By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Let’s start with the negatives of my dining experience at Royal Stone, a newcomer to the Bankers Hill dining scene: I devoured too much table bread, thanks in part to the addicting lemon butter served alongside, and I sneezed a few times from summer allergies.
If you’re looking for a neighborhood gem that sends out dishes fueled by an obsession for detail and freshness, this unpretentious bistro with its stay-a-while ambiance fits the bill.
Royal Stone was launched about four months ago by John and Jackie Stone, a married couple who share a love of food, wine and entertaining. They also each grew up in households where European styles of cooking ruled the day; hers by a French mother, his from an Italian mother.
“I feel like we just ate dinner at somebody’s home,” my companion said upon exiting Royal’s intimate confines, which is located in a historic corner-lot building at First and Upas streets and adjoining the long-established Royal Food Mart.
Iron railings with flower planters bestow charm to a wrap-around outdoor patio. Inside, most of the seating is along a banquette against large windows. A curved granite-top bar, serving craft beers and eclectic wines, dominates the room while the small kitchen in the back appears like an afterthought to the layout.
But it’s a culinary powerhouse utilized proficiently by Executive Chef Chase Edrington, who earned his chops at Whiskenladle in La Jolla after working on farms across Europe and training in a few Michelin-star restaurants along the way.
Sous chef Sara Shannon also came from Whiskenladle. It was her meatballs in tomato ragu that we had as an appetizer, which brought forth wisps of cayenne pepper, paprika and cinnamon. Slow braised and ultra tender, the meatballs are an admirable departure from standard Italian recipes.
Edrington’s succotash is a must while the corn season lasts. It begins with a traditional coupling of creamed corn and fava beans before turning deliciously complex with the additions of roasted squash, pickled onions and bell pepper puree. The crowning jewels are bits of crispy chicken skins, a welcome contributor of fat and salt to the summer-fresh medley.
For his fennel-garlic sofrito bruschetta, he uses a softly fried egg and shaved Parmesan as protein zaps. The garlic was more understated than we expected, but the overall composition was novel as far as bruschetta goes.
Edrington will have the luxury of returning to the soil in the near future after the Stones finish cultivating an acre of land in La Mesa given to them by a family friend. The goal is to grow everything they can for Edrington’s upcoming seasonal menus. For now, the kitchen sources its vegetables from Specialty Produce.
From the entrée list, we ate two of them onsite and ordered one to go. The Atlantic pan-seared scallops were artistically plated, with each bivalve nesting in dollops of sweet, charred eggplant puree, plus corn relish, radish and fresh basil.
It was a treasure chest of flavors that stood up to the presentation — not always the case when dishes look this pretty. Although more than anything, the scallops were marvelously seared, with their crispy exteriors verging faultlessly into tender, pearly flesh.
Whole fingerling potatoes dressed simply in buttermilk accompanied the pan-seared pork chop, along with a leafy green salad and unique peach mustard that gave the plainly seasoned chop a deserved fruity and tangy essence. It’s an excellent dish with fewer frills that paired nicely to the young cherry notes of 2013 Tineta Tempranillo we stuck to through most of our dinner.
After one of Edrington’s excursions to Italy, he was inspired to duplicate gnocchi he ate in a restaurant. Indeed, he figured out the technique for making them as lightweight as possible, and seemingly with minimal flour.
But they’re decadent nonetheless, as each barrel-shaped dumpling felt like a teaspoon of luxurious mashed potatoes in our mouths – and made all the better with salsa verde, warm cherry tomatoes, pickled yellow peppers and walnut pieces adorning them. We got the dish to go, but not after jabbing our fork into it before closing the lid on the box.
House-made desserts include “Sara’s Nutella banana bread,” a deliciously non-traditional recipe because of its discernable chocolate-hazelnut component. Our favorite, however, was “peaches ‘n cream” featuring thin slices of the macerated fruit glued to grilled sourdough bread with sweet cream and then drizzled with peppermint vinaigrette.
Really fantastic. And like everything that preceded it, this is the kind of thoughtful and meticulous cuisine that strikes a rare balance between homey and exclusive.
—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. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.