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Photo courtesy of The Smoking Goat

There are some restaurants that just make sense. They fit snugly into their community, matching its mood and giving its denizens exactly what they crave while luring in outsiders in search of an altruistic taste of the neighborhood. Such is the case with The Smoking Goat in North Park.

Parked in a smallish single-column space on 30th Street just above Upas, this constantly-packed eatery makes up for its overly intimate floorplan with food that justifies all the hype and patronage the young upstart’s received since debuting in one of San Diego’s most competitive, resto-dense areas last year. Chef/owner Fred Piehl, a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, brings an unpretentious yet authentic taste of France to everyday people via classic bistro style fare infused with tantalizing flecks of local flavor. Many have attempted to execute this concept in America’s Finest City, but few have pulled it off as nicely as Piehl.

The covers speak for themselves in this regard. Snagging a seat at The Smoking Goat can be a bit challenging. They don’t take reservations (the best one can do is call ahead so they can hold your seat for 15 minutes … hope you live close by). With little space and loads of interested patrons, they do just fine winging it. There’s no shortage of folks looking for their fix of comforting dishes like a plump leg of confited duck served over creamy risotto studded with seasonal produce that, rather than being overcooked into mushy oblivion, still packs firm, just-over-blanched crunch.

On one visit, I brought two friends and we decided to stick to the left side of the menu, which consists of small plates that are perfect for sharing; the more-than-decent portion sizes ooze value for dollar (in a neighborhood where that is typically not the case). We found an unexpectedly high level of savoriness in a venison terrine that had been cooked in a sheath of bok choy to keep the hardly-present but much-needed fat in the mix. Additional vibrance was provided in the form of tart house-pickled baby veg and some mighty delicious house-made mustard (this coming from a mustard addict).

A plate of veal sweetbreads was a talking point for hours after our meal was over. Often a textural nightmare, these breads were perfectly cooked and literally sweet thanks to the addition of a viscous sauce whose boldness added great depth to the dish. The only ho-hum offering we indulged in was a spinach salad with goat cheese, a red wine vinaigrette that was a bit too subtle for me and nuggets of pork belly that seemed to disjoint the dish. Maybe I was yearning for more traditional lardons, but they seemed too large and heavy to harmonize with the greens and came across as evidence of trying too hard to keep up with current trends.

Other heart- and belly-warming entrées include a baked gratin of macaroni cheese (which features one of the tastiest cheese blends of any I’ve had in S.D., even if the béchamel is a bit on the grainy side) and a fromage-adorned burger on brioche, which looks and tastes right at home beside a towering mound of San Diego’s app-of-the-moment: duck fat fries (I’m not complaining). Adding even more addictive allure to The Smoking Goat’s taters is an additional tossing in fragrant truffle oil, which takes over the restaurant’s intimate confines and welcomes guests upon entry.

That invigorating, appetite-priming scent is a sure thing. Unfortunately, a smile and friendliness aren’t. If there’s one drawback to The Smoking Goat’s model, it’s that the space and staff are too teensy to adequately service the large number of diners the restaurant attracts. This makes for night-in and night-out stress for servers. There’s but one aisle leading from the outdoor dining area, through the front door, down the dining room and back to the kitchen and the restroom, so hiring more wait staff wouldn’t be an adequate method for solving this problem. There’d be no place to put them, and they’d spend all their time bumping into each other and patrons making a beeline for the facilities.

Servers react differently to the cramped quarters and unyielding pace. Some, like the pro who provided some of the best service I’ve enjoyed in a while during my first visit, grin, bear it, suck it up and do their best. He was slow to get the job done, but certainly not because of a lack of effort on his part. I admired his even keel, roll-with-it attitude and his ability not to let his stress wreck our party’s good time. Then there are those who make it abundantly clear how stressed out they are with unkind tones, impatience, an everpresent grimace and a prickly strut that makes it clear they are not in the mood to be bothered with requests, questions or anything else. Unfortunately, this was what I encountered more often than not, both in person and on the phone. While I know plenty about stressful jobs (although I'm not talking about food writing), understanding and identifying with one’s plight does nothing to manufacture sympathy when I’m paying money for food and purchased politeness.

This is the only chink I can really find in the armor of a sturdy dining spot that, at its center, has a great deal of nobleness and flavor. Piehl’s vision for a cozy neighborhood spot with solid food spotlighting his technical specialties has been beautifully realized in a restaurant that is as charming aesthetically as it is on the palate. The space exhibits a rustic farmhouse artfulness based largely around carnivorous aspirations. Food is at the forefront and in The Smoking Goat’s fatty underbelly.

Saturated fat seems a perfect segue for my next topic. Desserts are decadent and a cut above, creatively. They rotate on a regular basis, but there’s one that’s exhibited some staying power thanks to its bold flavors ranging from homey and familiar to boozily nouveau. That meal-ender meshes banana bread that’s been browned in a skillet with warm caramely flambéed banana goodness and a contrasting scoop of cold bourbon ice cream. It’s an inventive and sinfully satisfying sign-off you won’t soon forget.

The same can be said for most nights at The Smoking Goat. If you can get a seat, it’s a safe bet you’re also going to get some really great grub. Good things come to those who put in the effort, no matter how bothersome it may be. Fortunately, nothing helps one shrug off the pain of jockeying for a seat and transition into nosh mode like affordable vino and, Tuesday through Friday, bottles of wine are half-off. So order up, rejoice in your secured real estate and enjoy living off the land at this exceptional urban pasture.

Details »
  • City: San Diego
  • Phone: 619-955-5295
  • Name: The Smoking Goat
  • Address: 3408 30th Street