San Diego restaurants change hands almost as frequently as dice at a Las Vegas gaming table.
Far less common is the restaurant that maintains its staff, management and general ambiance while occasionally altering radically its culinary style. Only one such place comes readily to mind, downtown's comfortably chic Pacifica Grill. Over the years it has switched from California cuisine to a "grazing"-style menu to a neo-Cajun format and, recently, to a menu entirely devoted to the updated Southwest cuisine that currently is the chili-hot rage from New York's East Side to L.A.'s Westside.
Food fashions come and go so rapidly these days that one draws the line at predicting if Southwest-style cooking will still be trendy, or even available outside its Santa Fe, N.M., headquarters, a year from now. However, this cuisine offers plenty to the serious, contemplative diner who would like to try something new and has brought an open mind along with his companion and charge card.
This new cooking began a couple of years ago both in Santa Fe and in the Bay Area and has caught on especially well in Houston and Dallas. But Santa Fe remains its mecca, and it was to that city that Pacifica Grill proprietors Deacon Brown and Kipp Downing made a recent field trip. Executive chef Neil Stuart went along and came back armed with a sheaf of recipes for creating utterly new dishes by recombining styles and flavors that have been around for centuries.
The essence of modern Southwest cooking is to reinterpret and broaden the dishes traditionally prepared by the region's Indians and white settlers, who created a relatively varied cuisine from a limited range of raw materials.
The new Pacifica Grill menus would have read like a unknown language to the restaurant-goers of just 10 years ago. Consider, for example, such dishes as canarditas (name for a clever dish of carnitas made from duck); charred leg of lamb with cilantro pesto ; a wonderful fajita of wild mushrooms with herbs and Maui onions; black bean chili made with buffalo, and so forth. In each case, the dish has a definite familiarity, but each also immediately stands out as something new and fresh.
Simply being new, of course, is not the point--things have to be good . Fortunately, Pacifica Grill hits the mark on almost every occasion, and frequently with great precision and style.
The restaurant prints menus daily, and many of the dishes repeat from lunch to dinner, with the evening prices perhaps 15% or so higher (a rather low lunch-to-dinner markup). Meals at both hours were sampled.
The effort to make everything Southwestern sometimes is achieved through the most expedient means. A salad of red Romaine lettuce with a Caesar-flavored dressing, for example, was given a regional character by substituting crisp squares of corn tortilla (OK, so they were corn chips) for the typical bread croutons. Otherwise, it was a fairly standard Caesar, distinguished by a dressing lively with extra anchovy and lemon.
Almost every dish has an accompanying salsa, relish, dressing or sauce. In many cases, the kitchen's intended effect is achieved only when the main item and garnish are faithfully consumed in tandem. In the case of the trio of empanadas (one each of curried lamb, smoked chicken, and a goat cheese-spinach combination), the fancy corn salsa seemed an empty gesture because it fought the excellent lamb curry and did nothing for the other pastries. However, the many garnishes served with the canarditas turned the plate of moist, rich, slowly cooked chunks of duck into a wild festival of flavors. The choices include salsa cruda; orange segments sprinkled with chopped cilantro and red onion; sour cream; golden wisps of deep fried, shredded jicama; fat avocado slices, and wild rice topped with black bean puree, all of which the diner rolls burrito-style with the duck inside hot flour tortillas.
Many dishes are billed as "small plates" (as opposed to "appetizers"), and one of these with a salad or cup of soup can make a light but pleasing meal. One of the best is the wild mushroom fajita, a tortilla folded around a meaty-seeming, if meatless, combo of succulent mushrooms, fresh herbs, strips of sauteed red and yellow peppers and snippets of green scallion tops. The confetti-colored effect is continued by the garnish of sour cream decorated with bright corn salsa. Note how this dish echoes, but completely rearranges, the currently popular steak and chicken fajitas available everywhere from formal restaurants to fast food outlets.
A wonderful depth of flavor and biting after-tang of black pepper make the roasted eggplant and tomato bisque an unusually savory soup; eggplant rarely appears in soups, but this dish proves that it can be used to advantage.