Food writers love contrasts.
Little is more pleasurable than describing how two opposing qualities complement and heighten each other. Texture provides one of the favorite contrasts; take, for example, the tongue-pleasing way in which a crisp crouton can throw into relief the luscious smoothness of a silken cream soup.
Then there are taste contrasts of other sorts, such as the well-known sweet and sour and the less common sweet and salty (for example, a narrow wedge of melting honeydew melon wrapped in a slice of tangy prosciutto ham).
But the best contrast of all, old versus new, almost never occurs in cookery. One can combine a venerable wine with a youthful cheese, to be sure, but the chance to combine old and new foods rarely comes along, simply because few foods age with any grace.
Yet old and new breathe life into one another at the Ida Bailey dining room in the new (and old) Horton Grand Hotel in downtown San Diego. Here, old and new engage in a sort of May-December romance, embracing sensuously on a wildly clever menu that pairs classic Victorian-era dishes with others that are very 1986. Sometimes, the old-fashioned dishes are interpreted according to a contemporary vernacular that produces some fine results.
That this menu should exist makes perfect sense because the Horton Grand celebrates its connections with the past. The hotel is a reconstruction of two century-old hostelries, and its motto, outrageous but forgiveable, is "Since 1886." But that this daring teaming of old and new should actually have occurred in the conservative, risk-hating San Diego restaurant industry is truly a wonder of the modern age.
The credit goes to chef Ernest Wally, a wily Austrian who made quite a splash some months ago when he introduced lion and other exotic game to the menu at Judson's, a Midway-area restaurant that garnered immense free publicity from Wally's safari-inspired creations. But Wally proved at Judson's that he also is a serious, knowledgeable and inventive chef, and he has brought all his talents with him to his new job.
The challenge that Wally met and mastered was to preserve the Ida Bailey restaurant's Victorian character while indulging his own talents for contemporary cooking. (The dining room, by the way, takes its name from a noted madam whose popular den of iniquity, the Canary Cottage, once stood on the site now occupied by the restaurant's comfortable booths and handsome period furnishings.) Wally accomplished this by combining a standing menu that includes such old-fashioned preparations as Yankee pot roast, roast chicken with sagebread dressing, and stuffed pork chops, with a list of daily specials that runs to some very now creations. Virtually everything sampled during two visits was excellent. Wally also deserves compliments on another score--rather than creating an all-purpose garnish to be served with every dish, he prepares vegetables and garnishes designed specifically for each individual dish.
The price of the meal includes a generous four courses--soup, salad, sorbet and entree--with dessert available as an optional extra that discriminating guests will wish to decline until Wally makes some improvements in this department.
Although the cooking sometimes is rather nouvelle, the portions are not; the idea of placing a tiny serving in the center of a vast plate fortunately seems beyond the capabilities of this plump chef. A basket of freshly baked bread arrives in advance of the soup, and the only problem is that it tends to be so good that there is danger of filling up on it before the entree arrives.
The meal commences with a choice of soups that always includes the house chicken vegetable, an extremely honest broth made from real chicken simmered with root vegetables and enriched with eggy, homemade noodles.
At Judson's, Wally favored presenting salads that had been arranged to look like pastoral settings, with individual leaves of various lettuces posed around enoki mushrooms and other garnishes to create a picturesque presentation. He continues this pleasant practice here.
This writer considers a sorbet a silly intrusion in a modern meal. The danger arises when the kitchen sends out a sweet, dessert-like concoction, as happened once at Ida Bailey with a strawberry sorbet that had the effect of killing the appetite in advance of the entree. On another occasion, though, Wally did send out a properly tart grapefruit ice cleverly flavored with a touch of tarragon; this non-sweet offering filled the bill nicely.
Wally's juxtaposition of old and new appears at the very top of the standing menu, with the Yankee pot roast. Those of us who grew up with this dish know that a pot roast is an inexpensive cut of meat baked, more or less forever, with carrots and potatoes, a process that tenderizes the meat and imparts an earthy texture to the vegetables. Wally's approach is different; he splits a tenderloin of beef, stuffs it with chives and finely julienned carrots and parsnips, wraps it in watercress leaves and cheesecloth, and then gently braises the meat until it is tender, but not falling apart like the pot roasts of yesteryear. The flavor is suave, aromatic from the vegetables, and the garnish of fluffy potato pancakes and good homemade applesauce make the perfect accompaniment.
Chicken, roasted properly, reeks of goodness, and Wally's demi-bird stuffed with a tangy dressing and garnished with homemade egg noodles was a pleasant, genuinely old-fashioned presentation. His sand dabs in cumin sauce was much more contemporary, the mellow, perfectly cooked fish standing in subtle contrast to the powerfully spiced sauce; one associates cumin with meat, not seafood, and the experience was a good one. A branch of celery fried in the Japanese tempura style, and grilled-until-crusted red potatoes were the thoughtfully chosen garnishes.
An unabashedly nouvelle special was almost startling in its arrangement of flavors. The main ingredient, a grilled chopped lamb steak, had been strongly seasoned with crushed pepper so as to match the sharply pungent sun-dried tomatoes and dabs of chevre (creamy goat cheese) that dressed it. But then along came a garnish that looked fiercely strong but turned out to be mild and sweet, a whole head of garlic roasted until it turned creamy and gave up its usually overpowering character. This was not ordinary cooking, and it was nice to find something so inventive on the menu of a hotel dining room.
Among other dishes on the standing menu are a Delmonico steak, a pork chop stuffed with spinach, lobster tails fried in walnut oil, and a veal chop in a brandied mustard sauce. Several daily specials always supplement this list.
The restaurant itself is most attractive, and the Victorian decor has been designed with some taste. The service on both occasions was among the best in town. Attentiveness of the sort encountered here is becoming far too rare a commodity.
311 Island Ave., Horton Grand Hotel, San Diego.
Dinner served 5:30-10 p.m. weekdays, until 11 p.m. weekends.
Credit cards accepted.
Valet parking available; $2 charge.
Dinner for two, including a moderate bottle of wine, tax and tip, $35 to $65.