By Frank Sabatini Jr.
In restaurant years, a decade equates to senior citizenship. But for the horned jewel of North Park, better known as The Smoking Goat, she’s as spry and popular as when her doors first opened in 2010 and sat less than 20 people.
Chef-owner Fred Piehl galloped into the neighborhood back then armed with a grand diplome from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. His proclivity for balancing textures and flavors with French finesse quickly became apparent in staples such as escargot a la bourguignonne, New York strip steak with red-wine bordelaise sauce, and duck liver pate laced with butter and cognac.
He also brought to the table duck-fat truffle french fries at a time when you’d only find such a thing in cities with more culinary savvy. Sure enough, they sparked a local frenzy and began appearing in handfuls of other San Diego restaurants.
With age came an encroachment of the adjoining storefront and a sidewalk patio, along with an earthy motif flaunting exposed ceiling beams, rustic décor, and comfy chairs.
Also, Phiel has since introduced One Door North, a spacious restaurant right next door that pays tribute to American cuisine and the great outdoors. Clearly, he’s been good for North Park.
Dinner at the Smoking Goat potentially starts with none other than French onion soup sporting a rich sherry-spiked broth capped with melted Swiss cheese. On this particular evening the soup was a little saltier than sweet, but gut-warming nonetheless.
A frisee-lettuce salad with champagne vinaigrette gave way to two leading actors: gently spiced poached pears (when we could find them) and crumbled melt-in-your-mouth Pt. Reyes blue cheese. It went well with our drinks — an apple cider mule from a menu of crafty cocktails made with soju, and a glass of bright-tasting Bordeaux blanc from a global, intelligent wine list.
For a meal-size appetizer, look no further than the PEI mussels bathed in a tomato-based broth accented with chorizo, fennel and garlic. As a twosome, we were unable to empty the bowl, which we estimated contained at least two dozen of the bivalves. Our efficient waiter confirmed as much.
But it was a dish of roasted cauliflower that stole the show in this first round. The trendy vegetable adopts a renewed spirit in the company of whipped feta cheese, raisins, Calabrian chili relish and toasted pistachios. Multiple flavors ensued, ranging from tangy and sweet to spicy and nutty.
Piehl’s succinct entree menu is pure European comfort. There’s hand-made butternut squash ravioli, a thick Duroc pork chop served with tasso ham Basque sauce, and Maine diver scallops enlivened by parsnip-pernod cream.
My companion opted for lamb bolognese using house-made rigatoni cooked al dente. She welcomed the twist in flavor from the ground lamb, which paired as compatibly to the balanced tomato sauce and grated Pecorino Romano cheese as beef-pork ragu does.
I ordered a plump filet of Scottish salmon draped in silky beurre blanc. The combination of the perfectly cooked fish and the classic French wine-butter sauce was naturally exquisite. A medley of cooked spinach and green lentils played a fine supporting role, despite being over-salted. Although a sizable smear of celery root puree delivered countering sweetness.
Goat cheese cheesecake is a long-celebrated dessert here. So much so, that Piehl’s recipe for it comes with the bill at the end of your meal.
Given my aversion to goat cheese, my companion was the sole taste tester. She applauded its non-sugary pith in both the filling and graham-cracker crust, and noted its smooth, light mouthfeel.
We made room on our table for two other desserts — a deliciously dense flourless chocolate cake served with brandied cherries, and griddled banana bread that sent my eyes rolling backwards. The cake-y bread is presented Foster-style using house-made caramel and vanilla ice cream. It’s flanked by coins of sauteed bananas that escaped the common curse of mushiness. What a treat.
In celebration of its exact 10th anniversary, the restaurant will offer on Feb. 19 a three-course meal for $40, plus complimentary sweets and a glass of champagne. A similar three-course deal for the same cost, but minus the free confections and champagne, is available every Wednesday.
— 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. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.