By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
When restaurateur Luciano Cibelli took over The Red Door in Mission Hills earlier this year, he chose not to tamper with the restaurant’s farm-to-table reputation. Though despite keeping the name and adhering to ingredients sourced from local farmers and artisan purveyors, the changes he made are unmistakable.
The exterior paint job is now mustard-orange, a standout color that contrasts curiously to the red door entrance, which became a hallmark of the restaurant when sustainable food advocate and urban farmer Trish Watlington founded it nine years ago. Part of her business included the adjacent Wellington Steak & Martini Lounge. That space eventually became Bar by Red Door, which Cibelli upholds as a cocktail lounge featuring live music Thursdays through Sundays.
The Red Door’s culinary concept is also different. It morphed from Watlington’s American-European cuisine into what Cibelli calls “comfort food with Italian flair.” That isn’t to say the menu is all about lasagna and meatballs though. Indeed, surprises await.
Cibelli is a native of Milan. He’s worked in restaurants since the age of 14 — in Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Germany and New York City. Most recently, he ran the former Mama’s Cucina Italiano in Pala Casino Resort & Spa before splashing into Mission Hills, where he says The Red Door fills to capacity many nights a week.
We came for lunch. It was a mellow scene of mostly well-dressed business folk savoring things like seasonal sautéed vegetables; fried eggs with bone marrow; lamb burgers with mint aioli; and house-made pastas in various presentations. As for the swooped-up banana cream pie I spotted at another table when we first arrived, it wasn’t forgotten at the end of our meal.
One of the more unlikely dishes you’d never expect from a passionate Italian chef is vegan nachos. To our astonishment, they rivaled those found in modern, meatless restaurants.
Cibelli constructs them from flour tortillas made by a “local Mexican grandma.” They’re cut and fried to order, dusted in some sort of addicting chili seasoning, and then drizzled in vegan cheese sauce made from cashew cream. In addition, pico de gallo and tenderly cooked black beans drape the chips, which practically disintegrated in our mouths from single, gentle bites.
The soup of the day — on a cool, rainy day no less — was cannellini bean with elbow macaroni and snipped herbs. Almost identical to pasta fagioli, every slurp snuggled our taste buds with warmth and pleasure.
Cibelli makes his own fennel-spiked sausage, which surfaces in a few dishes such as orecchiette pasta with mushrooms and brandy cream sauce, plus an outstanding flatbread that unites the crumbly sausage with basil pesto and buttery fontina cheese. For that, 00-grade flour imported from Italy is used for achieving an airy, lightweight crust that doesn’t leave you bloated even after shoveling down a couple extra pieces.
The same flour goes into Cibelli’s house-made pastas, which include irresistible thin, wide noodles known as pappardelle. Hit them with ground beef, pork and veal braised in red wine, and you’ve arrived in pasta Bolognese heaven. Thankfully, the portion was generous because I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Make sure to request Parmesan Reggiano to sprinkle over it for extra pizzazz.
My lunchmate went gaga over his braised short rib sandwich served on a puffy house-made bun. The sample I took revealed super-tender beef in a lush wine sauce that paired brightly to feta cheese and fried onion strings layered over the meat. A garden salad containing fresh lettuces and crisp radishes rounded out the plate.
We didn’t ignore the booze options, of which there are many. My companion threw down two full pours of exquisitely structured Kieu Hoang Napa Valley Cabernet while I nursed a spunky “Earl’s Night Out” cocktail. The drink combines pepper-infused gin with lemon and honey, resulting in a comforting sting to the back of the throat that turned sweet and soothing after a few seconds. Whoever created the cocktail deserves a golden bartender award.
Lunch ended with the banana cream pie, a graham cracker disk loaded with chocolate, caramel, slivered almonds and sliced strawberries. The hardy dessert over-compensated for the lack of banana cream pie at my Thanksgiving dinner this year.
Everything we packed away during lunch was divine. Nothing even fell into mediocrity. I can now understand why reservations are recommended if you come knocking on this windowed red door for dinner. No doubt, the restaurant’s fine legacy continues.
—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. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.