I’ve always been impressed by businesses, teams, bands and restaurants that are at the top of their game … firing on all cylinders like a finely tuned engine so to speak. Restaurants that pull this off given the nature of the business today are even more impressive, especially within the first month of opening. Such is the case with the new Herb & Sea in downtown Encinitas.
There is a lot to like about this place, but what struck me off the bat was the way the kitchen and staff were in sync, like they had been at it for years together. That’s a direct reflection on the extensive experience of the ownership, management and culinary teams. In this case all three of those elements have been through this a few times and that experience shines on many levels at Herb & Sea.
As a refresher for those unaware, the Puffer Malarkey Collective consists of celebrity chef Brian Malarky and partner Chris Puffer who have opened over 15 restaurants. It would be safe to say that Malarkey is the highest profile chef/restaurateur we have in San Diego. Of some note, part of the partnership group on Herb & Sea includes local skateboarding icon Tony Hawk.
The kitchen at Herb & Sea is headed up by the talented Executive Chef and partner Sara Harris. I will revisit Sara in an upcoming Lick the Plate The Coast News interview as this place and her culinary talent deserve a double dose. She is also my guest the week of Dec. 9 on Lick the Plate on 100.7 KFMB.
OK, enough of the high level stuff, let’s get to the goods here. As anyone who lives in or frequents Encinitas knows, the historic building that houses Herb & Sea was the home of two local favorites in Manhattan Giant Pizza and Kealani’s. Rather than lament that loss and the slice of old school Encinitas that went with it, let’s embrace the change and acknowledge the fact that Encinitas is different now, and Herb & Sea is a fabulous restaurant that reflects that change in a good way.
The building was in bad shape, which led to delays that are all too common with such projects. The original ornamental art-deco roof line was preserved and that looks great with a neon sign that looks somewhat out of 1980s Miami Vice, an odd but whimsical touch. Don’t let that fool you though as the interior is quite fabulous. Both the seafood and the decor at Herb & Sea have what they are calling an “East Coast meets West Coast upscale seaside resort” vibe that reflects its owners’ heritage hailing from both coasts. It’s a great looking space inside and I’m thinking I’ll be a regular visitor to the stylish bar for oysters and such.
Speaking of oysters … that’s exactly how we started our feast at Herb & Sea along with a glass of French Sauvignon Blanc that paired perfectly with them. In fact, we did two orders as they were that good. We also did the Baja Shrimp Cocktail that was not the typical shrimp hooked over a cup of cocktail sauce version but delightful in its unique way. I could eat their Hamachi Crudo all day as it was that good. I will also be back to sample the small plates as the Roasted Oysters & Bone Marrow with Penrod, Kale, Lemon, Gruyere and Breadcrumbs was has been getting raves and was somehow overlooked.
We figured our two entrées and a pizza plus dessert sampling was going to be enough indulging for two and the tables around us were starting to look at us like the gluttonous plate lickers me may have come across as. But let’s get back to the story at hand. The Plancha Fired Whole Branzino with Castelvetrano Olives and Calabrian Chili that was butterflied so it looks like it has wings, is as good as I’ve had. For those unfamiliar (as it was to me) a plancha is a common flat-top griddle used in Spanish cooking that combines high-temperature searing with a small amount of smoking. Our second large plate was the Wood Fired Eye of Rib with Pink Peppercorn Chimichurri, Celery Root and Arugula and that was melt-in-your-mouth tender. I’ve come across this “eye of rib” cut several times recently and tapped a butcher friend to learn more. He described it as “the heart/eye of a deconstructed ribeye that has all the tenderness of a filet mignon but the flavor of a ribeye.” That is a great way to put it and it was amazing.
I feel like we should have tried a pasta dish rather than the pizza as they seem to be everywhere these days but I can understand the move as a chef and restaurateur trying to keep a variety of offerings on the menu. The Fennel Sausage pie with broccolini, garlic, lemon and ricotta was a solid choice and a nice offering to have if you are just popping in for a quick one at the bar. Our wine of choice with this variety of entrées was a nice Albarino from Bokisch Vineyards in Lodi, California, that was splendid even if it did have the song “Stuck in Lodi Again” stuck in my head for several days after. The Small Plates and Vegetable sections of the menu should not be overlooked as they could easily be combined to occupy an evening of shared plates.
Pastry chef Adrian Mendoza offers up some serious goodness with the likes of Butterscotch Budino, Honey and Rosemary Creme Brulee, Lemon Meringue Pie, Fruit Crumble and Lava Cake with a Truffle center. We indulged in the budino and crème brulee and proceeded to take a long, post dinner walk around Encinitas with big smiles and silent nods of approval.
Prices start at $12 in the raw section and small plates range from $13 to $24, pasta entrees are $16 to $24, wood-fired pizzas are $15 to $19 and large plates range from $23 to $35. It’s not cheap eats by any means but when you take into consideration the quality of ingredients and talent in the kitchen, it’s a solid value.
The restaurant and cocktail bar is open for nightly for dinner from 5:30 to 10 p.m. with a daily happy hour offered from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Weekend brunch, served from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., should launch soon but check www.herbandsea.com for details.