By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
In less than a decade, local entrepreneur Russ Kindom went from operating a small, remote wine bar in East Village to what is probably the largest of its kind in California. In doing so, he moved the business several miles into a massive space left behind by Pier I Imports on Hancock Street, a stone’s throw from the foot of Washington Street.
Much like what a design-savvy college graduate might do after busting out of a tiny dorm room and landing a good job, Kindom turned his larger digs into a place filled with stylish creature comforts. Keeping the name 57 Degrees (the ideal temperature for storing red wine), he stocked the rink with eye-catching art, a formidable wine selection and an open cooking station that sends out dressed-to-impress fare.
More recently, he added additional seating pods comprised of leather and artisan furniture, plus a beer program that will soon begin spotlighting San Diego’s craftiest labels through 28 newly installed taps.
Visiting midday with a friend who has capably explored 57’s diverse wine selection, we lunched over a few wine varietals on the back patio, now a gentrified cement block that Pier I used for shipping and receiving. Amid potted flora and more jumbo paintings from regional artists, we started with an above-average caprese salad.
For this time of year the tomatoes were oddly red and luscious, each capped with Buffalo mozzarella, the kind you can taste. We paired it with a couple glasses of Pecorino, an obscure white varietal from Italy. The wine’s summery melon overtones made it salad-friendly.
An inky, Argentinean Malbec from Tierras Atlas gave rise to a platter of spicy, tender meatballs hiding microscopic flecks of red pepper in the meat. Made with beef and pork, they sat atop cubes of bread that soaked up the well-constructed barbecue sauce cloaking them. The clever element to the prettily arranged dish, however, were the fleshy green olives crowning each ball. Why haven’t the Italians figured out this highly compatible flavor combination?
Chef and bar manager at 57, Esteff DeFelice, is a New Orleans native whose family has operated a restaurant there since 1913.
“I grew up with food and cookbooks all around, so cooking has always been a passion of mine,” he said while explaining to us why his Buffalo chicken sliders tasted nearly identical to actual chicken wings.
Stuffed inside a trio of chubby buns was finely shredded thigh meat that DeFelice cooks with the skins on for four hours in cast iron. The method infuses the poultry with a deeper flavor that isn’t achieved by simply applying Buffalo sauce to boneless, skinless breast filets, as so many kitchens do. Punctuated with a sparky heat level and blue cheese slaw, we quelled our palates with the bouncy berry notes of Tarrica Zinfandel from Paso Robles. At this point, the remaining part of the workday would have to wait.
From the panini selection, we encroached on the prosciutto-asiago, which delivered a tidal wave of bold flavors from the addition of minced pepperoncinis, roasted red peppers and truffle oil lacing the sandwich. My waning enthusiasm for paninis was duly restored.
Our lunch concluded with a boozy, buttery bread pudding that DeFelice has lifted from his family’s recipe archives. Spiked generously with brandy, he gives it his signature white-chocolate twist deserving of a sweet Riesling or Port from the wine list. It’s the only dessert on the menu, likely because nothing much else can compete with it.
Food is served at 57 Degrees from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and resumes from 4 to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. In preparation of the beer program, DeFelice has begun pickling fresh veggies in-house that will appear on various charcuterie boards. Also, on the third Friday every month, from 5 to 9 p.m., customers can savor additional foods during the bar’s “food truck extravaganza,” held in the ample, rear parking lot.
1735 Hancock St. (Mission Hills)
Prices: Appetizers, salads, boards and sandwiches, $5 to $19