Saturday, August 28, 2010

Alchemy, South Park

South Park is a foodie's paradise- a little off the beaten path but easily accessible, small, quaint, but with a ton of variety and filled with local joints from your friendly neighborhood tavern to an upscale dining experience requiring a tie. The former, happily, is much more prevalent, and the majority of restaurants in the area lean more towards a casual atmosphere, with varying levels of cuisine. One of the more interesting places whose menu is a cut above the norm is Alchemy on 30th and Beech. When I find myself on that block, 9 times out of 10 it's because Hamilton's Tavern is a favorite haunt, where the beer list is huge and spills over to the menu itself.

Alchemy in nestled just south of Hamilton's by only a few doors, but the clientele is as different as the menu. Alchemy's dinner menu is broken into sections with appetizers, tapas, entrees, and desserts available with influences ranging from Italian pickled vegetables to Puerto Rican tostones. Although upon entering it appeared that the restaurant was only about half full, the host informed us that we had perfect timing and the very last table available before reservations booked up the entire floor was ready for us. The decor was extremely tasteful and welcoming, despite a noticeable crowd of upper-middle class couples. However, we didn't glaringly stand out with our attire of t-shirts and shorts, and the entire waitstaff was prompt, friendly, and helpful.

Ashton had happened to stop by with Andy the day before on a whim, and what a happy choice that was! We decided to go again for a few tapas choices before Ashton caught a plane to Vermont, so we decided upon the squash blossoms and gazpacho Anduluz for starters, and then a shared entree of the local sea bass and Thai oyster shooters to round off the meal. Unfortunately, despite the tantalizing looking dessert menu, it wasn't in the cards for us that night.

Squash Blossoms (Road Side Stand) – lightly tempura battered and stuffed with herbed ricotta, drizzled with basil oil

Andy and Ashton had tried the squash blossoms the previous occasion and sang its praises; I found it to be very satisfying in some areas and woefully lacking in others. The presentation was magnificent, the cheese was delightful, and the freshness apparent- but the bite taken from the top of the stem released a surprisingly bitter taste that completely dominated that (small) section of the vegetable. However, the majority of the plant proved to be a solid offering and I'd recommend it without hesitation.

Gazpacho Anduluz – charred tomatoes pureed with garlic, olive oil, shallot and cucumber

The gazpacho came next, and I found it to be just slightly heartier than I expected, but by no means do I consider myself a gazpacho connoisseur and it was great nonetheless! The cucumber resonated throughout the bowl, and the temperature was ideal for a summer night's enjoyment. The vibrant orange and yellow blossoms were beautiful against the tomato-red broth, and the Bread & Cie sourdough crust crowning the top was a delight, as usual.

Ashton was hungry for a bit more than tapas, so for his entree he chose the Local Sea Bass – pan roasted and served over caramelized fennel with extra virgin olive oil, grape tomatoes and capers. For some godforsaken reason, despite the fact that San Diego is on AN OCEAN and THERE ARE A BAJILLION FISH TO BE EATEN, reasonable and fresh seafood is hard to come by from what I've found. However, this fish was thick, fresh, wonderfully prepared, and an altogether glorious experience. I found it interesting that even with what seemed to be an overabundance of salty ingredients, this was by no means overly salted, which had a lot to do with the bed of cabbage-like white greens that the fish rested upon. By itself, this cabbage was a bit sweet and on the cusp of being too sour, but with the fish and the jus it was just delicious. The sauce was light and seemed to be simply the natural juices and a little olive oil, but it was perfectly seasoned and brought out the fresh flavor of the wish without being overpowering in itself.

Thai Oyster Shooters – fanny bay oysters, coconut milk, lemon grass, red chili, and cilantro

To wrap up the meal, we ordered the oyster shooters, which was a first for me- I love oysters, but wasn't quite sure how the "shooters" part came into it. The lemongrass was slightly stingy on the back of my throat, but there was a pleasant spice to the creaminess of the dish. Unfortunately, it was only slightly tainted by a bit of shell, and I found the lip of the glass to be a little small to accommodate the swift movement required to properly inhale this. However, I found the flavor to be complex and enjoyable- a recommendation for next time!

Overall, Alchemy seems to be able to balance an international menu without spreading themselves too thin and achieved a higher echelon of flavor balanced with a welcoming atmosphere. Next time Hamilton's is overflowing and you don't mind gussying it up a bit more, head a few doors down and enjoy!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Peking Restaurant/Chop Suey, North Park

It's a tough search to find Chinese food better than a Styrofoam takeout box with greasy noodles without skipping the middle ground and head straight for a place with a dress code and $$$ on the menu. Besides chains like Pei Wei and P.F. Changs, pickins seem pretty slim. However, North Park just happens to house a wonderful gem right on University just West of 30th smack dab in the heart of the neighborhood. Screaming neon lights proclaiming "CHOP SUEY" add a cheesy touch to an otherwise tiredly elegant restaurant with shades of a grandmother's living room, plastic chair covers and all.

Peking Restaurant a.k.a. Chop Suey is the best balance of taste, authenticity, and affordability that I've managed to find in San Diego thus far. While I'm the first to admit that a box of fried chicken smothered in sweet and sour sauce or overly salty beef and broccoli sometimes fills a disgusting niche that is oh-so-tasty and cheap, nothing beats the real deal. Serving up noodles and other authentic fare for over 75 years, this family friendly neighborhood spot seems to be a hot spot for locals in the know, where the hostess is on a first name basis with half the patrons, and dogs are tucked in corners of booths while the waitress doesn't seem to mind.

Carnivores and vegetarians alike have a multitude of options, each one better than the last. I rarely find myself absolutely stumped on what to order, but Peking Cafe's (spelled Pekin over the door, but apparently all names are interchangeable) menu boasts not only the standard Chinese-American fare, but delicacies and other tasty morsels for those seeking an authentic Asian experience. With the huge amount of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants vying for San Diego's top spot, Chop Suey stands alone and proud as the best the city has to offer.

2877 University Ave
(between Granada Ave & Kansas St)
San Diego, CA 92104
Neighborhood: North Park
(619) 295-2610