There’s an unwritten rule in the food writing industry that before reviewing a new restaurant, it’s only fair to give them a few months to get everything dialed in. But, when a hot new spot opens in an even hotter part of town garnering rave reviews from every spectrum of diner and industry expert, the professional in me, the one that says, “Wait. Give them some time to get all their parts moving in the right direction” gets ignored and the excited little foodie voice that says, “Be first in line, get there early, try everything!” takes over. Such it is that we ended up dining at the new Herb and Wood in Little Italy a short month after they opened.
A season 3 Top Chef competitor, Brian Malarkey was one of the first “celebrity” chefs in the San Diego area. He has interested me since his Gaslamp Oceanaire days when I ate one of my favorite all-time fish dishes of that era. It was a whole, head-on, fried fish dish with a spicy dynamite-type sauce (back before everyone started smothering everything with a dynamite sauce). I can still see, smell and taste the dish in my foodie mind’s eye.
Since then, Brian has opened a lot of restaurants and, well…closed a few, too.
Thus, when word leaked out earlier this year that he was opening a new place in Little Italy called Herb and Wood, there was a question in my mind as to whether the new place was simply going to be a reprisal of his other concepts, some of which have a bit of wear and tear on them or whether a new, slightly older, infinitely wiser Brian Malarkey was going to wow us with a great new dining option in Little Italy, lately the hottest dining destination area in San Diego.
Located next to Juniper and Ivy (the restaurants adjoin), Herb and Wood is a huge space. The bar looks like it seats 30+ comfortably with plenty of floor space in the immediate vicinity for standing and mingling. Combined with with an indoor dining room and an outdoor patio there are 200 or so seats to fill…that’s a lot, folks.
In terms of decor, first, general impressions of the place bring to mind just another rendition of an industrial chic gastropub. The bar is located close to the front entrance and remains extremely prominent no matter where you’re seated in the place. The evening we dined, there was a large bar crowd both seated and standing, and it overflowed slightly into the dining room, walking paths and onto the outdoor patio.
Interestingly, once we were seated, while the bar remained visible, especially since we were seated at a two-top just outside the bar on the open roofed patio, it faded a bit more into the background as more of a people watching experience instead of a bacchanalian drunk fest. Possibly because of the size of the space, the noise was subdued and the general ambience transformed to a bit more of a quaint setting with the crowd at the bar seemingly acting out a choreographed social performance for our watching enjoyment.
I wanted to jump up and down and clap like I was at a Disney parade when we were seated and I saw salt and pepper grinders on the table. If nothing else went right on this evening, I was ready to high five Brian right then. Good on ya, Bro!
I don’t use a lot of salt and pepper, usually. But, when I want it, I sure hate having to ask for it. It’s become a bit of a pet peeve of mine that every restaurant, bar and gastropub in town thinks that their food is soooo dang perfect that there is no possible way anybody could possibly want it a bit saltier or spicier.
I get it. Chefs would like to have people experience their food the way it was envisioned and executed. But, besides making great and thoughtful food, perhaps the second best thing any chef can do is to quit telling their patrons how to eat.
There’s 7 billion people in the world – it’s fair to say a few of them may have varying tastes, expectations, aversions and preferences. Give them the basics like salt and pepper and maybe even some hot sauce and olive oil. None of these ingredients will have any appreciable negative impact on the chef’s basic efforts, and making them available gives the diner the opportunity to feel a little bit in charge of their own experience. It’s the thought that counts. If the food is as good as the chef thinks it is, no one will ever touch the extra seasonings.
That the newest, hip, happening place in town with a trend-setting celebrity chef at the helm is putting salt and pepper grinders on every table warms my heart and cockles. It felt homey and thoughtful and, oh, by the way…we never touched them. But, it was nice to know we could.
The menu here is expansive, boasting almost 40 separate items. Approximately half of the items are starters and share plates, with the rest being entree sized portions. The menu reads easily with mostly familiar ingredients and a welcome lack of paragraph long descriptions of each course. I was getting worried. That’s a lot of food to do really well, but we were here for a test drive, so we dove right in.
Skipping salad, we leap frogged into the 2nd section of the menu for starters. The Loup de Mer (European Bass) was basically a sashimi course topped with Uni. A recent dinner with a Tampa chef and new friend who had just tried uni for the very first time resulted in us coming up with this eyes-closed, face-covered (to hide the tears of joy) description of the delicacy: Sweet, creamy, buttery, briny, fatty goodness…all without the grease. Yeah, we might turn that into a t-shirt.
In this dish, the combination of the lightly flavored, yet, hearty, fish crudo, topped with the buttery uni, translucent slices of jalapeno and a citrusy, herby broth created a bright, self contained flavor and textural explosion, rich in all the right places, savory and creamy notes added by the seafood elements with nuggets of sweet apple crunch, a touch of heat in the middle, and a clean, refreshing finish. It was a great start.
I’ve ordered Smoked Trout…let me see…zero times ever in my life. I’ve eaten it before at banquets and parties and maybe when someone else has ordered it. The problem with smoked trout I’ve had before is that it was always too dang…fishy. And the fishiness is only exacerbated and made more intense by the smoke. I like fish. I just don’t like tasting and smelling the same fish on my breath days later.
But we were here to peel back the layers on Herb and Wood. If Brian put it on the menu, it’s open for scrutiny. Frankly, I didn’t have high hopes for this dish and Fluffy Unicorn wasn’t too excited about the selection, either.
Our bad, because, Lawd, this was good! For starters, the brioche had a perfect texture. Buttery and tender, but with enough body that it didn’t turn to mush when topped with the smoked trout mix.
The pate-like trout spread was a beautiful compromise with a hint of smoke to develop the mild trout flavor which was then mellowed by the airy, almost mousse-like presentation. The roe was a brilliant addition as it gave the entire dish a bright and juicy liquid fish flavor burst without the lingering over-richness that too much smoke might have caused. I don’t know if this would be on my every-time-I-go, must-order list, but it certainly set my expectations high for any future similar dishes.
Fluffy Unicorn and I have a rule when we eat out. If one eats garlic, both eat garlic. Since we both love garlic, that’s not usually an issue. In fact, the Mojo de Ajo in the description of this grilled eggplant dish is what drew our attention. Mojo de Ajo is a simple sauce, essentially comprised of roasted garlic, olive oil and citrus juice for acid. Combined with the grilled eggplant in this course, it provided a lush, velvety dip with a light acidic counterpoint.
During this dish is when I noticed that we were taking a little international journey with the meal. We had our Asian/Pacific/West Coast influenced raw plate to start, a very European smoked fish plate next and now this Levantine, Baba Ganoush-like eggplant dish. Fair warning – this dish was Gar-Lick-Y, my friends. But it was creamy and each bite, with the crackers provided, was a new mouth filling and stomach warming experience without any of the residual pastiness that can sometimes be experienced with a dish like this.
The presentation wasn’t much on our next course, but so what. Am I the only one getting tired of pretty food that doesn’t come close to delivering on its visual promise? Besides, the plate struck a chord with me, which it might not have done had it been covered with all kinds of fluffy, pretty stuff.
All of a sudden, I felt as though I was sharing a meal with 200 or so of my second cousins while visiting a distant great Aunt at her country manor someplace really cool like Albania or the Black Forest or the foothills of the Carpathian mountains. The food we were enjoying was hearty, fresh and had beautifully balanced, earthy, intense flavors. The preparations and presentations were a throwback to the days where you gathered, harvested, caught or hunted the raw ingredients for your meal and prepared it in the best way possible, with little waste and certainly no time or energy to hunt around for a bunch of pretty stuff to throw on the plate that make no sense flavor or nutrition-wise.
As you can see, there was not a bit of garnish or foo-foo on this plate, and it wasn’t missed at all. The message was coming through loud and clear – at Herb and Wood, the food is the star. Eat it, enjoy it and don’t worry trying to figure out what the other 38 pretty components are.
This roasted, lemon herb stuffed branzino topped with olive tapenade and wrapped in a salty, crispy wonton-like wrapper of serrano ham made me remember why I love food so much. It packed a salty, meaty punch that was balanced and intensified by a judicious drizzle of a chile infused olive oil and the bright flavors of the tapenade. We had traipsed into the realm of the Mediterranean with this dish and it was a grand realm.
The black Iberian pig is pretty much the Range Rover of all pork. It’s a free-ranging European species that roots around in forests eating mushrooms and acorns and stores a ton of fat, unusually, amongst its muscular tissue. The most common rendition of this pig that we see, usually at high end meat markets or meat-centric restaurants is Jamon Iberico, the cadillac of all cured ham products with a price point that would make Warren Buffet squeal.
The Iberico Pork Secreto (shoulder) we had here was luscious, with the intense, almost nutty flavor that Iberico pork is known for, but mollified and smoothed over by the delicious marbling and snappy, yet supple texture of the meat. There were cannellini beans and arugula which added some accentuating herbal and calming notes to the dish and the apple mostarda infused broth was like the thread that wove everything together. This was a textural and flavor symphony.
We were supposed to be done after the entrees, but, hey, we skipped the salad, remember? We’d had our eyes on the oxtail gnocchi from the moment we sat down. So many things to eat, so little stomach room. The gnocchi on this dish were ever so slightly cooked past the al dente stage, but given the rest of the meal to this point, the Hall Pass rule was in effect. The dish was rich. The beautifully stewed oxtail combined with the gnocchi in an herby, oily, sherried concoction that was reminiscent of some chemically created nutty brown butter from a crazy haired scientists laboratory.
Dessert is usually not an option for us – ummm, we eat a lot and rarely have room for sugary calories. The sheer lusciousness of this meal had us longing for something to tame the crazy emotions evoked throughout the evening, though, and we had seen this delivered to the table next to us. Souffle…I know it’s a difficult dish to execute properly, but even so, most of the time the versions you get are fairly pedestrian – chocolate and cream or some other basic flavors fill up a 90% air pastry dish which starts to wilt the minute any moisture hits it.
This was a night of revision on many levels. Revision of a good chef’s food, revision of how great food should be served, revision of judging a restaurant on its merits and not its bar scene and revision of my opinion of souffle. Of all of the great dishes we tried on this evening, this is the one that dances through my dreams.
It had an airy, smooth, slightly bouncy texture, reminiscent of a sponge cake that married an angel food cake and had the most delicious babies ever. The blueberry compote was not overly sweet, yet not overly tart without being overly blueberry-ish. Combined with the buttermilk creme fraiche and the ginger compote, there was almost not enough elbow room on the patio as we dug in like a robotic army of backhoes gone rogue until not even a crumb was left to be casually brushed away.
Here’s the Rundown on Herb and Wood:
Herb and Wood is located in Little Italy on Kettner, adjacent to Juniper and Ivy and the new Crack Shack. It’s a large open dining space with a big bar. Since it’s deeper than it is wide, the dining room seems a bit cavernous at first, but the open kitchen and patio dining area serve to lighten things up a bit and there is ample room between tables to ensure that you don’t have too intimate an experience with your neighbors. Valet parking is available at the entrance to the restaurant for $8.
It’s an international type of country-esque fare that’s being presented here. There are no noticeable trendy, modern, molecular or otherwise component altering techniques being used. Classical platings and ingredients combined with simple, comfortable presentations make every dish a classic. Service was highly attentive without being intrusive. Even as our server attended to our neighbors, we felt as though she always had an ear and eye tuned in for any needs we might have.
Reservations are available on-line and, surprisingly, were fairly easy to get within a few days notice.
Prices were truly very reasonable for this area. Share plates and starters ranged from the $8-$15 range while entrees were slightly unbelievable with price points starting in the high teens and ranging up to the mid-$30’s. The one outlier was the Grilled Dry Aged Ribeye, a 16 oz cut that weighed in at $69. I’m not gonna lie – it got a good hard look from me, but I figured I could try 2 entrees and dessert for the same price, and for once, reason prevailed. No such promises on the next visit.
Cocktails, which were absolutely on point, ranged in the $12-$15 ballpark. So figure drinks, starters, entree and blueberry souffle – $40-$75 per person. More than reasonable for any fine dining in this area, particularly for what ended up being one of our better meals of the year, to date.
It’s not fair to say Brian Malarkey is “back” as it could be disputed as to whether he was ever “gone”. However, this restaurant and the food he is serving here has vaulted into a tie with its neighbor Juniper and Ivy for the top places I would bring any special guest or out of town visitor that I wanted to impress with some of the best food San Diego has to offer. Cheers, my friends!
2210 Kettner Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92101