Monday, March 18, 2019

Quick Bite: San Telmo and Yelp’s False Gems

Oh, and basically a whole forest of arugula.
Generally I find Yelp to be a pretty useful tool for finding new and interesting restaurants to try, but it’s also far from perfect. In particular, Yelpers seem to vastly overrate many of the perfectly unremarkable mom-and-pop spots, international cuisines and delis. Don’t misunderstand: There are certainly restaurants in these categories that truly shine. But often Yelp’s glowing consensus can be utterly baffling.

This phenomenon came to mind when I stopped by San Telmo, an Argentine sandwich joint downtown. When the place I’d planned to go was closed (private event), I thought, why not try the place right next door with the coveted 5-star Yelp rating?

The food was fine. Average. A little boring, actually. And since dull food makes for dull writing, I won’t spend too much time on it. Suffice it to say my chicken empanada was a bit dry, a bit under-seasoned and generally pretty plain. The San Telmo sandwich was slightly better, with herb-dressed mushrooms and a nice note of sharpness from the Swiss cheese. But the pesto aioli was underwhelming and a bit grassy, while the ribeye was a little overdone and seemed to be seasoned exclusively with salt. You’d think the dish named after the restaurant would be one to really shine, but all I got was a decent deli sandwich.

I feel a little bad about picking on a restaurant that isn’t by any means bad. It just happened to bring to mind an odd blind spot on an otherwise fairly reliable site. Why do people feel compelled to give such radiant reviews to places that don’t stand out in any apparent way?

One reason, I think, is that people develop an emotional attachment to their neighborhood restaurant, the same way they do for the local sports team. Another probably stems from people’s desire to find the diamond in the rough, to have coveted insider information, to be a trendsetter. I can certainly sympathize—it’s great being a world-famous elite influencer, loved and respected by all. But let me humbly contend that not everyone can be this unfathomably awesome. And when people let wishful thinking cloud their judgment, it prevents people from finding the places that really do deserve all the accolades.

Score: 5 out of 10

P.S. I wish this place were really great so I could have titled this post "San Telmo's Fire."

Friday, March 8, 2019

Review: In Trust We Trust

Soon to be classified by the FDA as a Schedule I drug.
San Diego is finally being recognized by Michelin for its burgeoning fine dining scene—about time! Some of the names being thrown around as potential star-earners are Addison, Market and George's at the Cove. After my recent visit, though, I would consider Hillcrest's Trust a dark-horse contender. Let's take a brief look at the items ordered—and how they'd rate on the brutal Michelin scale. (Zero stars can still be good, one is fantastic, two is mind-blowing, and three is so sublime that you'd plan a trip just to try it.)

Dish: Take Two & Trust Cocktail #18
Star Rating: One
Amy's drink was deliciously infused with blackberry; it was fruity, balanced, smooth—and dangerous in that it didn't taste too powerfully of vodka. Mine was stronger with fragrant bourbon, sweet and citrusy with an orangey aroma from the peel garnish.

Dish: Ricotta Agnolotti
Star Rating: Two
The decadent truffle shavings and black garlic streussel certainly helped, but the star of this agnolotti was undoubtedly the incredibly rich, cheesy garlic cream sauce—deceptively labeled simply "panna" on the menu. This sauce latched onto the dopamine receptors of my brain and wouldn't let go. I was momentarily tempted to lick the plate clean—it was that good.

Dish: Baja Hiramasa
Star Rating: One
Nearly as amazing was this crudo: a blast of Japanese flavor full of sweet, soy and sesame. The yellowtail was tender, though the flavor of the fish was hard to discern through that mouthwatering sauce. It's finished with wisp-thin rice cracker and crisp sweet slivers of Asian pear.

Dish: Wood-Grilled Lamb Meatballs
Star Rating: Zero
Meatballs aren't a favorite of mine, but this lamb iteration had good texture and a hearty, slightly gamey flavor. The yogurt tzatziki was clean and tart, augmented with vinegar and spice from the pickled Fresno chiles. Hearty umami lentils, delicious little rings of pickled shallots, and an undertone of garlic rounded out one of the lesser dishes that, tellingly, was still pretty great.

Dish: Wood-Grilled Octopus
Star Rating: One
This was an odd mix of ingredients that still worked because all the flavor elements were there. A strong but not overwhelming hit of vinegar from the olives, the salty minced pepperoni, and the parsley herbaceousness of the salsa verde combine beautifully. Textures were also a strong suit: The octopus was tender, while the lentils and legumes were pleasingly al dente, thankfully avoiding any graininess.

Dish: Maple Pecan Creme Brûlée
Star Rating: Two
At first I was a bit sad that we decided to play it safe by getting the creme brûlée. I have seldom been more wrong. Somehow, they fixed what wasn't broken. They solved creme brûlée. Their secret: a wide cup with almost as much sugar crunch as there is custard. But this is no ordinary caramelized sugar: it's thick, chunky, fully of mapley and nutty flavors. The poached pear and marscapone cream were tasty, but really just along for the ride. Bottom line: This blew the roof off of an already outstanding dinner.

Trust doesn't just settle for having a couple of great specialty dishes. Its food seems to bottom out at excellent and move up from there. If it doesn't get a Michelin star—or at least one of the group's lesser acknowledgements—it'll only prove they've got a lot to learn about San Diego dining.

Score: 10 out of 10