Epicurious Eating: The Ritual Tavern
Published Thursday, 29-Oct-2009 in issue 1140
San Diego’s first-ever Beer Week is fast approaching, and The Ritual Tavern is hopping into the froth with six different tastings and dinners planned for the countywide event, which takes place Nov. 6 through 15. Yet for denizens of this distinctive North Park haunt, every week is cause for sudsy celebration.
Brimming with European coziness, the two-year-old Ritual feels more indigenous to a quaint hub of London than to an architecturally trite section of San Diego. Old-fashion lamp posts and beveled glass doors herald your entrance. Inside, deep-green walls trimmed in dark wood flow from tavern to dining room. There are no flat-screen televisions turning customers into social zombies. (Hurray!) And at any given time the classically handsome bar shows off more than 50 bottled brews from around the globe, plus eight taps highlighting local and worldly crafts along with a cask option that changes weekly. All combined the beer choices are sometimes intimidating, yet always invigorating.
The Ritual runs along the lines of a gastropub, meaning that you’ll encounter familiar chow like fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, burgers, etc., but with quality twists. (Catfish pairs with the chips; lamb and beef go into the shepherd’s pies; the burger meat is Angus from Niman Ranch; and condiments are homemade.)
The gastro concept extends further to dishes uncommon to old-school pubs, which is where Chef Dylan Weaver comes in. Having taught at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, he compliments the template established by owners Michael Flores and Staci Wilkins with things like cream-laden pumpkin soup that was lusciously thick and deeply spiced. It’s a seasonal offering, so get it while it lasts. Another starter, crab cakes dressed in dill aioli, played exceptionally well to slices of raw red onions and swirls of cranberry sauce.
Pork tenderloin was among the daily specials, a minute overcooked but swarmed by superb jus, fresh and garlicky local green beans and gangbuster mashed potatoes that were dappled with fresh sage and onions.
From the regular entrée list, Weaver gives Jidori chicken breast a pleasing Mediterranean spin by draping it in a smooth sauce of white wine and Parmesan cheese. Alongside was perfectly cooked mushroom orzo mixed with artichokes and big, sweet chunks of sun-dried tomatoes. It became our favorite dish, with shepherd’s pie ranking last.
Our caveat was that beneath the pie’s mashed potato cap, the innards resembled tomato-y minestrone soup rather than those meaty gravy-based fillings passed down by peasant housewives from late 18th-Century England. The minced beef and lamb were scant, thus over-pronouncing the rustic mélange of chunky carrots, parsnips and green beans accented untraditionally by tomatoes. The menu features a vegan version of the pie with tofu, which I’m guessing doesn’t taste radically different from what we ate.
A wine-size bottle of Belgian-style Damnation ale from the Russian River carried us through our meal. Dry and hoppy, it’s an excellent food beer that matches to nearly anything you chew – the fine beer-battered onion rings served with pickle-infused remoulade not excluded. In a pre-dinner sampling, we were also struck by Chambly Noir from Quebec, a dark brew with sweet hickory undertones, yet with the gentle mouth weight of golden ale.
The beer list journeys from the West Coast to the East Coast and then to much of Europe with a colorful range of beer styles that carry ferocious kicks in some cases. Belzebuth blond, for instance, is a spicy well-endowed ale from France packing 13 percent alcohol. A fruitier Belgian Trappistes Rochefort #10 trails barely behind at 11.3 percent alcohol. If there’s a “ritual” occurring here, it’s that customers collectively abandon mass produced “yellow water” for superior brews boasting complexity and punch.
Such liquid gold even finds its way into a couple of desserts. The vanilla-crusted cheesecake incorporates two beers; Smoked Porter within the body and 30th Street Pale Ale in the surrounding caramel-like reduction. Surprisingly, their bitter whispers charm the heck out of the sugar. In a previous visit we tried the Stone Smoked Porter shake, which presented an outright flavor truce on the palate.
Service at The Ritual is casual, intimate and highly efficient. The bar and kitchen obviously communicate with the wait staff, as proven by our server’s ability to share knowledge about the beer and food. Topped with a most comfortable Old World atmosphere, it’s everything that a neighborhood dining experience should be.