In the burgeoning San Diego food scene, the hamster wheel of dining out at the hottest, chicest new place with the rock star chef du jour at the helm seems to rarely leave time for those good ol’ fashioned intimate home style gatherings with good food, good company and good, low volume music playing in the background. However, The Cellar Door, perhaps one of San Diego’s most popular underground supper clubs, has comfortably and capably filled this niche, providing a fine mix of the gourmet experience prepared by an accomplished chef in the style of a home-cooked dinner to be enjoyed with a table full of – ummm, strangers…
Suffice it to say, though, that the combination of great food, impeccable service, an accessible chef who is eager to share her passion, an accomplished mixologist whose passion loosens tongues and erases inhibitions and a fun mix of mild, soft and classic music from the early rock era quickly transforms the mood at the table from slightly apprehensive expectation into one of exuberant celebration.
Chef Logan Mitchell, formerly of the Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, and husband Gary welcome strangers into their North Park apartment on a regular basis to partake and imbibe of their unique and wonderful creations. Enjoying repast of this caliber would be pleasantly welcomed in any mainstream restaurant, but it is nothing short of astounding when considering the space that it is prepared in. In her small apartment kitchen, Chef Logan epitomizes the old kitchen joke of being chef, janitor and chief bottle washer.
While Chef is busy prepping and plating the multiple course meals, mixologist and lone server Gary is on the other side of the kitchen (the kitchen is not really big enough to have different sides, more like just enough room to stay out of range of the rapidly oscillating knife blade next to you) nimbly mixing and concocting the custom beverages for the night. Many of his cocktails are traditional and even slightly forgotten favorites and classics, revived and enlivened to match the special nuances of Chef Logan’s offerings, but his special attention to detail and love for the art of the drink are also apparent in his homemade wines and craft beer selections.
The meal on this particular evening was an interpretation and re-creation of Gary and Logan’s recent early summer wedding feast, prepared by some of the top local chefs in the area. Admittedly, some of the courses were hard to replicate, since it’s difficult to source spring produce in the middle of autumn, but Chef was able to stay true to the theme despite the substitutions.
Her versatility was showcased pretty early on as Hiramasa crudo and Spam Musubi (a Hawaiian treat) were served, only to be followed by Rabbit rillettes and Chicken Liver flatbread. Geographically and culinarily, these two courses were pretty much as divergent from one another as possible. Yet, while the rabbit and chicken liver steered us sharply away from the preceding lighter Asian and Pacific flavors, the pickled onions placed on the plate were just enough of a reminder of where we started as much as they were a needed acid to cut through the pungent and flavorful meats. In fact, flavors throughout the meal were bright and special, seemingly with little highlights on every dish that elevated each offering from mundane to sublime.
A couple of produce forward dishes followed, with the Fall salad being a seasonal re-creation of the spring version enjoyed by the wedding guests. The persimmons and spiced ricotta rounded out the dish so as to remind us this was a translation more than a mimicking of the past dishes. The next course of grilled vegetables served on a bed of White Bean cassoulet was hearty and filling as well as a perfect setup for the next course.
This was no ordinary slider. It was a juicy, tender and flavorful braised and pulled pork served with yogurt spread and a slaw that actually had some flavor. Let’s not get started on slaw – that’s a whole rant in its own right. This flavor bomb of a pork sandwich continued the theme of what must have been a wonderful wedding day of celebration, joy and merriment, with great food and plentiful drink – enough to slow you down if you wanted it to, but light enough to let you dance well into the night if you were so inclined.
Dessert was another Autumn-like take on a spring dish, with the squash, cherry and walnut cobbler putting the perfect exclamation point on the evening with great texture and a not overabundant sweetness. To clarify, each of these courses had pairings ranging from cocktails to homemade wines and local craft ales, all of which were served at the original wedding feast as well. There’s no excuse for not having pictures of them other than that somehow the glass always seemed to be mysteriously half empty whenever the camera was pointed at it.
Here’s the Rundown:
This is one of the hardest places to get a seat at in San Diego. And not in a fabricated, pretentious sort of way that can be experienced at one or three of some of the more overhyped places around town. Only 10 people can fit at the table placed squarely in the middle of the living room and usually about 3-4 seatings one weekend a month are offered.
Here’s how to get in:
- Go to the website Cellardoorsd.com and send them an email requesting to be placed on the mailing list. You’ll have to dig around a bit for the email address. You gotta WANT this!
- Sit back and wait for an email announcing the next dinner series.
- As soon as you receive the email, send an affirmative reply. We’re not talking about calling your significant other and seeing if you have plans for that weekend before responding (been there, done that, missed out). As soon as the announcement hits your inbox – RESPOND! As an example, the announcement for this dinner series which would have three seatings (30 chairs) came in at 1:40 p.m. The announcement that the three seatings were full came in at 1:49. I was waitlisted after procrastinating and not getting my response in until 1:46.
- If you are quick enough on the draw and get in, instructions and directions will soon follow. If not, you will be placed on the waitlist where there is still hope, since everyone is doing the same thing as you are – responding and then checking their schedule. This means cancellations happen. Honestly, barring a birth or death in the family, I would move everything else off the schedule if I actually got a seat at one of these dinners. Come to think of it, I might even skip the funeral… hell, let’s face it, the baby has the rest of its life to meet me, so, basically, no matter what, if I’m in, I’m there.
This is an intimate experience that changes on every visit. To date, over several visits we’ve dined with foodies and professionals across the spectrum – scientists, doctors, lawyers, chefs, teachers, engineers and more. Each new group of people brings a wealth of food and travel knowledge – bring a notebook and, Cheers, my friends!