Words & Photos by Wendy Lemlin
Like most San Diego locals over 30 years old, I rarely venture into downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter, and, despite the blocks of cheek-to-jowl restaurants, even more rarely do I ever dine there. I’ve always had the impression that, with a few notable exceptions, most of the restaurants serve overpriced, mediocre “tourist” food, or unsophisticated bar bites. On a recent visit, however, I’ve found that Florent Restaurant & Lounge, on the prime corner of 5th and G, is one of those notable exceptions,
Executive Chef Brad Hightow has been running the culinary show there for the past 15 months, and his high quality take on New American cuisine is creative and delectable. Flavors are balanced and complementary, presentations are attractive, and ingredients are sourced from such local standout purveyors as Specialty Produce and Catalina Offshore Products.
A light and refreshing lead-in to my dinner was the Watermelon Cucumber Mojito from the Tiki menu (which, incidentally, is half off every week on Tiki Tuesdays!). Not at all overly sweet, and tasting more of cucumber than watermelon, it was the perfect quencher for a warm summer night.
To start, my dining companion and I shared several “small plates”, so as to experience a varied selection of the menu.
Knowing that Chef Hightow hails from Baltimore, MD, I had to try his Maryland Crabcake. I, too, had lived for a while in the D.C./ Baltimore area, and I am VERY picky about crabcakes. This one was just as it should be, and more than met my high standards—100% jumbo lump crab meat, no fillers, and just a light golden coating of breadcrumbs around the outside. The roasted corn tartar sauce on which it sat updated the classic with appealing flavor and texture.
People either love or hate Brussels Sprouts, and, when they are done right, I am firmly in the “love” camp. These totally were. Tossed in an Asian chile sauce, the sweet/smoky/acid flavor of sambal and citrus came through nicely, but didn’t overwhelm the green earthiness of the vegetables themselves. Normally, the dish would include chirizo, but as I don’t eat meat, Chef left out that component, and the success of the dish did not suffer in the least.
The Stuffed Squash Blossoms spoke to me in an Italian accent, which was a welcome diversion from the usual Spanish. Stuffed with ricotta, goat cheese, fresh basil and mint, the batter-coated blossoms were light and crispy and paired extremely well with the pesto aioli and balsamic reduction with which they were served.
A sun-ripened heirloom tomato is the epitome of the taste of summer, and in the Heirloom Tomato Caprese, I savored the culinary equivalent of long, lazy sun soaked days and soft seaside breezes. The flavorful tomato slices were juicy, and firm enough to support the generous dollops of creamy buratta cheese, micro basil and balsamic reduction that replaced the traditional components of mozzarella slices and basil leaves in a more exciting and contemporary interpretation of the standard Caprese salad.
For my entrée, I chose one of Florent’s signature seafood dishes, Seared Bigeye Tuna. I know the phrase “melts in your mouth” is one of those over-used expressions one should never use in food writing, but truly, with a light sear around the edges, the otherwise raw fish was so buttery tender, that it actually did melt in my mouth. Chef Hightow knew enough not to mess with a good thing, and so he let the clean taste of the tuna take center stage, with very simple seasoning and a touch of ponzu sauce. The bed of sweet chile dressed spaghetti squash on which the tuna slices sat was an interesting low-carb alternative to more common starches. Garnished with a cucumber and microgreen salad, the creation was topped with a generous spoonful of yuzu caviar, i.e. flying fish eggs infused with the bright citrus flavor of the yuzu fruit.
Dessert was a Cravory Cookie Ice Cream Sandwich—in this case a scoop of Moo Time Creamery’s vanilla ice cream sandwiched between two birthday cake flavored cookies from aptly named cookie bakery, The Cravory. I found the combination a little overly sweet, but that didn’t stop my companion and me from devouring every bite.
Hightow came to San Diego about nine years ago. “I came for a lady,” he confides, and apparently it was the right move as they’ve now been married for six years and have a two year old son. Does he miss Maryland? “With the exception of my mom and the crab feasts, not in the least”, he laughs, speaking of the legendary Cheasepeake Bay culinary tradition. Prior to Florent, the chef’s kitchen home was first at the prestigious University Club, and then as executive chef at Florent’s neighboring sister, Whiskey Girl. Although he’s never been to Mexico—“I just haven’t found time, I’m a workaholic and I’m either in the kitchen or with my family”—he speaks fluent Spanish. “As Anthony Bourdain once observed, there’s barely a restaurant kitchen in America where the majority of cooks and back of the house workers aren’t Hispanic, and I wanted to know what they were saying about me”, he jokes. “Seriously, though, we work really hard together, and I think my crew appreciates that we can all communicate easily.”
Executive Chef Brad Hightow’s inventive, yet totally approachable, cuisine has put Florent prominently on my short list of worthwhile places to dine in the Gaslamp Quarter. Or, for that matter, anywhere.
Florent Restaurant & Lounge 672 5th Avenue, San Diego, CA 92101 619-595-0123