By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Prior to closing the cherished Tractor Room last year, restaurateur Johnny Rivera assured he would hold out for a buyer committed to “enhancing the neighborhood” before selling it.
He made good on his promise with Concept Two Seven Eight, which opened in early January with a concise menu of “new American” cuisine and a cocktail program that puts things like dragon fruit and pink guavas into your glass.
The redesign bears the trappings of a Nantucket cottage with paned windows, pillowed banquettes and white-painted joinery comprising the tall ceiling. It’s a radical, airier departure from the dim hunter-lodge motif that defined The Tractor Room.
Concept Two Seven Eight is the brainchild of Executive Chef Jessica Fisher, a San Diego native who worked her way through kitchens in San Francisco and New York as both a savory and pastry chef. She co-owns the restaurant with her mother and her mother’s domestic partner, and named it fondly after the address of the Brooklyn apartment building she lived in before returning here.
In addition, she recruited bar manager Billy Potvin, a New Yorker touted by Zagat, Thrillist and other media for his aesthetically imaginative cocktails flaunting fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs.
Visiting too early in the day to let loose on Potvin’s creations, such as the “Rocket #9” made with mescal, green chartreuse, pineapple, ginger and spiced cranberries — or his tempting tequila-based “Holy Fool” incorporating cactus, passion fruit and ghost pepper salt — we plunged straight into Fisher’s menu of simple yet well-executed dishes.
In one of the best presentations I’ve encountered of trendy chicken skins, Fisher lays them out on a cookie sheet overnight with light seasonings and bakes them to a fine crisp similar to potato chips.
Shaped cleverly as drumsticks, they were deliciously naughty, yet light and greaseless.
If you’ve grown weary over ubiquitous avocado toast, Fisher’s version using shishito peppers proves invigorating.
The roasted chilies are layered onto a fat slice of good, crunchy bread sourced from Prager Brothers Bakery in Carlsbad, and set upon house-made ricotta with a soft-boiled egg.
The mild kick from the peppers is contrasted by faint drizzles of yuzu honey, resulting in a savory-sweet flavor profile we found brilliantly catchy.
For another starter, my companion was especially taken by the fried cauliflower, which broke the norm somewhat with its egg-less cumin-kissed batter and accompanying chipotle aioli. To a degree, it reminded me of Indian pakora, sans the full range of curry spices. There’s also the option of whole cauliflower served with shallots, crispy capers and artichoke hearts.
The ricotta-filled squash blossoms we tried were fried with the same deftness as the cauliflower, with each cocoon-shaped blossom maintaining their delicate integrity opposed to some I’ve had in other restaurants that turn messy at the touch of a fork because they’re riddled by residual oil.
Given the satisfying portions of our appetizers, we skipped over raw zucchini and grilled Caesar salads, as well as Greek-style flatbread, carnitas street tacos with jalapeno-cilantro crema and a few other shareable dishes.
From the short assortment of main entrees, my companion chose cacio e pepe, a bowl of fresh pasta from Assenti’s in Little Italy that Fisher dresses with only butter, Parmesan cheese and cracked pepper.
I’m guessing her time spent in San Francisco and New York was the inspiration for this exquisite peasant-style dish since it evades most Italian restaurants in San Diego.
I opted for the house burger topped with cheddar, trusting it would be worthy of somebody’s “best burger” list once it’s widely discovered. Indeed, the half-pound patty was fresh and flawlessly seasoned and sported the preferred 80/20 meat to fat ratio. The lettuce was crisp, the tomatoes were ripe, and the “special sauce” containing finely chopped pickles sated all my condiment needs.
Fisher refers to herself as “a community-giving millennial” and has committed to giving a portion of gross sales to organizations such as the San Diego LGBT Community Center. So far the restaurant’s donations have been earmarked expressly for its youth services program.
Concept also aims to become a social hub for diners and drinkers alike. At 7 p.m. every Wednesday, for example, a classic movie from past decades is shown on the heated patio with free popcorn.
In addition, the kitchen recently began serving weekend brunch, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The menu features everything from Cobb salads and tofu scrambles to breakfast pizza and egg or cauliflower tacos.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.