This post isn't going to do it justice, but I wanted to spread the news anyway: Laurel is back! After its ownership change earlier in the year, and being closed for refitting and restaffing, Laurel quietly reopened about six weeks ago. Even though their website still sports an "under construction" notice, last Friday, we decided to give it a try. Note: After writing this, I rechecked and the website, while still officially a work in progress, now has the menus listed. See the link below.
I've always liked the room. The below-ground-level location, and the high windows that make you look *up* at the pedestrians on Fifth Ave. always makes me feel like I'm in a city far removed from San Diego. It's been spruced up nicely, but the basic design is the same. We arrived shortly after seven, and there were still a lot of open tables, but by eight, the place was 80-90 percent full.
The menu, as expected, is all new. It comes as a single sheet of paper, sandwiched between pieces of plexiglass. One side contains a "grazing" menu, while the other lists things in the traditional categories of appetizers and entrees. The grazing things were an eclectic mix that reminded me (in structure, but not in taste) of the tapas menu at Roppongi. The waiter told us that those dishes were all smaller than appetizers, so it appeared you could make a meal of two or three of them if you were so inclined. I'm sorry I didn't memorize any of them, but I do recall that they seemed expensive, given that they were supposed to be pretty small. I turned the menu over.
The wine list is good one, IMO, with several nice selections at all price ranges. We ordered a bottle of Yalumba Viognier ($28) that tasted good enough at the start but mellowed in a few minutes into something kind of special.
For an appetizer, Di suggested we share what I thought was the weirdest item on the list: Kurobuta pork belly ($13). It turned out to be two pieces of meat, the cut of which reminded me of Korean short ribs. The meat, tender, fragrant and delicious, was lightly bathed in a mushroom broth and surrounded by little Asian shrooms and crunchy slivers of green onion. It arrived in a gorgeous offset bowl, and the waiter gave each of us a small plate and a spoon to aid in splitting it. It was sensational! The broth was a magical mixture of mushroom and meat, and according to the menu, there was some hot mustard in the mix, but it was a discreet presence for sure.
For a first course, Di had a cream of carrot puree that was almost as good as the one we had years ago at another downstairs restaurant -- La Cucaracha in Mexico City. Perfectly creamy, and with a delightful flavor. I didn't ask, so I'm not sure if it was a vegetarian broth or if there was some chicken stock involved. I had a simple romaine salad with a black-olive vinaigrette and topped with lots of shaved parmigiano. It was probably as good as such a thing gets.
For our entrees, Di had the pan-seared scallops accompanied by asparagus and sea bean, and finished with something called "garlic flower butter." I think there were four very nice sea scallops, perfectly done. It's so easy to overcook scallops, especially the big ones, that I'm always impressed when someone gets it right. Laurel got it right.
My entree, though, was even better. It was the nightly special of local white sea bass over a wild mushroom risotto. God it was good!!! The fish was also perfectly cooked -- exactamente en punto -- and the risotto was the perfect accompaniment -- rich and fragrant, but restrained enough to let the fantastic fish take center stage.
If there was one miscue in the dinner, I guess it was the dessert. We opted to go for a special described as three small ice-cream sandwiches: chocolate, hazelnut, and plum ginger. It sounded interesting, but the ice cream was too soft to pick up and the cookies were too tough to cut, so the ice cream squished out all over the place. Finally, I picked up the cookies in my hand and ate the ice cream with my spoon. It was definitely not a Miss Manners moment, but the upside was that it tasted pretty good; the homemade ginger cookies accompanying the plum ice cream were very unusual and very tasty.
Service at the reborn Laurel seemed greatly improved over the most recent previous incarnation. The wait staff is on the young side, but all seemed really nice, and all appeared to have been trained -- professional, but still very friendly. As I mentioned above, Laurel is expensive. It's not the most pricey place in town, but on a 1-to-5 scale, I'd give it four dollar-signs. Our dinner for two (excluding drinks, tax and tip), was $102.
About 20 years ago (gasp!), when Laurel was first opened by Doug Organ, it was immediately my favorite San Diego restaurant. Sadly, after Organ left for Boston, the restaurant went into a slow decline. I never thought it was terrible, but it slipped far down my list of favorites. I'm going to reserve final judgment until I've visited a couple more times, but my initial take is that the new owners (same folks who run Chive and Kensington Grill) and Chef Fabrice Poigin have done a fantastic job of resuscitating the place.
. . . jim strain in san diego.