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COLOR PALATE Raw halibut (fish changes daily due to freshness) seasoned with yuzukosho and served with radishes, red onions, chives, parsley and avocado

Fresh Find

by Brandon Matzek | Photography by Lyudmila Zotova | Modern Luxury San Diego magazine | July 8, 2016

The latest addition to the Kettner Boulevard culinary corridor is Brian Malarkey’s Herb & Wood, an expansive outpost dedicated to fresh, vibrant flavors and wood-fired fare. Unrelated to Malarkey’s Fabric Restaurants and biotech bistros, Herb & Wood is a new concept brought to life in the old Mixture space in Little Italy with the help of designer and longtime business partner Christopher Puffer.

Puffer transformed part of the design warehouse into a 9,500-square-foot, multiroom, elegant yet comfortable restaurant that he describes as “NYC meets a little ‘Gay Paree.’” The entry rooms are furnished with pillow-lined couches and communal seating—perfect spots for an impromptu cocktail. The open-air courtyard, filled with tufted banquettes and marble-topped tables, transitions toward a more elegant experience. The double-sided fireplace, flickering oil lamps and wooden canoe overflowing with wildflowers keep the courtyard relaxed and intimate.

The main dining room features an ornate bar toward the front and a bustling kitchen in the back. Curvy painted ladies look on from white brick walls between custom black metal sconces inspired by the Eiffel Tower. Puffer notes that he’s most proud of the lighting. Pendant lamps dangle from the soaring ceilings above the white Pyrolave bar, which is appointed with glass shelves, golden flourishes and bushy ferns. Massive beaded chandeliers hang above wood tables, soft-blue banquettes, and dark-green leather chairs. The back wall is an illuminated bank of windows with dinner service on display.

Reaching more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the wood-burning stove is the centerpiece of Malarkey’s Herb & Wood kitchen. The menu, prepared with co-chef Shane McIntyre (formerly with Searsucker and Herringbone), is Italian-influenced, with global flavors. Yuzukosho, a Japanese condiment of fermented chiles and citrus, is folded into an aioli and paired with buttery Baja yellowtail, avocado, radish, red onion and fresh herbs. Dukkah, an Egyptian spice-and-nut blend, tops a mound of roasted carrots dressed in a carrottop pesto and smoky espelette yogurt. Pickled Calabrian chiles from Southern Italy set fire to a charred pizza topped with smoked mozzarella and white anchovies. The common thread between each of these dishes is a focus on bold, punchy flavors with fresh hits of herb and acid.

Every meal at Herb & Wood should start with a shared selection of salads, raw bites and warm appetizers. The citrus salad is a riot of orange and grapefruit segments dotted with bits of green olive, chopped pistachio and red chile—the colors mimic San Diego’s famous sunsets. Flecked with bits of smoked sea salt, the crudo of coiled snapper and uni is dressed with apple, cucumber and shallot relish, lemon vinaigrette and thin slices of jalapeno; the acid from the lemon and the heat of the chile complement subtle notes of ocean and brine. Smoked trout toast topped with parsley salad and pearls of neon orange trout roe pairs perfectly with the Gin & Cucumber (Beefeater, lime, dill and cucumber), one of the many cocktails being shaken up by bartender Willem Van Leuven.  

The cocktail program is straightforward, with an emphasis on fresh herbs, citrus and house-infused spirits. Gin & Lavender sweetened with thyme-honey syrup is light and floral; Vodka & Ginger is crisp and herbaceous; and Bourbon & Rosemary Old Forester has undertones of orange, lemon and basil.

Vegetables are a must. Grilled eggplant, topped with garlicky mojo de ajo and basil salsa verde, is blackened on the outside, incredibly creamy within. Wood-fired king trumpet mushrooms are seared until golden, then dressed with tarragon butter. Tender potatoes are encased in Parmesan crust, sprinkled with fresh horseradish and doused with Meyer lemon vinaigrette.

Aged for 48 hours in-house, the pizza dough cooks for just 90 seconds in the wood-burning oven, resulting in a thin, crisp crust speckled with black char. Topping options include crispy pork jowl, Castelvetrano olives and Fresno chiles or pork sausage, broccoli rabe and garlic confit. Ethereal potato gnocchi are matched up with melting braised oxtail, roasted garlic, sherry and plenty of fresh herbs. Burrata-stuffed tortelloni share a plate with crumbles of rabbit sausage, chopped pistachio, capers and a tangy Meyer lemon sauce.

Grilled and roasted entrees are also given the wood-fired treatment. Iberico pork is stacked atop white beans, arugula and crispy pancetta; a sharp apple-mustard condiment cuts through the wonderfully rich porkiness of the dish. A whole branzino is wrapped in serrano ham and roasted with a lemon herb stuffing.

Executive Pastry Chef Adrian Mendoza has created inspired sweets: refreshing fennel blood orange sorbet with a crisp pizzelle cookie; vanilla cream torte made with layers of thin crepe and sweetened housemade ricotta; impossibly airy blueberry souffle.

Later this summer, Malarkey and Puffer will open a casual cafe, Herb & Eatery. We can only imagine it will be as tasty as its big sister.

2210 Kettner Blvd., San Diego, 619.955.8495

HOURS: Dinner, Tue.-Sun., 5:30-10pm

PRICES: Appetizers, $7-$16; entrees $19-$42; desserts $12