By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
After a three-month soft opening that involved meticulous menu adjustments and the finalizing of an impressive bar program, Ad Libitum in Hillcrest has moved into prime time.
Located in the mid-century Googie-style building fronting The Merrow, the address has been a turnstile to numerous businesses over the past two decades — something Ad Libitum’s owner, Mike Kan, took into careful account before launching the business.
“I researched a lot of the past restaurants that were in here and analyzed how long they lasted and why they failed,” said Kan, who is augmenting his investigative data with the help of a shaman to break whatever curse might hang over the property.
The lighthearted ritual will take place during Ad Libitum’s three-day grand opening, which begins Dec. 28. During that time, select dishes and drinks will be 50 percent off.
What may ultimately lend to Ad Libitum’s longevity, however, is Kan’s disdain for stereotyped menus, drink lists and interior designs. Here, none of those fall into any particular pigeonhole.
Even the name is a refreshing departure from the scores of restaurants and bars that unimaginatively use two words separated by an ampersand to define their businesses. (The building’s most recent tenant was Bull & Grain.)
Kan explains that Ad Libitum is a Latin musical term for performers who decide which notes and tempos they will play, but while adhering to the main crux of a song. When applied to the business, he says it denotes the dishes and drinks are “80 percent classic and 20 percent creative.”
Outside of that, don’t expect him to sum up the concept with such cliches as “farm-to-table,” “comfort,” “elevated” or “modern.” Though admittedly the words “continental” and “global” come to mind considering you’ll find everything from tuna tartare and patatas bravas to New York strip steak, whole branzino and fabulous seared duck breast set in three different sauces.
The menu is steered by executive chef Charleen Sandoval (formerly of Trust, Bistro du Marché, Pizzeria Mozza and Cowboy Star). She’s a magician with sauces such as the addicting vegan garlic “cream” that accompanied an appetizer of fried king trumpet mushrooms. It paired well to their tempura-like batter, which uses vodka instead of water.
A dark, viscous wasabi-soy dipping sauce that came with honey-chili glazed shrimp was memorably complex with its salty-spicy zing. And the sauces swirled around those thick, tender slices of duck breast — tamarind, sweet onion and pomegranate-molasses — were playfully sweet and tart as they interacted with each other on the plate.
As for Sandoval’s naked lamb “pops” bedded over arugula, her dipping sauce of mint and roasted red pepper was wonderfully fitting, but hardly needed. These were handy, little chops at their juiciest and most tender.
The only dish that fell flat with us was an attractive salad mingling heirloom tomatoes with grilled asparagus and watermelon radishes. The combination felt random, and the basil-spiked dressing jived only to the tomatoes.
The ad libitum reference might best apply to the cocktail program, which was developed by Jay Choi of the cocktail consulting business, CoLab.
Aside from a dozen signature drinks, such as the slightly tart “pear bear” combining pear brandy, gin, lemon and walnut bitters — or the guzzle-worthy “spritz for sore eyes” blending gin, vermouth, créme de péche, chardonnay and elderflower liqueur — you can take the “ad lib’ed” route.
We did so after downing the aforementioned drinks and picking over an elegant cheese and charcuterie board. We told Choi our general preferences and ended up with pleasing twists on a classic gimlet using a tad less sugar, plus a gin Rickey prettied up with star anise.
Still, our favorite was the “spritz for sore eyes” with strawberries and oranges bobbing within the glass. Dare I return to drink it in bottomless quantities for $18 during Sunday brunch (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.). Truly, it’s one of those cocktails that can make you forget about mimosas forever.
Kan has made minor changes to the 2,800-square-foot interior. He added dark-wood elements, rebuilt the bar, and enhanced the mezzanine with colored lighting. He’s created an anti-trendy environment that is very gay-friendly and serves up some of the most applaudable food and drinks the address has seen in a while.
—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 email@example.com.