By Frank Sabatini Jr.
A culinary interplay of nostalgia and innovation has presided over Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant from the time it opened six years ago. Then and now, patrons are afforded a steady hand in crafty libations and seasonal cuisine within an aesthetically solid atmosphere that remains the aspiration of new restaurateurs today.
Indeed, exposed wood and other repurposed materials flow throughout the three-room operation, but in a fashion that corresponds naturally to the bones of the building, which years ago was home to the long-running Liaison French restaurant.
Its cobblestone flooring and paned windows were kept intact, adding old-European charm to what can’t fully be achieved inside glassy structures and drab strip plazas, no matter how much barnyard lumber goes into them. With little ornamentation and low lighting (perhaps too dim, depending on where you sit), the design speaks confidently for itself.
So does the food, which comes as no surprise in a restaurant spearheaded by industry veterans, Terryl Gavre of Café 222 and Bake Sale Bakery, and Carl Schroeder of Market Restaurant + Bar.
Both are culinary maestros in their own respect: Gavre’s recipes for pumpkin waffles and other casual fare have been spotlighted over the years by national magazines and the Food Network; and Schroeder held gigs at distinguished restaurants across the country before nabbing the honor of “best hotel chef in the country” by the James Beard Foundation for his previous work at Arterra Restaurant in Del Mar.
Earlier this year, Chef de Cuisine Tyler Nollenberger came to Bankers Hill from Market, where he absorbed Schroeder’s penchant for constructing contemporary meals derived from seasonal ingredients.
His dishes have entered the menu quietly amid signature items dating back to the restaurant’s birth before they became trendy, such as deviled eggs festooned with arugula and Parmesan, and house-made potato chips dusted in lemon pepper and served with herbed ranch dressing.
The restaurant’s original house burger my companion ordered is another untouchable. Garnished with pickled red onions and tomatoes, the patty is cloaked in aged white cheddar, completely shrouding the meat like frosting does on a layer cake, right down to the plate. Given the sharpness of the cheese, it’s exceedingly tangier than your everyday burger.
Nollenberger recently devised a chilled cucumber-avocado soup that might stick around a couple more weeks if he isn’t swayed already by some early-autumn ingredient steering him into serving warm pottage.
“I like spontaneous change,” he said, despite the raves he’s undoubtedly receiving for the soup’s graceful meshing of the main ingredients with cilantro-marinated shrimp, Serrano chilies, cherry tomatoes and spiced croutons. All combined, the flavors were downright relaxing.
Quarter cuts of a soft-shell crab were the centerpieces of four lettuce wraps, brightened astutely by green papaya and bok choy slaw, plus lemongrass vinaigrette and chili glaze. Our only caveat was that the crabs were slightly inundated by a salty seasoning.
As far back as I can remember, the menu has featured some commendable version of a chile relleno. Nollenberger’s plunges deeper into Mexico by bridging the pasilla pepper to a filling of Oaxaca cheese, polenta, clove, cinnamon and star anise. Plated with a sauce of tomatillos, onions, garlic and other chili peppers, and sold as a side dish, it’s simultaneously comforting and complex — tempting enough to order twice in lieu of a main course.
An entrée of chipotle-peach baby back ribs compensated for the lackluster few I had elsewhere over the summer. These were tender while maintaining a smidgen of precious texture. Better yet, the sauce struck a perfect spicy-fruity balance, which can be tricky when working with the cloying flavor of ripe peaches.
Fresh corn served alongside was deliciously distracting. The sweet kernels were tossed simply with charred shishito peppers and cherry tomatoes, and hiding perhaps a little cotija cheese. Aptly rounding out the plate was watermelon-cucumber salad accented with cilantro. Think backyard barbecue with a gourmet touch applied to everything.
Other entrees include local sea bass bouillabaisse with saffron; braised pork tacos; and a roasted half chicken with summer squash and chili butter.
For dessert — not counting the “Kongkiller” cocktail made in part with Malahat Spiced Rum and crème de banana we had early in the meal, and which tasted exactly like banana bread — the butterscotch pudding is a winner. It’s served with lightweight shortbread that disintegrated in our mouths as the unusually rich pudding decadently coated them.
Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant has capably kept up with times without dabbling in overly trendy reinventions. At six years in, it doesn’t need to.
—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.