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Friday, June 10, 2005 | I have had two trips to New York in the last two weeks. Both times I have come away feeling as if I had been shot with adrenalin. Of course my favorite thing to do in the city is eat. The excitement of selecting just the right place or finding just the right bakery or chocolate shop keeps my mind in constant turmoil.
My first visit was at a James Beard House dinner. Those are always a wonderful opportunity to sample the menus of chefs from all over the country. They are also the bargain of the century when you figure you get a five- or six-course meal with paired wines, a champagne reception with passed hors d’oeuvres and generally a goodie bag to take home. All this comes for the grand sum of $110 with tax and tip included. The house is open for business six nights a week. Check their Web site for the monthly schedules.
Although on a tight schedule I managed to visit Kee’s Chocolates on Thompson Street in the West Village. Here in a shop the size of a closet, Kee, a former Wall Street banker, makes by hand every confection in her case. No fancy equipment lives in this store. Instead, a woman with a passion for what she does, makes people like me come back every time we are in the city. Try her key lime ganache-filled chocolate or the ones filled with lemon basil. Both will have you begging for more.
Right around the corner from Kee’s Chocolates is the Sullivan Street Bakery. Here is artisan bread at its finest as well as pizzas the likes of which San Diego has never seen. Huge big rectangles of potato pizza, mushroom pizza and fennel pizza fill the room with aromas that keep people lined up around the block on a daily basis. I buy a couple of squares and take them on the plane to eat on the way home. I’ve had many people look longingly at me as I devour my meal.
I keep thinking that the culinary scene is improving in San Diego. I tell visitors and media that all the time. But when I go to New York, I often wonder if, in fact, that is the case. For some reason we can’t seem to get the look, the approach or the buzz that makes New York such a fabulous food city.
I had lunch at Eleven Madison on one of my trips. The restaurant is located in an old bank building with big high ceilings and lots of windows. Walking in was like a breath of spring time. Huge rhododendrons in big pots were all over the room. Big bouquets of lilacs flanked the entrance. Tulips filled vases on every table. It was a joyous, happy place to be. The menu was interesting and full of spring produce. A $25 three-course tasting menu was available for lunch with choices of first courses, main courses and desserts. Service was attentive but unobtrusive. Waiters were knowledgeable about the food and the wine and happy to answer questions and chat. In San Diego, flowers and decor are probably at the bottom of every restaurant’s priority list. We feel fortunate if we can find a wait person who knows anything about wine or food. When I mentioned the lunch tasting menu to a San Diego restaurateur, he commented that no one in San Diego would pay $25 for lunch. Most won’t even pay that for dinner.
One other city meal deserves mentioning. Pearl Oyster Bar on Cornelia Street is a tiny little place. Most New Yorkers would call it a dive. Tables are tight together. Napkins are paper. But I had the best lobster roll I have ever eaten, and the shoe string fries were perfect. The wine and beer list is small but carefully selected. All wines are offered by the glass. I had a lovely glass of Piper Heidsick champagne for $13. My lobster roll was $20. San Diegans wince at the thought.
I know we can’t be New York. But we can work harder at being better. Our culinary community needs to take more risks. Give the diner an opportunity to try something new. Who knows, if the food is fabulous we might pay $25 for lunch. And our fine-dining restaurants need to spend a bit more time creating the kind of atmosphere that keeps bringing people back.
Understanding that running restaurants is a tough business, I think sometimes we have to take that leap of faith and believe that if we do it right, people will come. Just look at New York. From the highest to the lowest, people come demanding the very best. Let’s be the best that we can be for nothing makes me happier than being able to say that San Diego is becoming a culinary destination.
Pamela J. Wischkaemper is a local food consultant and is the founder of San Diego Gastronomically Correct, a group that goes on the road twice a year to promote the San Diego restaurant industry. The only criterion for membership is having cooked at the James Beard House in New York. Nineteen chefs in San Diego are members.