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DINING REVIEW: The Taste Buds pig out at Uptown Tavern

San Diego Gay & Lesbian News has a regular dining-out column written by The Taste Buds, SDGLN's resident foodies. Today's review is by Sweet, one of our staffers who plan to keep his/her identity the best-kept secret in San Diego, and guest foodie Salty.

UPTOWN TAVERN

* 1236 University Ave. in Hillcrest

* 619-241-2710

* Website: Uptown Tavern. You make make reservations online.

* Facebook: Uptown Tavern; Twitter @UptownTavernSD

* Open: 4 to 2 am Monday through Friday; 10 am to 2 am Saturday and Sunday. Open for Brunch: 10 am to 3 pm Saturday and Sunday. Dinner is served 4 pm to midnight Monday through Thursday, 4 pm to 1 am Friday, 3:30 pm to 1 am Saturday and 3:30 pm to midnight Sunday.

SAN DIEGO – Some key changes have occurred at Uptown Tavern since it opened in July 2012 in the heart of Hillcrest. Chef Dana Francisco and sous chef Gabe Beszeditz have now taken the reins in the kitchen, and are deftly executing a menu that adapts to the seasons.

The Taste Buds visited Uptown Tavern on a busy Friday night when the popular bar and eatery was rocking with patrons celebrating the end of the work week. Around 9:30 pm, a local deejay pumped up the volume as the dining hour transitioned into more of a party atmosphere.

The successful ownership team is comprised of David Cohen and Bobby Jones, who also run the “older sister” West Coast Tavern in North Park. They hired Michael Soriano to design Uptown Tavern as a tribute to San Diego’s history as an aviation pioneer. The rustic design includes aviation-related décor items, ranging from the accent lighting to a large mural of an old aviator and another using pages of The New York Times from 1938 and 1939. Soriano blends modern accents with industrial materials to create a unique space that even includes a fireplace, an open roof, and patio dining.

Rustic could also describe many of the dishes on the menu. That’s not a bad thing, either, as The Taste Buds found out with the expert guidance of both server Amber and co-owner Jones.

Starting out

Jones wanted to show The Taste Buds two new specialty drinks.

Stone Fruit Sour was Uptown’s spin on a whiskey sour, that included bourbon infused with dried apricots, and mixed with peach and apricot tea. Sweet is not a big fan of the whiskey sour, but appreciated the punch that the drink produced. Salty enjoys whiskeys and liked the unique flavor of the bourbon.

Strawberry Fizz features a house-infused vodka that will vary week to week, muddled with mixed fruits, strawberry, mint, cucumber, lemon and champagne. Tiny flakes of mint and strawberry float in the libation, creating a colorful effect. Sweet called the drink a grand slam. Salty felt the drink was fresh and crisp tasting.

Salad time

The Watermelon Salad ($9) contained watermelon, candied nuts, spinach, goat cheese, sesame seeds and a basil-honey vinaigrette. Sweet loved the hint of basil in the dressing, and how the sweetness of the candied nuts balanced out the tartness of the goat cheese. Sweet also wanted slightly more dressing to flavor the very fresh spinach. Salty loved how cold and fresh the watermelon chunks were and loved the contrast in flavor of the added ground pepper, which Jones said he was not a fan of.

More green

Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Bacon ($13) is listed under “Large Plates” on the menu, and it was special. The Brussels Sprouts were charred on the grill, the outer leaves blackened by the heat. The veggie is stirred with roasted garlic vinaigrette, chili flakes and parmesan reggiano. Sweet loved the dish, especially how the bacon and garlic added layers of flavor and the chili flakes left a little heat behind. The charred edges gave additional texture and flavor. In the past, bacon could be added to this dish, but now bacon is standard and if a vegan or vegetarian wishes to order it without, that is possible.
Jones assured us via the chef that the bacon is tossed in at the end and there is no cross-contamination. Jones also told us they now drain some of the dressing off prior to serving. This eliminates the “pool” that used to exist at the bottom of the bowl. Salty loved the kick of the chili flakes coupled with the lemon, and felt each bite provided a different texture and flavor. If you’ve tried this dish before, make sure you try it again.

Two more drinks

Bobby Jones brought out two more cocktails that are making their debut this week.

Strawberry Blonde served in a Mason jar, this drink is comprised of house-made, sun tea-infused Skyy vodka, lemonade, muddled strawberries and lemon, and sweetened with agave nectar. Sweet called it refreshingly light and refreshing, even if not a tea drinker. Salty felt the deep tea flavor of the vodka was superb and loved the taste the strawberries left behind on your tongue.

Drunken Monk included green chartreuse, pineapple and lemon juice, and simple syrup. Sweet found the chartreause to be overpowering, but thought it would appeal to those who like the French liqueur.

Small plates

Asian Five Spiced Wings ($10) were tasty, meaty and flavorful, according to Sweet. Salty agreed, although wasn’t so sure they were any more memorable than any other bar or eatery that serves them. FYI, the wings are $5 a pound during Happy Hour, which is quite a bargain and offered seven days a week, and Jones said they are a popular item with patrons.

Tempura Fried Squash Blossoms ($10) came to our table overcooked and dripping in oil that left a bad aftertaste. Sweet suspected that the oil was “old,” noting that the tempura was brown in color when it should have been golden. Jones was in total agreement with The Taste Buds and sent out a second order, which was only marginally better. The tempura, goat cheese and peppered honey drowned out the delicate flavor of the squash blossoms. This dish failed to impress.

Stuffed BBQ’d Dates ($10) are filled with cream cheese, applewood smoked bacon, barbecue sauce and roasted jalapenos. The sweet-and-sour appetizer had some nice heat, Sweet said, and was a little rich for nibble food and might be best shared. Salty noticed a hint of wasabi in the smoky sauce, a nice touch.

Large plates, again

Market Fish changes daily and on this night was Shrimp and Grits ($15). The shrimp were perfectly cooked and piled atop the grits, which were a little lumpy. The presentation was gorgeous. Tempura scrunchies, julienned green pepper and carrots added texture and color to the dish. A reduced-whiskey shrimp sauce with garlic butter and celery also imparted more flavor. A rub of cayenne and black pepper, onion powder and a little sugar added some heat and sweetness to the shrimp. Sweet called the dish elevated and sophisticated. Salty also loved it and felt the heat was perfectly tempered by the very tasty grits.

Jones brought out a Berry Mojito to try. Made with a Bacardi rum mixed-berry infusion, the drink was minty and berry-liscious, Sweet said. Salty thought it was a great compliment to the heat of the shrimp and a nice twist to a standard mojito.

He also delivered two Goose Island craft beers, one called Summer ($6.50) and another IPA ($6.50). Summer was light and crisp, like a pilsner. The IPA had a distinct citrus fruit forward and wasn’t hoppy at all, making Salty an immediate fan.

Mac du Jour ($12) was heavenly comfort food, made with shells and smoked cheddar, hickory-smoked tomatoes, bread crumbs and more. Jones said it was 100% vegetarian. Sweet applauded the unexpected heat.

Dessert

Pistachio Bread Pudding ($9) has become a signature dessert for both Uptown Tavern and West Coast Tavern. The dessert is made from egg bread, and includes a salted caramel drizzle, vanilla ice cream drizzle and fresh blueberries. Sweet liked the dessert, but felt this batch of bread pudding had a cake-like texture that prevented the gooey caramel from oozing into the egg bread. Salty liked it but felt it was definitely a dessert to be shared.
Jones served Maui Brewing Co. CoCoNut Porter ($5.50 in a can) with the dessert. Sweet abstained from the tasting, not being a fan of porter. Salty was a huge fan of this pairing, giving it a “wow” factor.

Those looking for vegetarian or vegan dishes will find some here, like the roasted quinoa and farro, spring vegetable gnocchi, and house veggie sliders, as well as the Brussels sprouts.

Photo captions

Top left: Watermelon Salad

Middle left: Tempura Fried Squash Blossoms (top) and Stuffed BBQ’d Dates

Bottom left: Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Bacon