By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The produce that flows regularly into Garden Kitchen experiences no layovers along the way. It evades retail and wholesale establishments, arriving directly to the door by growers who operate within a 30-mile radius of the mostly outdoor restaurant.
In San Diego’s dining scene, that’s a rare thing.
“I’m shaking hands with farmers who still have dirt in their fingernails when they deliver here,” said chef-owner Coral Strong, who opened the establishment in 2015 under a strict farm-to-table credo.
In culinary circles, she’s what you call a die-hard locovore, resorting to only seasonal, locally grown ingredients — even right down to the marigold greens she uses to give certain dishes their bewitchingly herbaceous flavor. Those originate from Wild Willows Farm in South Bay.
The restaurant operates from a converted house in Rolando. With the exception of a cozy parlor-like room in the back that serves as the wine lounge, seating is spread throughout a few sections of the patio, which is framed in part by lattice, and was recently “canvass wrapped” for weather protection.
Live greenery hanging about in combination with fresh flowers perched on every table lend an unexpected charm in this otherwise nondescript locale. A certain elegance descends on the space post-sunset amid the embracing glow of table candles and evenly distributed string lights.
Color the moment with a glass of sangria, made in-house with a red blend from Temecula’s South Coast Winery, plus Champagne, cinnamon, cloves and “some secrets.” At which point you might feel transported to a cozy backyard gathering in rural Spain.
Strong buys her produce from eight local farms such as Wild Willows, Agua Dulce, Stehly, and D’Acquisto. The latter happened to be delivering eggplant and zucchini late in the afternoon on the Saturday I visited.
Grape tomatoes from Wild Willows were in the house too. They added undeniable sweetness to a memorable salad of blanched green beans, fresh arugula and terrific tarragon dressing. Strong can effectively trace every ingredient you put into your mouth to her esteemed farms. You need only ask.
The menu changes daily and is posted on the website by noon on the days of operation (Tuesday through Saturday). As a past bartender at O’Brien’s Pub, and lacking formal culinary training, Strong relies on her keen intuition for cooking in devising the menus.
“I also like entertaining and customer service, so that led me to where I am now,” she said.
At each dinner, customers can choose from a menu comprising three appetizers, two salads, one or two soups, five or six entrees, and three desserts. What’s here today is most certainly gone tomorrow.
I progressed to lentil-pork soup — one of the most loving, embracing pottages I’ve had in ages. Carrots, beet greens, Italian herbs and tender cubes of the meat waltzed through the sedating pork broth, which was also accented by Parmesan cheese.
I kept the Italian theme alive with an entree of house-made meatballs and linguine tossed in “seven-hour” marinara sauce originating from fresh tomatoes. Would I regret skipping over such choices as grilled steak with kimchi butter or fresh-caught mako shark with raisins, cherries, shishito peppers and date mole sauce? Not really, although the decision to pass them up was tough.
The meatballs were free of eggs and breadcrumbs, but they mixed in ground bacon (lardons), which gave them a mildly smoky flavor that quickly grew on me. The pasta was cooked al dente, a little too chewy for my taste, but the thin bright-tasting sauce cloaking the noodles brought forgiveness.
Desserts that day were almond-crusted dark-chocolate tart with mint; fall fruit custard with vanilla bean pastry cream, Asian pear and peach puree; and brioche bread pudding with warm chocolate sauce. All of them were out of the question given the substantial portions of the three courses I scarfed down with wild abandon.
Which brings me to a revelation I missed by waiting this long to finally visit Garden Kitchen in the four years it’s been in operation. The farm-to-table concept here is the real deal — basically what so many other restaurants either strive to achieve or sadly lie about — the latter of which Strong cites with clipped tones of criticism.
She is a staunch advocate for the movement, while ensuring the seafood she sources is sustainable, and the meats she purchases are humanely raised and free of hormones and antibiotics.
Aside from 5 p.m. dinner service, Garden Kitchen offers happy hour from 3 to 5 p.m. (Tuesday through Saturday), when sangria, and Old and New-World wines sell for $5 per glass; beers go for $4; and appetizers are $3 off their regular prices.
4204 Rolando Blvd. (Rolando)
Prices based on a recent visit: (Costs vary as the menu changes daily) Soups, salads and appetizers, $9 to $19; entrees$22 to $27; desserts, $12 to $15
— 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.