October 6, 2006

For the Vecinos

Getting Fresh Up in the Hills

By El Vecino

If you’d have told me last week that I’d be sitting in the patio of a posh kick back like Fresh Seafood Restaurant and Bar in the midst of La Jolla grandeur, munching on some ahi burgers and sipping on fine wine, I’d have said, “Yeah, just let me finish this Adalberto’s bean and cheese burrito real quick.”

I don’t frequent the eats north of the 8 freeway much and can rarely afford anything further than Balboa Avenue. So, I’m not going to lie; I was invited to check the scene by Fresh’s new owner, 26-year-old Arturo Kassel.

Fresh Seafood Restaurant and Bar owner, Arturo Kassel

Too young. I know. But awkwardly enough, while others were dreaming of becoming firemen or Latino writers, this Mexico-city native says he’s living his childhood dream. I can’t picture it either, but the ahi burgers (Sesami Crusted Ahi) speak for themselves, and when Kassel divulged he uses sashimi cuts, my chow pal Isaac, a huge seafood buff, almost tipped his wine glass in awe.

Not surprising that Kassel knows his trade, he’s just returned from the east coast after managing a few New York hotspots having to do with ocean, water, and grill. He’s a post-grad who majored in restaurant management and messed around at the French Culinary Institute, but what does all that mean, right?

Means age doesn’t mean a thing because when Kassel became Fresh’s predecessor to former owner Sami Ladeki last month, he was savvy enough to hire 32-year-old chef Ryan Johnston to jazz up the menu a bit. Not a bad choice. Johnston’s the former Executive Chef from Del Mar’s Blackhorse Grille. Okay, I don’t know what that means, but the eats are muy rico and I felt comfortably welcome.

The waitress, who was extremely knowledgeable about the menu, recommended the small plates to start. The story climaxes before the action rises because Isaac ordered the Pan Seared Scallops ($14), which sit atop of a potato pancake and are blanketed in butter-less beamaise sauce. ‘Wants’ satisfied. I ordered the Crispy Calamari ($9), well, because I actually knew what it was. There’s a spicy sweetness to the glaze, sprinkled sesame seeds, cilantro, and its crisp. But what can I say? We had the scallops first, and the calamari sat in charming mediocrity, good though.

Between plates, we delved into their three-ounce pours of wine, new to the sipping scene. Turns out Kassel’s a student of the American Sommelier Association, some uppity winos who know what ‘oenophilia’ means. So, we complemented the snacks with Pine Ridge’s Chenin Blanc and Fournier’s Sauvignon Blanc, two a piece, $5 each. Half glasses include varieties of pinots, merlots, whites, reds and some of the bubbly, and can cost between three-fifty and five bucks. These are great for experimenting. All right, I almost forgot I was on the clock, so we turned to the soups next.

Isaac dug on half of a bowl of Watermelon Gazpacho ($8) a cool salsa fresca-style soup with fennel and aged Jerez Sherry wine that’s borderline watermelon ceviche. I dived into half a bowl of Yellow Pepper Soup ($7) before we switched. We ordered another round of three-ouncers, the rustic relaxation vibe of the patio will do this to you, and I started my nacho-style finger eating when the big plates arrived, Sesami Crusted Ahi ($25) and the Simply Grilled Plate ($22) that comes with Chino Farms vegetables and your choice of fish. Isaac chose salmon. We didn’t share these plates.

Saludos to Chef Johnston, by the way, who wasn’t available to talk. Really, I think he was doing just fine in the kitchen. I mean, did Willy Wonka ever leave the chocolate factory to mingle with the kids? He has his work cut out for him, right?

So here’s the menu plug: some of his specials include Seafood Cobb with a variety of sea creatures and fresh veggies ($16), Handcut Papar-delle Bolognese and Kobe Beef ($19), and Line Caught Alaskan Halibut with succo-tash and lobster jus ($25). There’s also a Thursday through Sunday evening special, The Fresh Fixe ($49), where you can sample a variety of Johnston’s new creations and raw bar trinkets like oysters, shrimp, mussels and Manila clams to name a few.

Petit Plateau

So ultimately, will I go back? My wallet tells me to wait for a special occasion. But my sister is turning thirty-two next month and needs a reason to turn back the clock. So, Fresh seems to be headed for that hip sophistication appeal, or at least as laid back as Kassel. I mean the guy wears flip-flops with his button up shirt and slacks to our interview. I have to give him “props” for that one. He even laughs in that they-don’t-know-me-yet manner when he boasts that other hotspots deny him entrance.

On our way out, he invited us back for dinner, where he says the food action really takes place. Thanks Artie, but I’d feel guilty. Your restaurant’s definitely “real”, so I’ll get the tab next time.

(Fresh Seafood Restaurant and Bar is located at 1044 Wall Street in La Jolla, or online at www.freshseafoodrestaurant. com. They validate patrons for two hours of parking at the Parisi Hotel. Expect $40 per person.)

(La Prensa’s For the Vecinos is a new weekly, no-beating-around-the-bush column that highlights homegrown San Diego indy businesses, favoring restaurants. If you can put up with a few minutes of El Vecino checking your scene, send us an invite at raymond.beltran@covad.net.)

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