Trust is a pretty unequivocal concept. You either have it or you don’t. Naming your restaurant Trust Restaurant San Diego is pretty unequivocal as well, begging the question as to whether the owner and chef are bold and confident or just plain reckless. If the name is meant as a promise, it’s a huge one to keep – the slightest slip up and all Trust may be lost. If it’s a request, then hoping for the best would most certainly have to be anchored by serving the best. You want me to Trust you? Let’s see what’s going on here…
Now open about a month and half, Trust Restaurant occupies a fairly large space, inside and out, on the corner of Park and Robinson in Hillcrest. The space makes for a comfortable setting, plenty of room for customers to eat without having an elbow in the neck or having to talk over the top of the table next to them. There is a large covered front patio as well as the indoor dining room, onto which the kitchen and fairly well stocked bar open.
The menu is manageable, which was a good first sign they might know what they’re doing here. Split into four sections on one side of a standard sized sheet of heavy paper, the 27 options are listed in four categories: Farm, Ocean, Ranch and More. A quick reading of the menu revealed that the Farm section items could probably be altered, on request, to present a nice vegetarian or vegan offering. “More” means entree sized portions and pricing, while the other three sections are set up as share plates; smaller portions allowing multiple people to sample and explore multiple flavors.
We worked our way through each section of the menu in order starting with the Mornay Fries topped with a duck egg. This dish combined classic ingredients, each prepared in an excellent manner and layered wonderfully. The adventure seeking foodie might, at first taste and glance, think there is nothing special going on here. Except, there is. Cut into the duck egg atop and behold the creamy marriage of the yolk as it seeps through the fries to blend with the cheesy mornay sauce at foundation level. The presentation permits the fries to retain their light crunchiness and encourages a full exploration of the thick and creamy cheese and yolk emulsion that combine for a subtle, flavor rich experience. This dish is sure to be a crowd pleaser that can be served breakfast, lunch or dinner.
We agonized a minute over the next selection. The steamed clams were intriguing, boasting n’duja sausage, a spicy, spreadable style of Calabrian salumi that is a distant relation to the andouille sausage I grew up with in South Louisiana, but we weren’t sure we really want to burn valuable appetite real estate with “just another clam dish”. One of the best mussel dishes I’ve ever had was bathed in a spicy chorizo sauce, which is why this clam dish made the cut. It turned out to be a great decision. The piquant sausage flavor permeated the otherwise light and herbaceous broth giving it some heft and authority while the grilled bread was the right combination of crispy, buttery and airy to soak up the broth without turning to mush.
Grilled octopus…is it the the new french fry? It’s on every menu in town, seemingly, in one fashion or another. The problem, in my opinion, is that most of the chefs working with it don’t seem to understand the technique, time and care that it takes to serve it with the right amount of flavor and, more importantly, the right amount of texture and tenderness that makes for a great octopus dish.
One of the top traditional sushi chefs in the county, Koji Kotani of Sushi Dokoro Shirahama, owner of my favorite, natural, octopus bite, told me not long ago that he hand massages his octopus for at least 45 minutes daily to achieve the proper tenderness. That massage, on occasion, can take up to 90 minutes depending on how individual pieces react to the treatment. Chef Jaime Chavez of Sirena Cocina Latina in Little Italy, who serves my current favorite grilled octopus dish talks of sous vide-ing his octopus for four to five hours to achieve his desired tenderness before grilling and finishing. Good octopus, done right, can be revelatory. Bad octopus…you can throw a rock in any direction and hit a plateful.
Trust Restaurant, San Diego served me my number three contender. This octopus dish had lentils, a spicy pepperoni meat relish and Castelvetrano olives, one of my personal faves. Castelvetrano olives come from a small region in Sicily and are unique because they are brined in a salt water solution rather than the typical vinegar. This allows the natural flavor and firm texture of the bright green olive flesh to shine through without the masking or mushiness often associated with vinegar brined olives. But, back to the octopus – it had a great texture, slightly chewy, but not in a 3 hour old piece of bubblegum way that so many others have. It was well seasoned during grilling and the flavors on the plate offered accenting textures as well as flavors to make each mouthful a welcome experience.
By this time, it became pretty clear that the menu was taking us on a little tour around the Mediterranean. Thus far, we had enjoyed flavors and ingredients from France and Italy in a few short courses. It was no stretch to imagine Spanish overtones in the dishes as well. The next course of Pork Cheek Sugo on a bed of creamy polenta confirmed that observation. Beautifully stewed pork and tomato sauce had rich, sharp, Sicilian-like flavors that were balanced by the creamy, butteriness of the polenta. This reminded me of the childhood days of southern-style buttered grits topped with pretty much anything you wanted to throw on them, but in a much smoother fashion.
The last few years in the restaurant industry have given rise, for good or bad, to an exploration of some of the more esoteric bits and pieces of food, land, air and sea, being prepared and served. From vegetable blossoms and fish cheeks to belly and those off cuts of meat like skirt and flank steak, it’s pretty cool to see the new menu offerings and flavors that result from the artistry of taking an unwanted, hard to work with piece of food stock and turning it into a gourmet presentation. As in any era of experimentation, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Trust Restaurant’s skirt steak, a fabulous, tender, juicy and beautifully topped 1 1/4″ thick cut of marbled delight – well, it works. The tenderized, marbled hunk of goodness they serve here combines the sweetness of grilled onions, pepper and garlic with the savoriness of yet more Castelvetrano olives, herbs and asiago cheese. The conglomeration hits all of the nerve centers of the palate at once. This, to date, was one of the best representations of this cut of meat I’ve ever had. In fact, I was so inspired by this dish, I decided to try a version at home, which you can try, too, using this recipe from In the Kitchen.
Here’s the Rundown on Trust Restaurant San Diego:
The wide open floor plan leaves the feeling of being able to be intimate at your own table without having your neighbor’s elbow in your side. Music plays at a comfortable level to allow for conversation without shouting. The industrial chic decor gives the impression that you can be comfortable – no need to worry about dripping sauce on the tablecloth or the occasional food bit on the floor. Plentiful parking was available in a pay lot across the street from the restaurant on a Saturday evening, as it seems a fair bit of the traffic is from Hillcrest locals walking in.
They do have a big space and a lot of seats to fill here. It was chilly the evening we attended, so the dining room was pretty full, but the patio was empty. If there is one thing that might be a detriment to success for them, I would say filling the seats and turning them might be it. With that said, if they can maintain their current level of service and menu offerings, they could be packing the house for years to come.
There was nothing here that seemed to be an experiment. Each dish that we tried was composed of classic and solidly developed elements that were plated in unique and interesting combinations. Even the less adventurous eater should be pleased with this menu full of traditional and familiar flavors and ingredients. There is a nice selection of house cocktails as well as a traditional drink menu boasting whiskey sours, Manhattans and Old Fashions. The newer things get, the more I appreciate the retention of the good ol’ tried and true favorites.
Service was on-point – actually, excellent. In fact, if I hadn’t known prior to coming that the restaurant was brand new, I would have guessed our servers, runners and bussers were years long veterans here.
Expect to spend $20-$40 per diner here depending on your appetite. The share plates are nice sized portions and the cocktail menu warrants trying at least a couple of different drinks. There’s plenty to try, but it’s the type of place that can be tried over several visits.
Yes, I Trust this restaurant. The menu is solid, the absolute opposite direction from modern, nouveau, experimental pretentiousness that can be so easily found with a blindfold on and a paper tail in your hand after spinning around three times. The ingredients are fresh, beautifully combined and perfectly executed. The offerings are original enough that I would recommend it to those asking about the “newest” thing equally as often as I’d recommend it to those asking for the “safest” thing. I’ll be checking them out again in another few months to see how they’re maturing. Let me know how your visit goes – Cheers, my friends!
Trust Restaurant, San Diego