by Wendy Lemlin
So—you know what it’s like when you run into someone you used to be friends with, but, for one reason or another, haven’t seen in a couple of years, and in the meantime she’s lost 25 pounds, had some major “work” done, colored her hair, completely changed her style of dressing and now, all of a sudden, is bubbling with energy and personality and looking all stylish and hot? On one level, she is still the same friend that you’ve always known and loved, but on another level you’re like, “Damn, who IS this person?”
Well, that’s how I felt when I walked through the new doors of the re-concepted and remodeled Indigo Grill on the corner of India and Cedar Streets in San Diego’s Little Italy for the restaurant’s big reveal party. First opened in 2001, Indigo Grill was one of the earlier collaborations between the Cohn Restaurant Group and Chef Deborah Scott, and for years was the only trendy, non-Italian cuisine eatery in the newly-hip neighborhood.
Fast forward a decade plus, and Little Italy is hipper than ever, and now home to several buzzed-about restaurants ranking high on the coolness factor. In comparison, Indigo Grill was looking a little tired. So, the Cohns and Chef Deborah decided to give the old girl a 60-day rejuvenation treatment, starting with a major design makeover orchestrated by Philippe Beltran, himself a restaurateur known for instigating such San Diego classics as Bleu Boheme and Vagabond, and who has recently been collaborating with the Cohn Restaurant Group, bringing his European aesthetic to BO-beau kitchen +bar, SEA 180 Coastal Tavern, and 100 Wines Kitchen +Bar.
The biggest difference, architecturally speaking, is how much lighter the restaurant feels. A wall of windows on the Cedar Street side opens up to an expanded al fresco dining area which includes two fire pits, increasing the outdoor seating to 50.
Inside, the design elements run the gamut from warm and continental to industrial, and somehow it all works. There’s lots of texture—reclaimed wood, polished steel, stone, copper, and color accents everywhere, especially indigo blue (finally—a reference for the name!) and warm terracotta. In the bar, communal tables bring the party together, and in the dining area wines are displayed in bookcase-type shelving. Indigo Grill is once again a foxy lady!
OK, so much for the good looks, which, as my mother always told me, will only get you so far. Let’s talk about the food. There’s a brand new menu, and a new chef helming the kitchen. Yes, Partner/Executive Chef Deborah Scott is still overseeing the culinary program, but Jason Maitland (formerly of Arterra, Flavor Del Mar, Red Light District) is exec-cheffing Indigo Grill, and he and Chef Deborah have put forth a heavily South American-influenced menu featuring the bold flavors they are both known for, as well as some rather interesting animal parts. Tamarind Jalapeño Glazed Pig Tails, anyone? Or maybe Flaming Hot Cheetos, featuring pig ears? Not being a meat eater, I really can’t tell you how they taste, but I applaud the sense of adventure these dishes engender.
In fact, adventure seems to be what the menu is all about, with many unfamiliar, but intriguing sounding names. Many of the dishes are of the “share plate” variety, made for communal sampling of a taste of this, a bite of that, geared towards casual dining and accompanying a craft cocktail.
Made to order Peruvian-style seafood cebiches differ from the more familiar Mexican ceviche in that they include pieces of yam and corn nuts, which add a very pleasant pop of sweetness and texture. Anticucho boards hold Peruvian and Chilean street food-type skewered grilled meats, such as chicken, pork belly, shrimp, and beef, and I was happy to see nectarine, which caramelizes beautifully when grilled, included in the options. Crostinos hold a topping, maybe Serrano ham and tomato confit, or cucumber raita, or even marinated burrata, on a small piece of toasted or grilled bread. Despite the Latin name, Tiraditos give a nod to Asian influences with sashimi-like cuts of seafood served on blocks of Himalyan pink salt.
Meat and seafood are equally represented in both the Platos Pequeños and Platos Grandes (small and large plates) sections, but, at present, vegetarians looking for an entree have only one option on the menu: Handmade Parpadelle Pasta with a variety of mushrooms and English peas—tasty, but certainly not as inventive as the rest of the menu. And for those traditionalists, several of Chef Deborah’s classics remain, such as the Pipian Crusted Brie, Alderwood Planked Salmon, and Skirts On Fire, one of her all-time signatures. But alas, one of my favorites, the wonderfully vertical, beautifully presented, classic Chef Deborah vegetable dish, Good Things Growing, no longer does.
(Author’s note: I am so proud that this review won First Place in the San Diego Press Club 2015 Excellence in Journalism Awards in the category of Daily Newspapers and Websites Reviews: Restaurant)
[contact-form subject='[BORDERLINES Food %26amp; Travel’][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Website’ type=’url’/][contact-field label=’Comment’ type=’textarea’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]