There was no question when I heard about the very soft opening of the doors at Pacific Standard Coastal Kitchen that we were heading in right away. Forget about letting them work out the kinks. That’s why they opened without fanfare and trumpeting…heck, without even a sign in place – to give themselves a chance to figure things out before the yelp and blabber brigades arrive. I love food in all its iterations and I get as excited as a baby on a booby when I get a chance to check out the next new thing prepared by the hottest new chef in town.
The real question was whether or not I was still going to be as excited after eating there as I was before. This is 2015 Top Chef contestant Giselle Wellman’s first San Diego based Executive Chef gig since she left our little ville almost a decade and a half ago to travel the country and hone her culinary skills. As such, and I stated as much in my article a month ago introducing Giselle to San Diego, I had never tasted, smelled or even seen her food before.
I was a bit reticent after a pre-visit read of her compact menu. Frankly, it wasn’t knocking my foodie socks off. It had most of the staples that can be found in numerous restaurants in the area with a noticeable lack of any stunners that jumped off the page and demanded my attention. Oysters, crab cakes, beets, salads, salmon, short ribs, chicken…been there done that. But, I had not done it with Giselle, and for the immediate future, that was enough reason to go see what she was doing.
I’m not sure if I’m getting wiser as I age, but I do know it’s better to be lucky than good.
It took two bites of the homemade brioche bread slathered generously with the homemade ricotta cheese drizzled with olive oil to realize how lucky I was I hadn’t judged Giselle’s menu by its cover. The first bite was a shock. What was this strange sensation of the buttery, salted bread melting in my mouth to marry with the slightly less rapidly dissolving ricotta cheese to impart a creamy, smooth experience that wasn’t so much bread and butter as it was a savory creme brulee-like revelation? The second bite…well, Mama always said it’s not polite to kiss and tell…but, I think there may have been whispered promises and sweet nuthin’s uttered…
And, the hits just kept on coming. The beet salad that made me wonder who had discovered how to grow produce with such perfectly balanced, innate salinity & sweetness. I mentally applauded the mad genius who had hand selected the goat cheese that presented as crumbly and finished as smooth as peanut butter, binding and co-mingling ingredients that were so fresh, it was all we could do to eat them before they ran off our plates to the nearest soil patch to re-root.
There was a theme developing as this meal progressed that made me keep thinking that, in spite of being located in heavily trafficked surroundings at the newest spot in Little Italy, I was sitting in Giselle’s kitchen and being served food that she would serve to her closest family and friends, fresh off the cutting board, out of the oven and, clearly, her heart.
Soup du jour of cucumber/melon gazpacho on a 100+ degree San Diego summer day seemed like a simple no brainer, as in blah, blah, cucumber, melon, blah. Instead, it was a sophisticated, thoughtful dish that had the expected coolness and sweet tones, with an added acidic note that made me quit slouching and a spicy, creamy dollop of some kind of magic cheese cleverly disguised as cream that put a bead of sweat on our brows to remind us why we were eating this dish in the first place. Never mind that the shrimp had been so recently placed into the chilled soup that it was still warm, giving a temperature contrast that was like drinking hot, freshly made tea poured over ice cubes, with the warmth accentuating the flavor, but inevitably and appropriately giving way to the chill.
Out of the kitchen rolled crab cakes that were nothin’ but crab, noticeably short of the bread, binders and fishy overtones that lesser versions are loaded with, bedded in a rich, pickley remoulade. I could go on and on about how the flavors of the short ribs were delightful – elegantly balanced, forward enough so that we didn’t find ourselves doing a “Where’s Waldo” mental checklist of our tongue’s surface in search of flavor, while being subtle, tender and delicate enough to allow us to finish a man-sized portion without feeling like we’d been hit over the head with a side of beef.
But, it’s the chicken that made me straighten up and reassess my life…dammit, did I say that out loud? ‘Cause, I mean…it’s chicken. I can think of two places in San Diego that I would consider ordering any chicken that isn’t fried (let’s face it, fried chicken is its own food group and deserves to be respected as such). The first place I haven’t been to in a couple of years since the chef moved on and the menu has been re-vamped, so I’m not sure if it’s even still in the conversation.
The second is Pacific Standard Coastal Chicken…ummm, I mean Kitchen. It was like whoever was in charge of cooking this chicken had taken the time to pace out the number of steps from the kitchen to my table. Then they weighed the particular piece of chicken I was being served down to the gram and carefully calibrated the oven so that the heat was within thousandths of a degree of accuracy. Next, after applying carefully measured basic salt and pepper seasoning with an extra pinch for love, they roasted and, at the perfect time, pulled the chicken from the oven just a few degrees shy of done to allow for the carryover cooking that would occur on the journey between the kitchen and me. All in one fell swoop.
One cut into the airline chicken breast almost had me weeping just like the flavorful juices that were escaping onto the plate. The light, herbal and lightly acidic beurre blanc was nice, but not really needed for accompaniment because the chicken turned out to be a symphony of tender freshness, crispy skin, clear juices and simple spices all on its own.
As for the leaking flavor and juices, the smashed potatoes with a lightly charred, beautifully seasoned crust popped their heads up to remind us they had a mission, too. We used them to wipe the plate so clean that we were surreptitiously handed a thrice folded note with a smiley face from the kitchen reminding us that “Dishwashers Lives Matter,” too.
I think the smiley face was to remind us that Giselle and team are having some fun making flavor forward, homestyle classics that will please all comers.
Pacific Standard Coastal Kitchen may be setting the new benchmark for the San Diego definition of Coastal Cuisine. There is no question that food here is about as fresh as it gets – it almost squeals with delight as you bite into it. Proceeding on the notion that anything that is so good, so simple and so unassuming can’t possibly be as easy as it seems, the technique and attention to detail here is so sophisticated and refined that diners will barely notice.
This place that will become “that place” for many. In other words, that place you’ll want to go whenever you want the best version of whatever it is you desire to eat for breakfast, lunch or dinner – in a comfortable, easy setting, with great flavors, and a noticeable lack of pretentiousness and confusion.
Here’s the Rundown on Pacific Standard Coastal Kitchen:
Attached to the Hilton Garden Inn directly on the corner of Hawthorne and Pacific Highway, valet parking is available at the Pacific Hwy facing entry of the Hilton for $5 with validation. Pacific Standard Coastal Kitchen is in the midst of a month long, extremely soft opening – so soft that there’s not even a sign up, yet. The “official” opening is August 11th, but I wouldn’t let that get in the way of trying them out now – it’s the first time in awhile I can say that there wasn’t anything on the menu I wouldn’t order again.
The interior of the restaurant itself is spacious, feeling like a 50’s style diner, with a sleek, mid-century modern style decor applied. Light fixtures hang from the ceiling that look like the toy jacks kids used to play with before there were Pokemons to hunt down. There is a row of booths along the front wall lining the sidewalk open patio, but that may change in the next week or two, as there are plans in place to knock out the wall and open the dining room onto the patio. There’s a ton of space here, seating around 220 currently, including the patio, with the ability to seat upwards of 300 or so when the adjoining open courtyard separating the hotel and restaurant is included.
Service is timely, friendly and knowledgeable. Costs are ridiculously reasonable considering first, that this restaurant is attached to a hotel and, second, that it is in Little Italy, the most happening spot for great food in these parts.
Let me not forget the cocktails and the ample bar area – the cocktail menu is like an alcoholic alchemists dream, with complex combinations cleverly combined to present as classic hi-balls, but with overtones that make you wonder how come you’ve never had this exact version before.
Homestyle, comfortable classic dishes here are like nothing you can get at home unless you have a ranch, garden and pond in your backyard and a couple of Michelin stars under your belt. That’s not to say there aren’t some exciting elements and oodles of technique being used here, but they’re being used for your enjoyment and not the chef’s. This is an approachable menu that will appeal to a wide swath of diners, from homesick to adventure seeking.
Expect to spend $30-$50 per person with apps, entrees and a cocktail or three for some of the best, perfectly prepared food you’ve had in awhile. Cheers, my friends!