By David Nelson | SDUN Food Critic
Christian Gomez reminds me a bit of the Tasmanian Devil from the old Chuck Jones Warner Brothers’ cartoons: He moves so fast that the eye struggles to keep him in focus.
His business card lists him as “executive chef/proprietor” of Wet Stone Wine Bar, an interesting arrangement of words that testifies to Gomez’ priorities. He values food — and wine, of course — above position, and the way he works makes it clear that owning a popular, and quite trendy little boite between downtown and Bankers Hill has not gone to his head. When the inviting, intimate space is jammed to the ceiling, as was the case for me one recent Tuesday evening, Gomez moved among the tables in a blur, his short pony tail bobbing under the dark fedora.
“I wait tables, I wash dishes, I create the menu, I’m the executive chef, I do a little of everything,” explained Gomez as he delivered a couple of glasses of a full-bodied red. He seemed not slightly fazed by juggling so many duties, and the service always proceeded at a smooth, steady pace, neither rushed nor slow. As looks go, the restaurant’s ensemble would sweep like a torrent of Beaujolais through cafes in Oberkampf and other trendy-artsy neighborhoods in Paris, creating le new look of 2001.
Wet Stone’s location on Fourth Avenue between Grape and Fir streets may seem off the beaten track (Market Street, several blocks away is the only other culinary redoubt on this stretch of Fourth). The place is no secret, though, evidenced by how packed it was on a Tuesday, which most establishments rate as the slowest night of the week. Measured by the volume of conversations, Wet Stone sounded like the most popular place in town. High tables center a cozy room that on this occasion primarily hosted groups engaged in vivacious communication: In other words, it’s a scene, and if fun could be measured by decibels, Wet Stone would fly off the scale. Recorded jazz plays behind it all, and perhaps the conga drum in the corner adds another dimension on occasion.
The look is so good. Red lights supplement candlelight to create a twilight in which everybody looks good. Thought obviously was invested in the décor, which includes greenery and gray walls that support broad mirrors and a collection of analog-patterned paintings. Plus, the tables and chairs were exceptionally comfortable.
The wine list complements the cool chic by boasting “big glasses” (they are, and few wine bars emphasize such fine glassware) of vintages noted as “Stateside” and “Global.” Wet Stone updates its cellar regularly, and at the moment offers pleasures such as Mueller- Thurgau from Montinore Estate in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, a semi-sweet white that drinks well as an aperitif and a quite lovely Los Chamizel Zinfandel from Sonoma’s Haywood Estate winery. The list is relatively short, but so well chosen that size truly doesn’t matter. And besides wines by the glass, there are house-made white and red sangrias that cost $7 per glass and $25 for a carafe. The flavoring ingredients are secret, but the list asserts that the white is “love in a glass.” The same comment could apply to the Zinfandel mentioned above, which proved an exceptionally menu-friendly wine.
Gomez’ family roots are in Panama and the Philippines, and his cooking takes an approach that spans the globe just as broadly. He adds a delicious twist to queso fundido by combining four cheeses—cotija, panela, fresco and fontina—in an oval ramekin, adding shiitake mushrooms and plenty of flavorful chorizo sausage (from Bilbao, Spain, no less), and serving it broiling hot with toasted ciabatta bread from San Diego’s Sadie Rose bakery. His quesadilla de guayaba is similarly creative and combines a trio of cheeses with sweet-tangy guava paste and a garnish of charred scallions. The starters are as simple as bruschetta with a bold topping of Roma tomatoes, capers, basil and garlic, as refreshing as hummus garnished with Medjool dates, fresh mint and dried cranberries, and as rich as crostini topped with Chinese “five spice” flavored braised pork belly, fennel slaw and pickled red onions. The clientele cries out for salads, and Gomez obliges by cleverly drizzling soy sauce over a fresh caprese of Roma tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil. Citrus vinaigrette sharpens the wild arugula, goat cheese and crushed macadamias that suavely brighten a salad of tender beets; there are similar effects in a mango salad with greens, Danish bleu cheese and caramelized walnuts. Almost all the starters are budget-friendly and cost under $10.
Wet Stone’s food is designed to suit a variety of wines, and the menu offers flatbread pizzas that at their most elegant feature a topping of prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and the wily wild arugula that Gomez evidently is adept at capturing. The menu scours the planet for distinctive offerings, like the North African merguez lamb sausage that joins prosciutto and chorizo in adding meaty weight to a cheese plate. Skewers feature both flat iron steak and curried tiger shrimp, and “small” plates approximate entrees—try the quintet of spiced lamb meatballs atop a pool of yogurt enriched with mango and cucumber. For seafood, Gomez gives albacore ceviche a Peruvian presentation that includes yams, corn and hot aji amarillo. If a second glass of Zinfandel seems an attractive idea, considering pairing it with a substantial, Argentine-style “churrasco” of grilled chicken breast, merguez sausage and flat iron steak. Flavored with many herbs, the accompanying chimichurri sauce is as lively as the setting.