By David Nelson
SDUN Restaurant Critic
Chefs used to be anonymous beyond the confines of their small, steamy empires, which in Europe typically were located in the basement. The idea of a “celebrity chef” would have seemed strange, except in the rare cases of experts recruited to serve the most glittering courts, such as Antonin Careme, who fed the royal houses of England and Russia in the gilded early decades of the 1800s. At that time, wearing a crown was pretty nice work if you could get it, while Careme, “the chef of kings and king of chefs,” frankly complained that the endless hours he and his battalions of cooks spent in hot, airless palace kitchens amounted to slow death.
The era of media chefs, some of whom have only a vague idea of the layouts of their own star-studded kitchens, has been upon us for some while, encouraged in San Diego by cable television programs like “Top Chef.” The three local chefs who have appeared on this show now have their own places, all opened this year: Frank Terzoli’s The Big Easy and Rich Sweeney’s R Gang Eatery, both in Hillcrest, and Brian Malarkey’s Searsucker in the Gaslamp.
Which brings us to Carl Schroeder, a La Jolla native (he played football at La Jolla High, as he may mention early in a conversation), and a natural-born media chef who pointedly declines the title. Skittish around the press and seemingly uninterested in performing for the friendly lenses of television cameras, Schroeder is a maestro in his kitchen. He vastly prefers this tight landscape to the wide-open spaces of his dining rooms, where fans eager to heap praise on his broad shoulders rarely get the chance. Schroeder first made his name at Arterra, a well-regarded hotel dining room, and then at Market on Via de la Valle in Del Mar, which he co-owns with managing partner Terryl Gavre and several investors.
Schroeder and Gavre, who long has operated the popular downtown Café 222, have created the kind of buzz usually reserved for media chefs with their new Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant in the Fourth and Ivy location formerly occupied by Modus. A couple of months ago, Bankers Hill was so au courant that it could be a challenge to snare a table on a Monday night. Now, the hipsters needful of seeing and being seen have newer options, and tables are more easily found. But make no mistake, Bankers Hill jumps and jives well into the evening.
Inventive in the kitchen and famous for insisting on produce so fresh it’s just about moist with the morning’s dew, Schroeder is capable of writing remarkably sophisticated menus. At Bankers Hill he instead specializes in reworking classics of American comfort food, thoughtfully priced to comfort contemporary budgets. No entrée costs more than $19.75 —for the present, $20 is a barrier Schroeder and Gavre refuse to break—and some creative items, like the crispy BBQ-braised pork taco with pepper Jack cheese, avocado (it smoothes the spices like butter) and a tangy herb-lime cream cost as little as $14.25. There’s always plenty of food on the plate, and unlike at many establishments that highlight quantity, it’s good food. Very good, usually.
Schroeder earns his reputation every day. He understands the longing of many Americans for bold, clearly defined flavors and satisfies them with starters like a pairing of deviled eggs (from the farmers market, the menu assures us) with irresistibly crisp, lemon-accented shoestring potatoes ($7.75). This is comfort times two, and more indulgent than the eggs stuffed by many generations of home cooks, since crunchy bacon crowns the halves. Share a plate of these with a companion who also wants to enjoy the cornmeal-battered shrimp, crisp but succulent morsels wisely paired with a creamy salad of apple and shredded celery root (a vegetable we deserve to know better) and a vibrant aioli flavored with grain mustard ($10.25). The pleasures continue with truffled french fries ($7.75 as a starter, or $3 as a side with the gloriously all-American house burger, whose décor includes sliced heirloom tomato), and open-face B.L.T. sandwiches enriched with Dungeness crab and basil aioli ($7.25).
In the time it takes to order a cocktail or a reasonably priced glass of wine, first-timers notice the woodsy, almost rustic décor of Bankers Hill, which is considerably changed from the Modus regime. The dining rooms now open into one another, and the vibe travels actively between them, along with a noise level guaranteed not to soothe anyone looking for a quiet night out. Bankers Hill is for a night on the town, with glasses in hand and gossip turned up high, enlivened further by a cavalcade of Boomer tunes that swings from the Doors to ABBA.
Servers somehow tune their ears to hear their guests, cheerfully taking orders for such finely composed pairings as prosciutto and juicy peaches garnished with goat cheese, arugula and candied almonds ($10.25.) Similarly sweet, tart and pungent flavors make an equal pleasure of the salad of watermelon and watercress with feta cheese and roasted pistachios ($9.50). Either of these would share well before Bankers Hill’s uptown version of fish and chips ($18.75), crafted from local ling cod coated in a batter made with Stone Brewery’s distinctive Porter, and served with cole slaw, tartar sauce and malt vinegar. It’s pure comfort, as is the oven-roasted chicken breast with Sherried jus (a rich essence of roasted chicken parts and flavorings), forest mushrooms and smooth purée of potatoes and onions ($16.50). A preserved lemon salad makes a brilliant accompaniment to naturally rich duck confit served with a mixed “roast” of heirloom potatoes and corn ($18.25), and the fluffiest of buttermilk biscuits accompanies hickory-smoked baby back ribs ($17.50) as comfortably as peas go with carrots at Sunday dinner.
The menu is big on meats, including a spice-rubbed, grilled flat iron steak served with deliciously retro “twice baked” potatoes and melting dabs of Worcestershire-scented butter ($19.50), a dish so savory it demands to be followed by one of pastry chef Rachel Going’s amazing sweets (all $7). Sometimes the apple pie is built of Granny Smiths from her granny’s tree, baked in a fabulously buttery crust. And then there’s a butterscotch pudding that seems perfect after deviled eggs and roast chicken.
Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant
2204 Fourth Ave.
Dinner served nightly