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FOODfare: Red Velvet Wine Bar

Red Velvet Wine Bar

Red Velvet Wine Bar sommelier Kyle Showen.

Courtesy photo

It would be easy to accidentally write off Red Velvet Wine Bar, an intimate spot nestled at the base of the Q Building in Little Italy, as little more than yet another vino venue, but I’m here to tell you that it’s so much more. Even if it were strictly a wine bar, it would stand out for its selection of thoughtfully selected rarer varietals (whites include alvarino, pigato and grüner veltliner versus the typical chard-sauv blanc tag-team), but with an exceptional chef crafting a weekly wine- and beer-paired tasting menu that’s creatively modern and altogether delicious, this place should be regarded as a restaurant first…and a damn good one at that.

Having recently dined at The French Laundry, one of the most renowned tasting menu-only restaurants in the country, I had an ideal frame of reference walking into Red Velvet. Mind you, that didn’t mean I intended to hold them to the same set of standards. After all, dinner at TFL is $250 per person (sans beverages) while Red Velvet serves up a septet of dishes for $82 (plus $40 for beverage pairings). Still, for this frugal foodie, a price-tag like that merited high expectations.

From the get-go, those expectations were met or, in some cases, exceeded. A scan of the venue on entry revealed a sleek, sexy contemporary space complete with floor-to-ceiling windows bringing in just enough natural light to bring attention mirrors embedded in a stylish wall of black roses on the opposite wall. Such a minimalist display could come off cold were it not for the attentive staff, which is small in numbers but big on friendliness. From the moment someone walks in, they are made to feel comfortable and aware that any question they have about the food and wine selection will be met in a helpful and intelligent fashion. While wine director-slash-sommelier Kyle Showen has the wine smarts to be wine smartie, he plays down his body of knowledge to make for a better customer experience. This is to be commended considering my TFL experience was marred by a cool to the point of being robotic wait staff that failed to come anywhere close to creating the enjoyable atmosphere Red Velvet’s staff have managed to forge.

But personality can only get you so far—especially with me. Food must always come first and, come the end of my meal, that was what was foremost in my mind as I walked away feeling both satisfied and borderline giddy. Chef Luke Johnson’s dishes are smartly composed, elegantly plated and awash with poignant flavors both bold and subtle. It’s cuisine like you’d find in first-tier dining cities and food that will, hopefully, expand palates and San Diegan’s notions of what a really good restaurant looks, feels and tastes like. Gone are the days when grand scale white linen-clad dining rooms were the only place you could enjoy cuisine at the apex of culinary inventiveness. Surely, such establishments still exist, but America’s gourmet landscape is far more diverse and made up of venues of all shapes, sizes and motifs.

Thematically, Red Velvet, like many a San Diego eatery, celebrates local, seasonal edibles. The tasting menu I experienced started with a celery root soup that was just the right amount of creamy and would have been lick-the-bowl-clean outstanding even without the lovely accompanying notes added by a truffle foam and apples served two ways (crunchy matchsticks and sweet, soft-baked cheeks). This opening course, like every dish at Red Velvet was served and explained table-side by Johnson, whose talent comes through loud and clear in dishes like a risotto made green and tasty thanks to the addition of snap peas that’s accented with a Parmesan froth made from steeping Parm rinds in half-and-half and aerating the mixture just before serving. Such deft creativity is present from appetizer to entrée through to cheese course and dessert (on this night, a delectable creation marrying persimmons, pears and chocolate). The mere fact that my account of the meal has gone this far and been this lofty without mention of a succulent protein (but don’t be misled—Johnson’s duck and venison entrées were quite nice) further drives home what makes this chef, his food and this restaurant different in a very good way. The fact that the menu changes weekly is good and bag—variety’s the spice of life, but it’s sad to see some dishes make their exit.

Then there’s the wine. This is probably San Diegans’ best bet for a place where you can discover new flavors. You’d be hard pressed to get something that could be deemed “typical” or “garden variety.” But for those who fear the unknown, there’s zero cause for concern. The wine list boasts extensive and, at times, playful (but accurate) adjectives to give guests an idea of what they’re in store for and, if that doesn’t do the trick, there’s always the aforementioned affable staff.

It’s not like me to gush so openly, and, though it may not be the TFL (and, to be fair, they never claimed to be), Red Velvet is a restaurant I believe has the stuff to help perpetuate the advancement of San Diego’s dining culture in a most delightful way.

750 West Fir Street, #101, Little Italy, 619.501.4561

Celebrity Chefs Tour

My personal favorite holiday of the year, Thanksgiving is an event that should be eagerly awaited, savored and remembered (in that order), not a black box on the calendar surrounded by feelings of impending doom as one contemplates potential dining disasters brought on by a lack of kitchen inexperience. If you have doubts about your ability to fix a multi-course feast worthy of inciting gratitude amongst your loved ones, there’s still time to sign up for a culinary crash course. On Sunday, Nov. 14, Anthology will host a Celebrity Chefs Tour event featuring a diverse group of chefs who will provide tips on preparing a terrific Turkey Day spread. Chef Giuseppe Ciuffa of Giuseppe Catering and Restaurants will present the how-tos for an appetizer while the entrée will be tag-teamed by JR Cifrese and Ed Gallagher Coast 2 Coast Cuisine. Rounding out the tutorial will be cake stylist Ro Zinniger with dessert and AVE 5’s talented mixologist Mike Yen, whose creations have enough wow-factor to get you through even the most highly stressful holiday madness. There’s sure to be plenty to pick up on, but even if you don’t walk away feeling like a world class gastronome, at least you’ll leave full after having had a day’s worth of practice for the eating part of Thanksgiving. The event (which is November’s edition of a monthly series) will take place from noon to 4 p.m. and admission is $75 per person.

1337 India Street, Little Italy, 619.595.0300

And Speaking of Thanksgiving

Should you decide that the home-made route isn’t for you, there are plenty of restaurants offering holiday menus both traditional and modern. Here are a few to whet your appetite…

Addison at the Grand Del Mar is celebrating in gourmet style with a seven-course autumnal tour de force headlined by herb-turkey roti with cornbread purée and foie gras and finished with a caramelized pumpkin tart with praline crème glacé. ($145-$220 per person)

Bertrand at Mister A’s interpretation of the holiday includes a three-course pre-fixe menu with options like Vidalia onion soup with quail egg and Comté cheese, 48-hour bone-in short ribs and pumpkin bread pudding. ($55 pp)

BICE is keeping its Italian point of view intact with a five-course dinner featuring anti pasti, orecchiette pasta with turkey meatballs and turkey stuffed with pancetta, chestnuts and berries. ($49.99 pp)

The Marine Room at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club will have a special a la carte menu featuring tupelo cider-glazed free-range turkey, steelhead salmon and five-spice pumpkin pie.

Mistral at Loew’s Coronado Bay Resort is offering three-course meal with pumpkin soup, mushroom and chestnut-stuffed turkey breast and lemon-orange blossom cheesecake. ($39 pp)

Pacifica Del Mar is offering the plethora of options you’d expect on Turkey Day. Among their bounty of offerings are poached persimmon salad, slow-cooked Angus prime rib and chocolate-pecan pie with Jack Daniel’s caramel sauce. ($15-$49 pp)

Tapenade is going the three-course route and offering up hearty delights like beef shank and onion soup, free-range turkey two-ways (roasted and braised) and a butternut squash roulade dessert. ($24-$38 pp)

And the Winner Is…

So often, we, the public at large, hear about fun things like fund-raisers and culinary competitions that happen around town, but seldom do we ever hear how they went or who came out victorious. Well, that all ends here. Earlier this month, I told you about a Pad Thai Throwdown going down at Saffron in San Diego’s Five Points community where three chefs—Saffron’s Su-Mei Yi, Alchemy’s Ricardo Heredia and Craft and Commerce’s Craig Jimenez—squared off in a bid for spicy noodle supremacy. In the end, it was chef Heredia whose black garlic and crispy chicken version won came in as the judge’s and audience’s favorite. Even better than that dual-purpose win was the fact that the event raised over $700 for local charities. The same can be said for the 7th annual Chef’s Showdown, which netted over $110,000 for the Center for Community Solutions’ anti-domestic violence efforts. That Iron Chef-style public melee was won by a team of chefs led by Scotty Wagner (Eden and Chile Co. Catering) and further bolstered by Norma Martinez (El Vitral), Jesus Gonzales (Cups), Joe Busalacchi (Busalacchi’s), Augie Saucedo (The Shores Restaurant) and Michael McDonald (Top of the Market). Kudos to these culinary competitors who, like the many that benefitted from these charity events, walked away winners.