For our final meal in San Diego, we had been pretty excited to sample the fare of Top Chef alum Brian Malarky at his fairly new establishment Searsucker. Chef Malarky was a personal favorite of mine during his season, for his cooking, his wacky personality, his creativity, and his hats, and I was really looking forward to the meal. After strolling around and witnessing the hijinx that go on in San Diego's Gaslamp District, we headed over for our 9 pm reservation.
Everything about the decor of the dimly lit, cavernous restaurant screams "trendy hotspot," from the high ceilings, exposed brick walls, brightly colored art, mismatched furniture, huge central bar, and open kitchen. And the place was packed, even late on a Sunday night. This is definitely not the place for an intimate dinner - the noise level, while not defeaning, was pretty significant.
Perhaps the pinnacle of the meal came while we were waiting in the expansive bar area to be seated. One of the highlights of the drink menu is the Peter Rabbit, a cocktail made with Pimm's #1, bruised basil, pressed lemon and pickled carrot. I never dreamed a drink with pickled carrot could go down so smooth, but it was really excellent. Unfortunately, the rest of the meal did not live up to the promise of the drink.
Perusing the menu, we were delighted with the whimsical-seeming nature of the items. This delight would not be borne out. We started with an order of the duck fat fries (below). These were pretty good fries, don't get me wrong, but nothing special - would it be sacriligious to say that there was nothing about them that to recommended over, say, McDonald's fries? I had hoped that the duck fat would be a more assertive presence, but that was not the case.
We were really amped about the Farm Bird Lollipops with "Snake Oil" and bleu fondue (below), and were disappointed to find that these "lollipops" were nothing more than chicken wings and bleu cheese dip. "Snake Oil" is less exotic then it sounds - merely the name of the house brand. Seems like a lot of puff from a company who's philosophy is 'an honest approach to making great food'. Nevertheless, the wings were juicy and flavorful, and we were hungry enough that we finished them off.
We also got the jalepeno-chorizo "Corn Off The Cob" (below). Fresh corn is a favorite of mine, and the chorizo bits gave a good salty boost to the flavor. But we expected it to be spicier - the jalepenos didn't really add very much and as a result, the side dish felt a little boring.
Our first entree selection was the pork butt (below). Sous-vide and served with grilled peaches and bacon emulsion, this one sounded like a can't-miss. And it wasn't exactly a miss - the meat was tender and well-seasoned - but the dish was kind of forgettable. A few cubes of peach came along for the ride, but didn't really bring anything to the plate. And the bacon emulsion? Well, there's a fine line between subtle and non-existent. The flavor of the emulsion here came down on the "missing" side of that line.
The last savory course of the evening was the most problematic, though, the scallops "Baja" with foie gras and figs (below). In theory, it sounds just spectacular. In execution? Well..that was a different matter. The scallops were well-cooked, but incredibly, almost inedibly, salty. So salty, in fact, that they completely overwhelmed the flavors of the foie gras and figs. Criminal, right? At least they were pretty to look at. Sigh...
The meal couldn't be redeemed by dessert either. The King Sundae (below), which included Mark's favorite dessert ingredients: peanut butter ice cream, bacon and honey caramel, bananas, whipped cream and candied peanuts felt uninspired. The sundae was about eighty percent whipped cream and the remaining ingredients fell short of creating any sort of magic... and magic is what you (and by "you" I mean Mark) expect when peanut butter, bacon and banana get thrown into the mix. He finished the sundae almost all by himself, but he did it with sunken shoulders.
We were having such a good weekend that a less than stellar meal was not enough to derail our happy train, but I don't think either of us would be quick to return. Maybe it was partially our fault - we were expecting a lot out of the kitchen, and we all know how expectations can sabotage an otherwise good meal. But in our opinion, the dishes were plagued with problems, mostly in execution.
Searsucker is clearly filling a void on a strip of the Gaslamp that includes a lot of meat-market bars and old steakhouses. If you're marking success by turnout, the 7,000 square-foot restaurant is always packed. But when it comes to the food, the promise never made it from the page to the plate. My verdict? Grab a cocktail or a local microbrew at the bar and enjoy the scene.