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DINING REVIEW: The Taste Buds try Suite & Tender at Sè San Diego Hotel

San Diego Gay & Lesbian News introduces a new foodie column written by The Taste Buds, SDGLN's resident foodies. Today's review is by Sweet and Sour, two of our staffers who plan to keep their identity a secret.

Suite & Tender
Sè San Diego Hotel
1047 5th Ave., San Diego, CA 92101-5101
(619) 515-3003

SAN DIEGO – Want to see eyes light up on foodies? Invite them to sit at the Chef’s Table.

That’s what The Taste Buds did recently at Suite & Tender, one of the upscale dining options in San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter at the Sè San Diego Hotel.

At Suite & Tender, Executive Chef Anthony Calamari tells a story of his personal culinary inspiration as American bistro meets modern continental cuisine. The restaurant features a sleek and contemporary décor with lots of mirrors, large windows overlooking Fifth Avenue, and posh black-leather seating.

Chef has assembled a charming wait staff who are knowledgeable about the menu choices and the extensive and impressive wine list. Inside a small kitchen, he and his staff prepare everything but the bread from scratch.

Chef told us he grew up with an Italian-American father and an Irish-American mother, so he was always surrounded by pasta lovers. Like in many Italian families, the men were chased from the kitchen. As a result, Calamari said he didn’t fall in love with cooking until he went into the family’s construction business where during lunch the men would whip up pasta dishes on the job site.

“I got a late start in the business,” Calamari said.

Calamari was named executive chief in the spring, but has had a leading role there for months. He received his training in France and America, and has worked at some of Northern California's hot spots including Cielo Restaurant at Ventana Inn & Spa in Big Sur.

For the Chef’s Table, Calamari gave The Taste Buds – Sweet and Bitter -- a generous sampling of the menu, including some side dishes that were specially prepared for us.

The pineapple and shrimp ceviche amuse bouche drew mixed reviews from the Buds. Sweet liked that the onions and peppers did not overwhelm the delicate flavor of the shrimp, and appreciated just the right amount of lime juice as the acid. Bitter was not amused only because the texture of the bite was too slimy for his liking.

The quail and greens appetizer was a shame. While the quail was prepared well, both of the Buds complained that the greens were overseasoned, inedible, and killed the dish.

The salad with bleu cheese and bacon was fairly ordinary, and Sweet felt like any home chef could re-create the recipe.

The Chardonnay Braised Artichoke Hearts ($6) with roasted tri-color peppers and lemon pepper aioli were also disappointing. The artichoke hearts were too al dente, so much so that we had to use a knife to cut them in half. The slivers of pepper were also undercooked for our taste. Chef later clarified that the appetizer is intended to be served cold and that the al dente finish was intentional. Given this, it seems like this appetizer in particular might be better suited on a summer lunch menu as it does not fit with the other appetizer options offered.

The clear winner among the sampling of appetizers was the Fig & Prosciutto Crostini ($5), served on grilled ciabatta bread with brie cheese. The sweetness of the fig was nicely balanced by the creamy brie, which left a lingering and pleasant taste.

The Old But New School Garden Salad ($5) had to be the most colorful salad The Buds have ever eaten. It was an explosion of colors with red oak, frisee, arugula, garden herbs and confetti flowers, served with a cabernet vinaigrette. The salad would have been improved with a hint of sweetness, perhaps from a sprinkling of dried fruit, to balance some of the bitterness of the greens and the tartness of the vinaigrette.

Next up was the Seafood Ravioli ($10), containing the chef’s choice of seafood mix. The pasta was served over a roasted red pepper cream sauce with micro cilantro adding a delicate touch. Sweet extolled the virtues of the dish, liking the slightly al dente ravioli because it preserved integrity of the seafood. The cream sauce provided a perfect harmony to complement the pasta and the seafood. Sour would have preferred a little heat to the dish, but was otherwise pleased with the flavors.

The Spiced Lamb Riblets ($10) were on skewers and had a dipping sauce made of lemon oregano vinaigrette. Sweet, who has suffered through some horrible lamb dishes both at home and abroad, thought the lamb was delicious, the sauce was lovely, but wondered where the spice went. Sour found that the butchering technique on the riblets was sloppy as several tough bits of cartilage were left on each piece.

The two main courses were stellar achievements, The Buds agreed.

The Potato & Horseradish Crusted Halibut ($23) was perfectly cooked and perfectly seasoned. Too bad the farmers market veggies were unevenly steamed. The carrots and turnips were half-raw and were hard to cut with a knife, while the green beans were flawless. Kudos to the chef for finding fresh lima beans … and making Sweet like them for the first time in his life!

The Pave New York Au Poivre ($25) was very lovely, flawlessly cooked mid-rare with appropriate amounts of pepper to spice up the beef. The blue cheese potato gratin was mediocre, however, stacked too high and lacking enough blue cheese to provide enough contrast to the peppery steak.

The two desserts were very nice. The cheesecake was very light and fluffy, and the chocolate truffle cake came with a lemony ice cream that created perfect harmony.

It's clear to The Taste Buds that Chef is well on his way to putting his stamp on the improving menu as it transitions away from a steakhouse to a fine dining establishment. We approve of Chef's support for the local farmers markets, and look forward to watching his menu grow more sophisticated.