Once you’ve been to Garden Kitchen, it’s easy to imagine yourself spending more time in the Rolando area. Frankly, I’ve never seen Rolando by daylight and don’t know what else it has to offer besides Garden Kitchen. But, if you’ve got a favorite neighborhood joint, you’ll find Garden Kitchen is reminiscent of THAT place. You know…that local place where you can duck in on short notice. That place where you’ll get addressed by name because they actually know and remember you. It’s that place where the tables are handmade and homemade, just like the food, and slightly rickety, which only adds to the charm of the evening. And, it’s that place where great food, company, conversation and ambience simply exist, not because it was planned to death, but, precisely because it seems like it wasn’t.
All of those things were a relief, because with a moniker like Garden Kitchen, I was concerned going in that it might be that other kind of place… the kind of place where you have to worry about where every morsel of your food was sourced, even if you didn’t care to begin with. Or, the place where you’d have to listen to a five to ten minute expository lecture on the subject. Or, maybe it would be the place serving local, half cooked carrots and turnips with original dirt still intact and roots untrimmed, flavorless meat and protein offerings, served with a full portion of other unadorned and lackluster local stuff, and large empty plates filled more with local micro greens and garnishes (all picked daily, of course) than any really substantial food.
Rather, the menu is full of fresh, local seafood, produce and expansive international offerings that are complex and cuisine accurate. Courses have a soul satisfying quality that can only be achieved with homemade flavors and textures, and those result from an attentive touch that has to involve recipe research, ingredient substitution, unlimited inspiration and maybe, just maybe, crossed fingers for a positive end result. It’s a menu that communicates the philosophy of transforming the healthiest, freshest ingredients into great meals simply by its existence and fulfillment…no additional explanation needed.
There are vegan, vegetarian and gluten free options on any given menu, any given night, for sure. But, we’re not talking dirty local veggies served au natural. Sure, you’ll be able to keep it simple with an heirloom tomato and burrata salad (or an equivalent) if you’d like, and I wouldn’t blame you a bit. I don’t know if there’s anyplace growing better tasting, sweeter, juicier tomatoes in the winter than San Diego. But, at Garden Kitchen, you’ll also find vegetarian options can range from baba ganoush to Indian saag…say that three times fast. And, it only gets better from there. The rest of the menu is like a global romp, steering you through any variety of cuisines including Moroccan, French, Italian, Latin, Southwestern, Asian and Mediterranean using eclectic ingredients such as local spiny lobster and wagyu steak.
There’s a caveat you’ll need to remember when visiting Garden Kitchen. It’s going to be good food. Real good. And, you’re going to be thinking about your next visit probably before you end your first. Only, don’t fall in love with anything on the menu. To be a regular here means you eat what you get. And, what you’ll get is a surprisingly diverse menu from Chef/Owner Coral Fodor Strong that changes daily, depending on what ingredients are available fresh from local sources.
It feels weird to say that the first course of oysters on the half shell is where I noticed the specialness of the food. You’d think it’s kinda hard to screw up a raw oyster. You’d be wrong. And, it’s certainly possible to improve on them as Coral was able to do with hers. The brightly flavored and nicely saline oysters stood up beautifully on their own, served ice cold and firm. But, instead of being accompanied by a same ol’ thing mignonette or cocktail sauce, two different sauces were served. One was a salsa style, edgy vinegar treatment with a jalapeno kick that brought a little mouth breathing into play. It also happened to marry beautifully with the second, deeply rich and satisfying, faintly sweet and sour sauce. This was a case where a half dozen oysters were not enough for two people, not just because the oysters were great, but because there were four possible flavor combinations and only three oysters each.
Dishes like the crab creme brulee showcased beautiful technique and interesting textures, once again, in a rustic style. The french name and technique aside, the crab forward flavors felt like they’d fit just as well next to a pan full of Mom’s best cornbread as they would on any fine dining table in town. The toasted bread crumb crust lent enough textural contrast to the dish so that the crab didn’t overpower, and the flawlessly smooth consistency of the “creme” had us mashing our tongues against the roofs of our mouths, fruitlessly searching for even the smallest, non-existent lump that might mar the perfection.
The hit list went on. Local spiny lobster fresh from Coral’s Dad’s boat (he’s a lobster fisherman) was finished with just a light basting of butter, but served in a bed of sweet, fresh off the cob white corn laced with cilantro. The entire mouthful shifts the focus from the barely seasoned lobster to the “perfect bite” where the herbs and sweet, toothy texture of the entire combination come into play, allowing the lobster to shine, but in a team setting.
At some point during your meal, perhaps when you’re texting everyone you know about the great new place you can’t wait to take them to, you’ll understand that everything you’re eating is imbued with a quiet confidence that exudes from Chef Coral. There’s an unspoken commitment and conviction, food-wise, that everything is within her ability to produce well while retaining the character of her freshest of fresh ingredients. Inasmuch, you have a formula for limitless combinations of excellent and distinctive fare in a homestyle, casual setting without any fear of boredom.
In fact, if you were sitting at your dinner table at home or a close friend’s house and any portion of this menu was served, it would be the most amazing home cooked meal you’ve had in awhile. It’s no less so when you’re sitting on Coral’s patio. It feels exactly right, like that’s the whole purpose of the operation at Garden Kitchen…to have friends and neighbors over on the reg and keep ’em around awhile. This experience is one of the best “home cooked” meals you can have at about the same price you’ll get a fancy lobster roll from some of the hipster spots in hipper surroundings. See you at dinner time and Cheers, my friends!
4204 Rolando Blvd
San Diego, CA 92115