For those of us not in the San Diego area or necessarily enveloped in the food and/or restaurant scene on a national level, we first became beknownst of Chef Brian Malarkey on Bravo TV’s Top Chef Season 3, specifically for his tongue twisting, longer than Padma’s beautiful hair, description of an elk dish in the elimination challenge that would have sent him to the 3 way finale. At the time, he was the Executive Chef at the Oceanaire Seafood Room in San Diego, CA. I had made a mental note to try the restaurant when I was in San Diego. Unfortunately in August of 2009, Malarkey vacated the helm of Oceanaire and in subsequent months, began revealing plans for another project.
The said project being Chef Malarkey’s first restaurant, Searsucker, which has been quite highly anticipated especially by San Diego locals.
A native of Oregon, Chef Malarkey grew up being exposed to his grandmother’s cooking, who coincidentally had James Beard often as a guest. That led him to enroll in the Western Culinary Institute’s Le Cordon Bleu program in Portland. After graduation, he has held various positions in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Seattle, before ultimately relocating to San Diego in 2004 as Executive Chef of the Oceaniare Seafood Room, in which in a mere 6 years, has won over 60 industry awards, including Malarkey being named San Diego’s Best Chef in 2009.
When talk about his new restaurant arose earlier this year, being from Los Angeles and not San Diego, there actually wasn’t that much I was hearing about it. I do follow him on Twitter, but there wasn’t much going on with that either. Then I believe randomly one day, I get a follow from “Searsucker” and I soon realize Chef Malarkey is attached to it and I realize that is his new restaurant.
Last week when I decided to go down to San Diego on one of my days off as a mini vacay as well as a personal retreat. Long story short, I had a relatively rough week piled on with a few things on my mind, so a little mini getaway was well needed. Plus, it had been several years since I have been to San Diego and I absolutely love it down there, so it was a natural pick. When I was deciding where to go for dinner, this place almost immediately came to mind because I had been seeing numerous tweets talking about the food and whatnot, so it was a clear sign that it was now open for business. I actually made a reservation for myself (though I probably didn’t need it) through Open Table and was set.
After spending a majority of the afternoon in Point Loma and enjoying relaxing at Cabrillo National Monument, I made the 20 minute drive, with a tiny bit of traffic, to the Gaslamp district of San Diego. The neighborhood is actually quite reminiscent of Downtown Long Beach, with a eclectic mix of restaurants, coffee shops, bars and pubs, and other miscellaneous stores and shops. The restaurant is right on the corner of 5th and Market, so it is quite hard to miss. Well, there is no signage outside, but the valet right outside is a good indicator. If you wish to skip out on the $15 valet, there are other options, such as one of the many parking lots and/or structures scattered throughout the area, or if you’re super lucky, manage to snag a spot on the street.
Being a Friday night right at the peak early dinner hour (6 PM), the streets were crawling with people. Upon entering the restaurant, I was greeted by 4 lovely young women. Well, there were 4 of them but I actually only really spoke to 2 of them. Behind them was the restaurant and the space that was inspired by Chef Malarkey’s childhood. This space actually used to be the retail store Z Gallerie, so it’s always impressive to see a restaurant be made out of a non-restaurant intended space. The bar area and lounge occupies about half if not a little more than half of the 7,000 square foot space, while the dining room and completely open kitchen occupy the other half. The transition from one side to the other is relatively seamless, as the only “divider” really is the lounge furniture. I checked in with one of the hostesses with my reservation and I was immediately led to my table, located near the far corner from the kitchen, which actually was ok because allowed me to observe the entire place and people watch. I mean, I was dining by myself, so what else is there for me to do?
Within a quick couple of minutes, my server, Laura, came by to introduce herself and let me know about any menu specials as well as take my beverage order. Looking over the menu and thinking about Malarkey’s concept for the food, his approach is a “twist on classic New-American dishes”. There was also a simplicity that exuded from the words on the menu. “Less is more” I guess you can say. I told Laura that I would just take water and look over the wine menu.
There were no wines, however, that really stuck out to me.
I had previously looked at the website (in which the menu actually was just posted a couple days prior) and 2 items in particular that stuck out to me: duck fat fries and bacon grits. The duck fat fries were an appetizer and the bacon grits were one of the a la carte sides dishes. I also read that one of their signatures was the pork butt. While waiting for Laura to return, I noticed the 2 Caucasian ladies in their 30s or 40s sitting next to me were having these little doughy bites. I looked the menu and I determined they were the cheese puffers, $2. I kindly asked if they were any good and one of them said it was “like a cheesy croissant” and she said they just sent it out and they didn’t order it. I figured for $2, why not. Laura returned and I told her I would definitely be getting the duck fat fries and the bacon grits. I told her I was thinking about the cheese puffers but wasn’t sure, to which she said they would be sending them out compliments of the chef anyway. That was easy. I then told her I was leaning towards the pork butt, but she went right ahead and said it was a very good choice. Again, her confidence in my selections made my life easier.
After a quick couple of minutes, the complimentary cheese puffers arrived. 4 pillowy sand dollar sized discs of cheesy goodness. I suppose aesthetically, when I hear “puffers”, I would imagine these to be, you know, “puffier”. Regardless, they were good and I almost ordered another.
Next, my duck fat fries arrived. Topped with crispy proscuitto “powder” and served with a side of sun-dried tomato jam, these were perfectly crispy on the outside and perfectly cooked on the inside. There actually wasn’t much presence from the duck fat, but the salty bits of proscuitto were nice. The tomato jam was good as well even though it was not really needed.
While I was still working on the fries (I told her to bring them as they came), the pork butt and bacon grits came out. Both looked and smelled absolutely wonderful.
I took my spoon and mixed up the grits. How can you go wrong with anything that has bacon in it? These were really good. Not life-changing good, but really good. I do have to say they were a little underseasoned, but luckily there were salt and pepper shakers on the table. I will have to also say that throughout my meal, as the grits continued to sit, it began to gelatinize a little. Not in an unpleasant way, but by the end, the consistency was close to what would be considered a medium polenta. I mean, yes, it’s cornmeal, it will continue to absorb any moisture even after you’re done cooking it, but I think its still something that can be fine-tuned. I’m just saying.
I didn’t waste any time digging into my braised pork butt. Served with grilled peaches and a bacon emulsion, I was ready to devour the plate. The pork easily pulled apart with slight effort from my fork and I kid you not, upon taking that first bite, my first reaction was “wow”. It was incredibly flavorful, tender and moist. I enjoyed every bite of it. The grilled peaches were a great accompaniment and I loved the touch of fresh thyme on top. Laura later told me the braising liquid contains both peach schnapps and peach brandy, further accenting the summer flavor. The bacon emulsion was great as well, but in all honesty, was not really needed. Laura even admitted the emulsion was not necessarily needed. I hope that comment didn’t just cost her her job.
At this point, I was incredibly full, but earlier that week, I had responded to one of the restaurant’s tweets (which apparently are tweeted by Chef Malarkey himself) that I would try their cinnamon sugar donuts, commenting that we have a similar dessert at the restaurant I work at, so I was determined to stick to my word and order the donuts. I ordered a cappuccino to go along side that.
The cappuccino came first, and was nicely presented alongside a small cast iron pot with cubes of sugar and sugar packets. I thought that was a nice little touch. I’m no coffee expert but the cappuccino was good. There was A LOT of foam though
The donuts finally arrived and while I was probably expecting something along the size that our restaurant serves (a little smaller than a tennis ball), these were actually donut holes. Served alongside a small ramekin of malted chocolate cream, the donuts nice crunchy, bit size pieces of sugary goodness. Because of their shear tinyness, it’s nearly impossible for the middle to be soft and pillowy as you would normally imagine from “normal” sized donuts, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers, right? The malted chocolate cream appeared to be partially whipped so it had a thicker consistency than what we have at our restaurant, but I was actually really good.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my dinner. Throughout the night, Chef Malarkey took the time to personally go to different tables to check and see how everything was. He also was fulfilling requests for those who wanted to speak with him and/or take a photograph. I actually took advantage of that and got a chance to speak with him briefly and introduce myself. He’s genuinely a really nice guy and doesn’t have any air of arrogance or anything. Not that he has ever gotten that rap, but I’ve met a couple of chefs who I thought were really cool but when I met them, seemed a little arrogant. But then again maybe I just caught them on a bad day. Chef Malarkey left me saying “Tell everybody in LA to come check us out!” really enthusiastically. I love that.
While I am not a San Diego native nor have I frequently any of the surrounding businesses, I can definitely see why some of the buzz surrounding this place claims that this is the type of eatery that the Gaslamp district needs.
I definitely cannot wait until my next trip to San Diego, because yes, I will definitely be making reservations here again.
Thank you Chef Malarkey!