Media dinners can be many things, but they are always bizarre. Pack a bunch of writers (and their sensitive egos) in a room, ply ‘em with booze, and bring on the food, and lots of it. In the best of times, these dinners are an exercise in feigned (and failed) restraint that end in self-loathing and a strong desire to put one’s stomach in a time machine to undo that second chocolate mousse bon bon that better judgement would have never allowed. The worst of times don’t usually get mentioned. In an industry where writers were once prized for their brutal honesty, it’s somehow become taboo to share any real criticism.
From a PR perspective, it’s ideal. Writers happily line up for the gavage tube, gorge themselves, and waddle out happy. When the food is good, there’s no harm in it, but when it’s bad and no one speaks up, that’s a problem. My goal as a food writer isn’t to score free meals, shake hands with the chef, and gush about how great everything was. I work for the readers, and my job is to tell the truth, even when it’s not pretty.
Case in point: burger fail at Searsucker (AHT Review here)
My last experience was such a disappointment that weeks later, it’s still nagging me, to the point that while the rest of my household happily slumbers, I’m sitting alone, in my cat-hair covered pyjamas, stewing. It’s time I told the truth: I am completely over the Malarkey empire and the proliferation of textile-named restaurants in San Diego.
This isn’t exactly revolutionary. Plenty of others have questioned the rapid expansion, wondering if opening more than 15 restaurants in 5 years is too much, too soon, and while I guess that’s probably true, it only takes walking by one of the locations in Point Loma, La Jolla, the Gaslamp Quarter, or Carmel Valley to see a steady stream of patrons. So, no matter what anyone thinks, the formula is working.
More than anything, that’s the problem: the formula. It’s the marketing that hits you the hardest, while the food is mostly forgettable. The first restaurant, Searsucker, has some soul, but every new spin-off that followed has more sheen and less substance. It feels like the focus isn’t on creating composed, tasty dishes half as much as it’s about mythologizing a chef (or chefs) to the degree that it’s beside the point when the food doesn’t come out great. Plenty of people, including the other writers I dined with, were content with the smoke and mirrors, and I don’t judge them, but when you unplug the machine, you see the emperor standing there, buck naked, and notice his ass is a little saggy.
I didn’t mention much about my “Asian cowboy” brunch at Burlap (other than to complain about the piddly portion of carrot cake), but a lot of things went wrong, burnt pancakes chief among them. Gabardine, whose supposed inspiration is a Portuguese fishing village, was worse. The restaurant’s tagline and name are one in the same. It’s a place to “gab, bar, and dine” a line that’s right on the wall, in large, unmissable letters. There’s definitely a lot of the former going on. Burlap and Searsucker are well-known prowling grounds for cougars; Gabardine is a place to gaze over your cocktail glass (suggestion: the “Miles”), at the crowd. Coming and going, everyone looks up at passerby. It’s too loud to talk, anyway. The din from the dining room was loud enough to make me momentarily consider stuffing my ears with tissue.
Over several hours, I sampled (too) many items, without finding a single one that I wanted to grab from its path around the table, abscond with, and happily devour, crouched behind a vehicle in the parking lot; an urge that strikes me surprisingly often. The presentation was creative, and the raw ingredients mostly good quality, but the chef’s approach to the food left me feeling alienated. Dishes were either too contrived or too purposefully clever, as if its maker considered the meal an opportunity to amuse and astound patrons, not to feed them a flavorful, satisfying meal. Worse yet, the portions were small, the cost was high, and most of them failed, both in terms of flavor and construction.
The wild mushroom ($10) looked promising. A generous portion of ‘shrooms sat atop toasted brioche with a little puff of fried goat cheese on top. Sounds good, right? Problem was, the crisp cheese nugget only lasted two bites, and cutting into the toast caused the mushrooms to tumble, which made getting a composed bite nearly impossible. I recall stabbing my fork into them, saying “die! die!” as I, mostly unsuccessfully, tried to get a segment of toast and a few mushrooms in the same bite. That wasn’t even the main problem: the mushrooms were completely obliterated by overzealous truffle oil application. The “sword bacon and egg” ($10) had the same issue: way too much truffle oil, a rookie mistake.
Having a burger on the menu at a seafood restaurant is a smart move, especially for patrons who aren’t into seafood… but only if you do it right. By nature, a burger is a simple, classic item, and one that people have clear expectations about. At Garbardine, the “DENEBurger” was so finely ground and overworked that it had the bouncy, chewy texture of a hot dog. The menu also made no mention of the fact that the burger is made with lamb and chorizo, which needs to be spelled out. Having reviewed nearly 100 burgers for Serious Eats, I know a good burger from a bad one, and this was one of the very worst.
I didn’t eat much of the seafood, unless you count the “Toad in a Hole”, an egg cooked with bread and tomato sauce that (surprise!) also had smoked sardines in it. This wasn’t mentioned when the dish was set down, and explained the unpleasant salty, smoky, and oily undertone. Not good. That being said, I did bring a guest who sampled everything, from the urchin ($18, with nothing but salt and lemon) to the live spot prawn. His one sentence review of the seafood portion: “the scallop ceviche was ok”. If you want uni, you can get one that’s fresher and tastier at the Little Italy Mercato, topped with mango salsa, for half the price.
Aside from the nearly flawless desserts and the cocktails, there was nothing that made me want to return.
Worse yet, as I left the restaurant, it was clear that my feelings about the meal, whether kept to myself or shared here, will most likely have no consequence. Places like this will do well because the patrons are there to gain a type of social currency. It’s a cool place, and by being there, and especially being the one to take friends or clients, you’re making a deposit in your own cache account, so goes the logic. Picky food writers who do a double-take at an overpriced local barnacle and cringe at the abundance of truffle oil aren’t the demographic. You probably aren’t, either.
Efforts to create a hip, happening place, and expand in the empire as quickly as possible would have been better spent on developing the food. The marketing-driven nature of the Malarkey (et al) formula is a hindrance, not a boon. There were some major issues with flavors and execution, and you can get a much better seafood-driven meal for much less elsewhere.
The good news is, even as the expansion of the empire continued last week with the opening of Herringbone, this particular formula doesn’t represent what’s happening in San Diego as a whole. There are plenty of honest operators who put their hearts into their food– hoping it will be that, not celebrity status— that brings hungry patrons through their doors.
That’s where you’ll find me, happily dancing in my chair while eating, and wishing that I had Inspector Gadget-style arms (or at least a very long fork) so that I could spear bits of food off unguarded plates.