Epicurious Eating: The Red Door
Consumption in the comfort zone
Published Thursday, 03-Sep-2009 in issue 1132
Outgoing restaurant critic for The New York Times, Frank Bruni, recently wrote in his final column on how to best navigate a menu when dining out. Among his pearls of wisdom, he advises, “Scratch off appetizers and entrées that are most like dishes you’ve seen in many other restaurants, because they represent the most dutiful, conservative and profit-minded.” He continues by saying that “the chef’s heart isn’t in them.”
Had he been speaking specifically to San Diego restaurant goers, I suspect he would have added something along the lines of: “Keep a good pen with you at all times.”
Culinary revelations in this town remain scant — welcomed by some, weirdly eschewed by others. This is despite dozens of sharply designed restaurants that continue emerging in a lousy economy – which brings me to the very cute Red Door in Mission Hills.
It was in this exact spot nearly a decade ago, that Chef Amiko Gubbins of Parallel 33 began exposing San Diegans to what is now the stale concept of “global cuisine.” Oh, but what an adventure it was consuming Moroccan this and Indian that after enduring a steady diet of surf-and turf. Now, in these later years, it appears we’ve become entrenched in a no-end-in-sight drift of “comfort food.”
The Red Door barely crosses that secure boundary amid redundancies of Ceasar salad, crab cakes, braised beef short ribs, grilled flat-iron steak, salmon filet, etc. You need only offer your appetite to a local restaurant once a month before your belly is pervaded with these foods.
Visiting with a companion in the wine business, we applauded Red Door’s ambitious wine program, which affords you numerous selections available by the half glass, full glass or bottle. Looking for a perfectly spiced, food-friendly Côtes du Rhône? Or a cherry-like Italian Barbera? You’ll find them here, plus some, at affordable prices.
The food menu lacks bravery in comparison, with the arguable exception of pork cheeks appearing in a main course with scallops — or Wellington-style on the appetizer list. We chose the latter, an outstanding disc of puff pastry encasing the rich, supple meat and encircled with super-sweet onion marmalade and a rust-colored reduction of wine-spiked veal stock. If you’re a newcomer to pig jowls, don’t be afraid. It’s among the tenderest meat known to modern-day carnivores. And this preparation is noteworthy.
Other starters we tried included soup of the day – black bean making its debut, though without the support of cilantro or chili oil or something other than sour cream to make it sparkle. A flash-grilled salad of romaine hearts left our palates pining for hints of char and warmth. Flamed lettuces are tricky business: grill them too long and they turn thready. Yank them off the fires too soon, and you end up with nothing more than softened salad at room temperature. Such was the case.
An appetizer called “Broken Shrimp Creole” is a misnomer, because the medium-sized shrimp are served in their whole form – a few with tails on, one butter-flied, but none actually cut up. They came bathed in a reddish sauce of onions, garlic, green pepper, cream, white wine and Cajun spices. The sauce tasted delightfully vibrant up front, but disappeared on the tongue seconds after. The real winner on the plate was a cube of cheesy polenta, which the sauce permeated more playfully.
I was particularly fond of the “juice” augmenting a dozen baby Manila clams originating from British Columbian waters. Hints of New England surfaced from a basic merge of white wine, garlic, parsley and tomatoes, yet with occasional zing from finely ground chorizo resting at the bottom.
Comfort and conformity ruled our entrées. Chef Brian Johnston does a turkey meat loaf from his family’s recipe archives. But what goes into it we’ll never know, thanks to “house-made” barbecue sauce dominating the hefty meat slice, which was unfortunately mushy in the middle. If the sauce is indeed homemade, I’d say that someone discovered the precise specs to duplicate the commercial bottled stuff. The meal’s saviors were buttery, par-cooked vegetables and a crock of mac ’n’ cheese that boasted the addicting tang of Swiss fondue. The recipe, we were told is a tight secret, but I’d bet a mortgage payment that Gruyère was in the fold.
A thick, maple-brined pork chop relayed a stubborn texture from being overcooked by a few critical minutes. The glaze was a confusion of maple syrup, molasses and fig-balsamic. At first I tasted black licorice. Small waves of harmony ensued, leaving me to believe that this recipe can find salvation with a little fine tuning.
The dessert list is a continuation of the down-home paradigm: IBC Root Beer floats; warm brownie sundae, a satisfying mini banana-cream pie and decent fruit cobbler. Though higher on our list of “likes” is the restaurant’s tasteful remodel that strikes a welcoming, airy feel from paned windows, crown molding, wainscoting and an accent wall plastered with laminated pages from old encyclopedias. And yes, the door leading into this Nubian venture is indeed red.