Thursday, June 03, 2010

Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant - San Diego

Oh my word, how did it get to be Thursday? I think that thing is happening where the older I get, the faster time flies. Now that I'm 40, it's whizzing by with rocket-like abandon. I do have to say though, the wait for this restaurant to open did seem to stretch on. I thought it was a fabulous idea from the moment I heard about it - an affordable urban gastropub/bistro from the people behind Market. I was even more excited when I heard Rachel Going would be doing the desserts. She's amazing. Really. I wish she would open a cafe/bakery - I would be there every. single. day. I'd also have to pay every penny I earn to my personal trainer to keep it from showing.
The restaurant is located in the old Modus location, at the corner of Fourth and Ivy - just a few blocks away from Cucina Urbana. If you remember what it looked like before you'll be blown away by it now. They've opened up the space to create an airy, industrial-modern interior. All traces of the original hard-edged darkness that was Modus have evaporated. It's most pleasant when there's some daylight outside - since it floods the room with a soothing light. After sundown the dining room gets a little dark, and the candles on the tables don't quite cut the mustard. You'll have to forgive me for these iPhone photos. I took my real camera to my second visit, but it was too hopelessly dark for pictures.
Terryl Gavre, owner of Cafe 222 and one of the partners (remember her fun waffle-lady billboard in Hillcrest?) did the interior design, and designed and built this living succulent wall herself. It's really beautiful and adds a lot to the space. I also love the industrial-chic doors and windows and the mismatched flea market chairs.
Then of course, there is the food. The menu is short and sweet and features a lot of familiar favorites. In the starter category, the deviled eggs - which I have had twice - feature the punchy flavors of parmesan, bacon, arugula, capers and lemon. The saltiness and sourness become a bit much after a few bites though - and I like my food salty & sour as a general rule. The powdered lemon seasoning on the potatoes is, in my opinion, a little too strong.
The potatoes with the fish & chips were perfectly fried and crisp, but suffered the same problem. I also think British style chips (thick cut fries) would actually work better with this dish. The crisps are a fun idea - I get it - but the textures (and flavor) just work better in the traditional combination. The fish was just fine, and the little cup of house made tartar sauce was good, but the tiny pile of coleslaw (almost hidden here) seemed like an afterthought.
After the fish & chips we moved on to the Baby Lettuce and Vegetable Salad with Peas, Green Beans and Parmesan Cheese, which I neglected to photo. I'm not sure why, it was lovely - green as can be & sharply flavored. Very nice with the $25. bottle of Rioja Rose we had ordered (more on that later.)

Next came the duck confit. Some (maybe even most) chefs overdo the salt or the crisping, but Carl's confit is always perfect. It's crisp, not overly salty, and has plenty of tender meat beneath the skin. Here it was served with some fresh spring peas, a stack of roasted red potatoes, and a grain mustard sauce. I absolutely loved this.
On my second visit with some girlfriends, we tried a few more main courses, the Braised Chicken Pappardelle, the Burger, and the Crispy Pork Tacos. The tacos are another clear winner - two crisp folded tacos stuffed with juicy shredded pork. My friends loved the pappardelle they shared. The pasta was well cooked but the sauce was a little strong on the herbs and a little sweet for me, but I think that has more to do with my taste than any real issues with the dish.

I ordered the burger. They asked me if I wanted my fries truffled - thank goodness - because I did not. I don't like truffle oil, and frankly I don't even like the fact that they offer it here. It's fragrance is so invasive that I could smell the fumes wafting off the plates of the diners seated next to us. The burger itself was ok, but I was actually hoping for (and expecting) more. The meat wasn't particularly juicy or flavorful - the patty actually seemed like it might have been over-handled. The bun was made of beautiful brioche, but it was a little soft to stand up to the weight of the fillings, and the richness of brioche isn't really needed with a burger anyway. I prefer a good old-fashioned soft roll or sesame sprinkled sponge, a la the Lodge Burger at Torrey Pines, the Starlite burger, or the burger at Farmhouse Cafe. Since you can hardly swing a dead cat without hitting an excellent burger in San Diego - the above three included - I'd probably give this one a miss in favor of some of the other menu options - like Carl's justly-famous short ribs, the duck confit, or the tacos.
Whatever you do though, when you eat at Bankers Hill, make sure you save room for dessert. Pastry Chef Rachel Going is in the kitchen, and she really knows her sweets. I've tried everything, I believe, save the cookie plate. On my first visit they sent out the strawberry shortcake instead (which I can't say I'm too sorry about, since it was textbook perfect) and our server claimed they had sold out the second time - though Rachel says that's not true. (Can you tell I'm a little bitter about missing out on her Snickers cookies?) The butterscotch pudding is to die for - like Mozza's - maybe even better. The thick wedge of chocolate cake is tender, moist and dark - served with a scoop of coffee ice cream, and her pies could convert any chocolate lover to fruit desserts forever.

The wine list is also absolutely brilliant. It's a limited selection, but well- edited and amazingly affordable, with most bottles in the $20.-$30. range. On my first visit we had a bottle of the Rioja (the only Rose, so it's easy to find) - and on the second my girlfriends and I had a bottle of the Gruet sparkling and the Rock & Vine Cabernet. All excellent, and all very affordable - especially the Cabernet.

I suspect this place will become jammed as the word gets out. As they hit their stride, I hope they'll add more specials and change up the menu to keep the regulars and more adventurous palates happy. I also kind of wish they were open for lunch, since my office is only a couple of miles away. Then again, I'm not sure more access to those desserts, crispy tacos and duck confit would be such a good thing...

Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant
2202 4th Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101-2112
619) 231-0222


  1. Thats it, I'm hoping to drag my poor, long suffering husband there tomorrow night, everything looks fantastic and I'm just dying to dry rachel's delicious desserts!

    I was a bit sad to see the fish and chips were actually fish and crisps.

  2. Whoa... we went the same night, took iPhone photos, and ordered the duck confit... talk about a series of coincidences. I really enjoyed our meal there, but yeah, the chips were a bit of a letdown. Way too overseasoned and Dan wished they'd noted that they were literally serving the potato chips instead of fries. I had the cherry pie and I never loved a pie crust or cherries that much before. Really glad this place opened!

  3. Great review, Alice. I loved this place. Yay for girlfriends, pork tacos, wine and DESSERT. I'm starting to feel that old, familiar GNO itch again. Where to?

  4. Hi Alice! Thank you for your incredibly kind words...I do believe I'm blushing. I just wanted to say though...that the pastry menu is all mine, designed by me 100%, although James' influence is and will always be, in my bones. Hope to see you again soon!

  5. We went back last night and had another fabulous meal! Luis prohibited me from ordering the short ribs - he wanted me to try something new. It was hard for me because you know how much I love Carl's ribs. I ordered the burger and I really loved it. Not as good as the Lodge's, but really tasty! I also had the spinach salad - too die for - it was so damn good. I thought about Jimmy's grandma when I ate it - "everything tastes better with a fried egg on top". We indulged in Rachel's sweets even though we were stuffed to the gills. I ordered the cookie plate - mmm, her almond macaroons are fab and I love her salty chocolate chip cookies! Luis and I are waiting for them to add some good dessert/ ice wines to their menu - the Founder's port is not cutting t he mustard. Bon Appetite!

  6. The fish and chips (or crisps) look scrumptious!! And your photos are gorgeous.

    Only been to San Diego once but I remember how much I loved the food - had some Mexican food there that was too die for!

  7. Wow, that place looks fantastic! That's definitely going on top of my must-try list!

  8. I just forwarded your post to two of my best girlfriends, and I can't wait to try out this place with them soon! I am drooling just thinking about the desserts... :)

  9. Thank you for reviewing this place--I went there last weekend and thought that overall everything was lovely. Got the duck confit and crispy pulled pork tacos for the entrees, but the best part was definitely the desserts. The butterscotch pudding was orgasmic!

  10. Went there tonight. Had the short rib. OMG!!! So tasty. My gf had the Eggplant dish. She said it was suprisingly mouth watering. Also tried the Watermelon and Feta salad. The pistachio vinaigrette is to die for! Ended with the Blackberry Crumb Cake! That was the best finish to an amazing meal ever! We'll definitley be back.