Frank Sabatini Jr. Restaurant Review
Martinis Above Fourth fills a rare niche in that it’s one of the few restaurant-bars in Uptown that looks down to a street. Not exactly a towering rooftop like Bertrand at Mr. A’s or Top of the Park, but its second-floor perch in central Hillcrest is high enough to incite a feeling of exclusiveness, as though you’ve entered into the lesser castle of the land.
New owners Jim Simpson and his partner Doru Tifui have fortified the space with a stage rigged with professional lighting and an acoustically crisp sound system that doesn’t assassinate dinner conversation. The enhancements ramp up new cabaret acts on Thursdays; and showcases self-proclaimed “piano wrench” Carol Curtis on Fridays and young, new singer-pianist Michael Sanchez on Saturdays. On Musical Mondays, guests can test their sing-along abilities to video clips of popular movies, and perhaps bust a few vocal cords after sampling from an everyday catalog of 65 imaginative martinis.
Additional creature comforts are met with a revised menu by Martinis’ newest chef, Stephen Bennett, a culinary graduate of Johnson & Wales who previously ran the kitchen at Randy Jones All American Sports Grill in Mission Valley.
“My style is to let the food speak for itself,” Bennett said, adding that he’s been given full creative license to develop new dishes provided he keep Martinis’ sacred crab cakes and bacon-wrapped filet mignon stuffed with blue cheese.
As Simpson puts it, “We don’t mess with those dishes because customers have always loved them.”
Sambuca-glazed shrimp are among the menu’s fresh blossoms, a starter that Bennett says helped land him the job. Original and sweet, the large crustaceans are tastefully coated in both butter and the anise-infused liqueur after a quick sauté in garlic. Judging from the clever alchemy of flavors, one can safely assume the recipe will join the protected status given to the filet and crab cakes.
Lobster risotto is also new, available in appetizer or entrée portions. Bennett uses lobster stock and cream to thicken the rice, building it further with sun-dried tomatoes, asparagus tips and bits of claw meat. The flavor of the lobster, however, turns mellow while the organics rise to the forefront.
More distinct tasting is Bennett’s plum-sauced beef skewers over a bed of sautéed bell peppers, a rich tasting prelude to a center-cut New York strip on the entrée menu. There’s also mac-n-cheese, which rivals a zillion gourmet versions elsewhere. The secret here lies in the roux, which contains heavenly bacon fat as a compatible boost to the sharp cheddar. Caramelized onions and a whisper of smoked Gouda tie the whole thing together, resulting in a mouth-tingling outcome deserving of a blue ribbon.
Our parade of first courses was consumed in concert with two different clear-colored martinis – a “pearl necklace” mixing pomegranate vodka with white cranberry juice, and another spiked with lemon and ginger. In keeping with the bar’s penchant for generous alcohol pours, both were deliciously boozy.
The entrees we chose were fitting of San Diego’s sluggish transition into spring when you consider the spiced apple-cranberry stuffing that Bennett imports into a succulent double-cut pork chop and the comforting blackberry glaze he appoints to a tenderly cooked duck breast. Until short-sleeve evenings descend upon us, these are exactly the kinds of dishes necessary for staying warm past sunset.
Bennett admits to not being much of a pastry chef, although he proved otherwise with mango mousse cake, with the refreshing mousse conforming to a unique base of angel food cake and graham crackers. Who would’ve thought of ever mixing the two? Surrounded by semi-tart berries, he struck a precise balance between sweet and tangy.
More than ever, Martinis Above Fourth is a night out destination that embraces you with a convivial, loungy dining room and a roomy patio bar from which a few neighboring rooftops align to the rim of your cocktail glass.
Martinis Above Fourth
3940 Fourth Ave. Hillcrest