I happened to catch a glimpse of Chef Daniel Barron through the kitchen door at Bull and Grain, one of Hillcrest’s newest casual dining spots. That’s all there was to see. How two to four cooks sling food for a dining room and patio full of guests in a space smaller than the armoire I and my wardrobe have been consigned to the last thirty years is a mystery. The fact that Bull and Grain is turning out great food is not so much a mystery as a miracle, given the space constraints in the kitchen are so restrictive that the expo station is in the dining room.
Compared to some of Chef Daniel’s past recent gigs, the size of the kitchen alone at Bull and Grain might be considered a downgrade. Yet, chefs go through phases in their careers, needing changes of pace, location and scenery, just as the rest of us do, in order to learn new techniques and develop new styles as much as to avoid burnout and staleness. Perhaps that’s what Bull & Grain is to Daniel – an opportunity to dig back into the nitty gritty of local, community style chef’s life and bring his comprehensive knowledge of the restaurant industry to bear at a fledgling restaurant with fledgling owners.
At least, that would be one explanation for why one of the consistently best chefs in town, who in the course of his career has received national level accolades for his talent in the kitchen, was serving and bussing tables when servers didn’t show on time for the new Sunday brunch service. You might even say it served him right since opening Bull and Grain for weekend brunch was largely his idea. But, the number of chefs in town that would deign to work the front of the house under any circumstances is probably less than the number of Prop 64 seedlings we’re now allowed to propagate at home.
On the other hand, if being shorthanded front of house gave Daniel a chance to get out of the coat closet that also doubles as a kitchen, that’s probably not a bad thing. If it gave him a chance to whisper some well placed service pointers to the staff who were present, that’s a leadership thing. If it gave him a platform to hold accountable some of the staff who didn’t show up on time, that’s a thing I’d love to have on video to watch over and over again. Besides, having him in the dining room made me feel safe, in case I choked while double fisting his food into my mouth. I don’t know if he actually knows the Heimlich maneuver, but something tells me he’d give it a go anyway, probably laughing the entire time.
So, yes, the service at Bull and Grain is a tad spotty. At least it’s not snotty. And, let’s face it, spotty (and snotty) service in Hillcrest is probably more the norm than a deal breaker. Add to that equation an accomplished executive chef caring enough about his new gig to do whatever it takes to fill the seats and keep patrons happy, it’s safe to say that things on that front will get better.
Doesn’t matter, though. The food was always going to be the star at Bull and Grain, anyway. Daniel has a flair for deep, soul filling Americana style food with a twist, the twist being full flavors and interesting textures that don’t exceed the realm of comfortable, everyday dining but with plenty of interest for the adventurous. Combined with his knack for creating a solid base of offerings containing crowd pleasing Asian flavors, you pretty much have the epitome of West Coast “American” cuisine, not so much fusion as a nod to the Pacific Ocean just a frisbee toss away and the impact of the citizens that have moved their homes and families to this side of it.
The appetizer of curry coconut mussels, for instance, is an eye popper. There’s a lemony sweetness to the dish that offsets the fact that it’s curried almost to the point of no return. With the butter enriched creaminess of the coconut milk in play, you’re spared the sweaty sniffles that usually accompany overly spicy food. Far from nullifying the spice, the sweet and acidic elements allow for the full flavors to shine and the spice to lightly warm without being obliterated by the potential harshness of the curry.
Throw in a classically braised, hefty pork shank that will put the meat lover in the family into a coma or an octopus tentacle with a tender, charred, smoky savoriness that rivals the best smoked anything in town and you’ll find see what I mean about it being comfortable food. Flavors fall well within that sweet spot, familiar and recognizable, but seem to be more concentrated than you’ve ever had before, impacting your nerve endings and memories for some time after you’ve munched the last bite. You’re not going to be able say it’s just like Mom used to make, but you’re probably going to wish it was. It also doesn’t hurt that portions are gut filling, plenty to take home for leftovers is you’re so inclined or, better yet, share – which is the foodie way of doing things.
Add in Sunday brunch offerings like house made Bloody Marys, a gargantuan chicken fried steak that has a batter almost light enough to be considered tempura, but hard to confirm even as you’re spooning up every last drop of the country gravy, and you’ve pretty much got a great, local, morning, noon and evening spot to hang at. The cocktail program should most definitely not be ignored here, either. As with the food, mixed drinks are executed at a superb level to match the inspired dishes with well-developed flavors at a price point that fits the neighborhood.
Maybe Bull and Grain is exactly what Daniel needed…a place that needed him. Which also makes it, for now, a place that the rest of us need. See you there, and Cheers, my friends!
1263 University Ave
San Diego, CA 92103