I’m a college student with a college student budget, but there are still times when I wish to live lavishly, at least over the course of a meal. For the occasional splurge, my destination of choice is Little Italy’s Kettner Exchange. Named after William Kettner, the politician that brought navy facilities to San Diego, this “Progressive American” restaurant has much to offer in the way of architecture, cuisine, and libations.
The Architecture of Kettner
The architecture is a result of a collaboration between Bluemotif, Tecture, and [oo-d-a] and integrates concrete, steel, and wood in a harmonious yin and yang fashion. The ostentatious wooden chandelier binds the dark Mad Men-esque ground floor with the incandescent cabanas and rooftop bar of the second floor. It’s a quaint sensation moving through the restaurant as it implicates moving through time and opposing foils. The juxtaposition between opposing forces is consistent also in the ever-evolving menu crafted by Executive Chef Brian Redzikowski, a Rising Chef in LA and a former contender for Iron Chef America.
Small Plates at Kettner
Redzikowski’s creations are ambiguous in origin as they’re an amalgamation of Western and Oriental flavors, but integrated in concord. These are the small plate orders I’ll be reviewing and keep in mind that this is only a fraction of what the menu offers.
BIG-EYE TUNA PIZZA
The Big-Eye Tuna Pizza is an impeccable marriage of Western and Asian flavors and is what fusion cuisine should strive to be. The inordinate amount of herbal garnish and bright red tuna is reminiscent of an actual pizza, but bursts with oriental flavors of ponzu and shiso. The intoxicating aroma of truffle oil constructs the impression of dense, heavy flavors of a traditional pizza but is merely a veil for the gentle flavors that follow. This is by far my favorite dish offered at Kettner Exchange and even when I’m just visiting the bar I’ll make sure have this accompany my brew.
The spicy shrimp is breaded and tossed in chipotle aioli made in house, and pairs well with the shiitake mushrooms. It doesn’t provide the multi-faceted blend of flavors like the tuna pizza, but it is simple, homely and a regular crowd favorite.
The grilled quail is a casual introduction to ‘gamey’ meats as it is prepared char siu (Chinese BBQ style) so the iron-y tang is fused with the sweet and savory marinade. The quail is paired with crisp pickled daikon, onion and turnips that brings balance to the dish.
Hamachi Collar (Yellowtail collar)
Hamachi Kama, or yellowtail collar is the section just behind the head and gills and is in my opinion, the best part of the fish. It is tender and flavorful due to in part being a regularly used muscle and also being close to the bone, which imparts flavor to the meat while cooking. Kettner’s version of the collar stayed faithful to the Japanese origins but didn’t really innovate or add anything new. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a succulent and tempting order for anyone who enjoys fish.
Foie Gras French Toast
I was hesitant and skeptical before trying this dish, on paper it seemed crazy enough to work, but how would it actually taste? Never mind the horrendous reputation behind the ethics of foie gras, it would be egregious if the pairing was merely a waste of costly ingredients. All of my doubts dissipated as the custardy sweetness of the french toast and the tangy umami-filled gelatinous foie gras melted in harmony, and I became a believer.
For an upscale dining experience without the pretentious ambiance, Kettner Exchange is without a doubt, the place to visit.