they don’t take too readily to innovation. I’d have to call the style Log Cabin Republican Cuisine.

The bread was crusty and good and also included skinny breadsticks. The kitchen was all out of frog’s legs that evening, and when we learned that the charcuterie plate items are purchased-out, we skipped it. The most satisfying appetizer was calamari fritto misto — tender, crusty fried squid, delicate zucchini rounds, and just-right crisp-tender broccoli clusters, with two dips — a smooth pink chipotle aioli with a little sting of heat, and a thick, Kaffir-lime avocado sauce with a lash of spice.

That evening, though, there were several odd glitches in kitchen performance. A steamed artichoke filled with a spinach-lemon-Stilton fondue was a surprising slip-up: The artichoke was drastically undercooked. The leaves were stiffly resistant to leaving the nest, and the heart was harder than Dick Cheney’s. The sauce, although vaguely pleasant, was blander than a morning talk-show host.

A crab-and-avocado tower and a grilled prawn and mango salad were nearly identical: Both had spring greens, mango, and avocado, although one or the other also had pink, cottony wedges of underripe tomato. They were supposed to sport two distinctly different dressings, but evidently there was another slip-up. I wasn’t certain in the dim lighting, but both salads appeared and tasted not merely underdressed, but stark naked. (This was confirmed by the doggy bags later that night.) It was a very busy evening — but surely not so busy that the salads didn’t have time to dress before they came out in public. The first salad had plenty of good crabmeat, while the other had precisely two medium, garlic-broiled shrimps, cooked tough. I don’t know why they’d skimp on shrimp, since this size isn’t expensive. Perhaps it was another plating mishap.

Entrées come with either the soup du jour or a house salad, with options for other soups or salads at a slight surcharge. We all opted for the evening’s mushroom bisque. I’ve had some mushroom bisques that knocked my socks off (e.g., at nearby Seasons), but this wasn’t one of them. It was just nice soup.

An entrée special featured beef tenderloin, chipotle béarnaise, soft-shell crab, spicy mashed potatoes, and veggies (which I’ve already forgotten). The beef, properly rare, was a tad tough for a tenderloin. The other ingredients seemed incoherent, a bunch of good stuff flung together almost at random — more like a bad imitation of John Cage than the artfully complex melodies of Cole Porter.

Seeing white truffle seared sea scallops on the menu led Jim and Jonathan to quiz me about the difference between black and white truffles. (No, I don’t have 800 free words to go into it right now — there are meatier issues ahead.) The dish itself didn’t help to illuminate the distinction, as there wasn’t enough white truffle flavor (from oil) to even notice. The scallops, though, were sweet and tender, complemented by fava beans and applewood-smoked bacon. Their starch was “forbidden black rice,” which looked like a shorter-grained wild rice but proved hard and grainy, as though reverting to the raw state. (Needed more cooking or, especially, more liquid.)

The same rice also came with seared duck breast, so it seems the mysterious taboo has been lifted by the ghost of the Last Empress, the High Pooh-Bah, whoever. The duck was tender and enjoyable, flattered by a cherry-rhubarb coulis.

Cabernet-braised, balsamic-glazed short ribs were tender, too, but oddly dim in flavor — which goes against the grain, since this is usually a meaty-tasting cut, and the Cabernet and balsamic should have deepened its allure. Instead, this rendition seemed more like Mom’s, if Mom had bought the short ribs only because they were on sale.

The house specialty (fittingly enough, given the Log Cabin food ethos) is old-fashioned prime rib roast beef, for a bargain price of $23 — a rarity on current restaurant menus, and usually much more costly if you do find it. It’s the most popular dish of all with the regulars at the Inn. Back in December or wet January, we’d probably have jumped on it in a New York minute.

Instead, I quizzed the waiter and learned that the grade of the roast beef is middling choice — a necessary compromise to keep the price reasonable. Jim and Jonathan asked me what the question was all about, so I figure you might also like to know: prime rib is a cut of meat (the center rib roast), whereas USDA Prime is a grade — so “prime” has two very different meanings. The USDA meat grades are determined according to how much fat-marbling there is in the meat — the fat makes it tender and adds deep meat flavor (what the Japanese call umami). Japanese Wagyu, as fatty as foie gras, can be cut with a fork. USDA Prime has the most marbling of American standard beef. Two grades lower, USDA Select is your typical supermarket beef, with little fat and a tendency toward toughness. Choice grade covers a wide range between Prime and Select — the higher realms of Choice are terrific, rivaling Prime, but lower Choice is only a bit tastier and tenderer than supermarket beef. The restaurant’s cooking method is dead-on right for middle-Choice: It’s roasted slow, low, and long at 225 degrees to emerge rare and juicy. Wish we’d ordered it — but we were more attracted to other dishes.

Desserts cover the waterfront between American comfort, Continental, and newfangled. Skipping the chocolate extravaganzas, we gravitated to the simple American blueberry crumble and the fusion-y key lime coconut crème brûlée. The crumble had a few blueberries and a whole lot of mushy granola. No, just no. The crème brûlée was highly acidic and lively with a strong lime flavor and a fine hard slick of caramelized topping. It’s a wake-up call at the end of dinner.

So, okay, the food’s nice (but for those weird glitches), if nothing to write home about. But the scene is sweeter than a hot cornet. The show tunes bring people together — the crowd around the piano sometimes singing along with classic lyrics of wonderfully jaded irony and lechery (Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart), or of romanticism so intense, it grows campy at the edges (Oscar Hammerstein, et al.). Even diners hum along when they’re not chewing. There’s nothing like it for creating a spontaneous community spirit, a fundamental harmony amid the diverse individuals in the crowd. Reminds me of Ned Kelly’s, the legendary Aussie dive piano bar in downtown Kowloon — possibly the happiest piano bar on the planet. Never tried eating there (what, with all of Hong Kong to choose from?), and I hate to imagine the Aussie-expat pub grub they may serve — Marmite on white toast? Liver spread? But you don’t go to Ned Kelly’s for cuisine, you go for a whoppin’ good time, mate, and you don’t need to be Aussie to feel welcome — they take all comers, recognizing that sentient beings want, above all, to have music, fellowship, fun. Joyous, inclusive places like these are worth cherishing for their own virtues, anywhere on earth. It’s a treat to find one right here in town.

ABOUT THE CHEF

Executive chef Anthony Wilhelm slid into his profession via a high school dishwashing job. “I was about 17, and I was working in a place in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was kind of an upscale bar-pub, and I was just very, very intrigued by the kitchen. I was intrigued by the food. I went to the culinary program at Cincinnati State University, and then I worked in La Maisonette in Cincinnati, which was the longest five-star-rated restaurant in U.S. history.

“My ex-wife was in the Navy, and that’s what brought me to San Diego. She ended up moving back to Chicago, while I stayed here, working at the Inn at the Park for about four and a half years. I was here for almost three years as a sous-chef and then was promoted to executive chef.”

I asked how bound he was to the proverbial gay taste for comfort food. “I like to take each menu progressively,” he says. “But I also have a clientele here that I have to appease. So I have to take baby steps to introduce new flavors — they like their steak and mashed potatoes and their roast beef. But I’m starting to do some special wine dinners upstairs with pretty innovative menus, although we’re still sticking mainly to the meat, the filet — but we are actually having some fun here. I spend a lot of my time upstairs doing banquets.” (Note: The hotel is a prime venue for weddings and other special occasions. Chef Anthony oversees the food at all those functions, as well as lunches at Top of the Park, often working seven days a week, 12 hours a day.)

Asked his philosophy of cuisine, he says, “I love to use the best ingredients I can afford. Farm-to-table, preferably. It’s the new hot thing. I do have a limit here as to what I can spend, being a hotel restaurant, but I love to use the freshest ingredients that I can get and put love into it.” After five years in San Diego, he has a certain yearning to move to the burgeoning food scenes of Vancouver or Seattle, but meanwhile, he’s a fan of the farm-to-table cuisine of Market Restaurant, Bianca, and the Better Half.

“I think San Diego is definitely improving. It’s trying to find itself. I know a lot of restaurants in San Diego are still mediocre at best — it’s not even near the caliber of restaurants you find in New York, Chicago, even San Francisco. But San Diego is definitely on the right track.”

Inn at the Park

** (Good)

Park Manor Suites, 3615 Fifth Avenue (at Spruce Street), Hillcrest, 619-291-0999; 800-874-2649.

HOURS: Sunday–Thursday 5:00–10:00 p.m., weekends until 11:00. Lunch at rooftop Top of the Park, weekdays 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.

PRICES: Soups, $5–$6; appetizers and salads, $9–$14; entrées, $19–$27; desserts about $8.

CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: American-Continental comfort cuisine with trendy tropical touches. Modest international wine list, mainly of affordable, well-known bottlings. Full bar.

PICK HITS: Calamari fritto misto, duck breast, scallops with white truffle oil, coconut-lime crème brulée.

NEED TO KNOW: Ambience sophisticated but informal, with mixed gay-straight crowd (très gai on Fridays). Piano bar nightly, starting at 7:00 p.m. One vegan pasta entrée. Hotel guests have dibs on tables, so reservations strongly advised for any night.

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