By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Don’t assume the song “Fools and Kings” by reggae rockers Fighting Gravity was the inspiration for the namesake restaurant that opened two months ago in Mission Hills. The new globally-inspired kitchen borrows instead from a line in the 1948 tune recorded by Nat King Cole called “Nature Boy.”
The poetic lyrics are posted at the restaurant’s iron-gated entrance as an inspirational prelude to the welcoming and diverse meal experience you’ll discover inside. Be sure to read them before settling in.
Fools and Kings is the second venture by Christian Gomez, a savvy wine aficionado and crafty chef who also operates Wet Stone Wine Bar & Café in Bankers Hill.
The décor and cuisine reflect cities that captivated his heart over years of traveling the globe to places like Lima, Barcelona, San Sebastian and Buenos Aires. Although in crafting the menu, he didn’t exclude flavors from the Asian continent.
My dining companion immediately compared the interior of Fools and Kings to “many places” he ate at when visiting Barcelona.
A dramatic mural of a handsome man relaxing in a chair and rolling a cigar greets you in the front breezeway, from which tables flow into a dining room adorned with old-world lighting fixtures, earthy wall colors and a tapas bar. Another mural in the back of the dining room shows stacked homes in what could be Greece, Italy, the Middle East or any antiquated place your imagination takes you. Both were painted by local artist Josh Hunter.
The wine list is focused and cosmopolitan, extending to an impressive medium-bodied Slovenian red boasting soft tannins. It paired beautifully to one of our favorite dishes of the evening — sautéed shiitake mushrooms draped over burrata cheese.
The tannins were distinctly pronounced in a Spanish garnacha my friend ordered before he proceeded to a rebujito, a refreshing house specialty combining dry sherry with citrus and ginger. Also, if you’re familiar with Gomez’s sprightly fruit-loaded sangrias he makes at Wet Stone, you’ll find them here as well.
A watercress-jicama salad dressed in lime vinaigrette would have tasted too bitter had it not been for the sweet and juicy grilled peaches incorporated into the scheme. Simple and enjoyable, a dish of roasted carrots interspersed with golden raisins was more interesting in comparison. It’s listed under the “bocaditos” section, which translates to “little bites.”
The carrots, stacked upon a bed of creamy za’atar-spiked yogurt, were tender while maintaining their central crisp. Even better was the aromatic Moroccan spice at work, known as ras el hanout, which like za’atar, can contain dozens or more spices. I’d guess cloves, cinnamon and allspice were among the residents in this bewitching mix.
Another bocadito, tempura shrimp, suffered only when dipping the sweet, battered crustaceans into the intensely salty soy sauce. If there were other components hiding in the liquid, we didn’t notice. They would have needed a low-sodium soy sauce to shine.
The same soy sauce reappeared as a half-bedding to ahi tuna carpaccio. We stuck mostly to the other side of the plate, where olive oil laid beneath the fresh, almond-speckled fish. Over the entire arrangement were cubes of outstanding duck mousse pate made by a local French chef. We snapped those up with gusto.
With soothing international music playing throughout most of the evening, we staggered our plate orders, which is exactly the relaxed approach to dining that Fools and Kings encourages you to do.
The back end of our meal had us digging into a curried chicken-potato flatbread and a quartet of Angus flat steak skewers. Those are from the “special plates” category, which also features Peruvian-inspired ceviche and a French-style charcuterie and cheese board.
The flatbread’s Masaman yellow curry was tastefully complemented by cilantro oil, which further moistened the crust and the hearty poultry and potatoes on top. The construct tasted both familiar and exotic.
The steak skewers were wildly succulent, brushed or marinated with a Korean-style sauce similar to the sweet-salty-garlicky type you’d find on bulgogi beef. It came with potato salad, which we agreed didn’t have much going on. As my companion pointed out, Spanish-style patatas bravas potatoes — kicked up perhaps with spicy oil or roasted tomatoes — would have been the perfect player in this dish.
I reached for my last couple sips of the Slovenian wine to wash down decadent bread pudding that behaved more like dark-chocolate lava cake. Served piping hot, the cocoa flavor was deep and luxurious, as were the smears of fruity guava paste sitting alongside.
Fools and Kings is off to a fine start. And knowing Gomez’s penchant for hunting down reliable wines and balancing dishes with dynamic spices and ingredients, the international flair he brings to Goldfinch Street is sure to keep cultured diners on their toes.
—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.