KETTNER’S LATEST DINING DESTINATION

Kettner Boulevard is on a mad home run streak when it comes to restaurants. Herb & Wood became Little Italy’s latest high-demand dinner reservation when it opened last month right next door to Juniper & Ivy, just up the block from the likes of Kettner Exchange, Café Gratitude, Bracero Cocina — I could go on.

Don’t expect this one to resemble its restaurant row neighbors. Herb & Wood is a bit of a passion project of chef Brian Malarkey and Chris Puffer, who came up together at Gaslamp’s Oceanaire and partnered up to launch the Fabric of Social Dining restaurants, including the still-active Searsucker and Herringbone. This go round they’re pushing a new direction, and have put a distinctive stamp on both the cuisine and the restaurant’s look.

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Puffer’s eclectic, Cape Cod-inspired design was his first stab at restaurant interiors, and he nailed it. Over 8,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor dining space features a central lava stone bar, dozens of plants, compelling artwork by LA painter Johnny Lane, 48 different styles of lighting fixtures, and untold different seating arrangements ranging from suede booths to upholstered chairs placed at bistro tables. Blues, grays and whites set the tone for a decidedly non-industrial look, making the massive space a fresh-feeling departure from recent trends.

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There’s room for about 230 diners, but all that furniture I just talked about happens to be pretty comfortable for restaurant seating. It invites an unhurried meal, rich in conversation that will, in all likelihood, revolve around the stellar ingredients used to build the menu.

ibericoI’ll admit, the place had me at Iberico. Spanish curing traditions and a preserved line of acorn-fed pork put Iberico ham squarely in the conversation as best in the world, and your chances of finding it on another menu is about zilch. Here it appears twice — as a grilled “Secreto” entrée, and as a beautiful foil to a sweet roasted beets in a walnut pesto salad.

That should be wood grilled, since we’re talking about it. As the name suggests, Herb & Wood owes its herbaceous flavors in part to wood burning stoves and ovens overseen by chef de cuisine Shane McIntyre. Fully visible through a patchwork of tinted windows at the north end of the dining room is a kitchen fueled by locally grown white oak.

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Malarkey deems his menu inspired by visits to such LA restaurants as Bestia and Night Market, where he was taken with the use of high acid flavors, and confident embrace of simplicity. He sees it as a departure from the Fabric restaurants, a move from buttery richness to brighter flavors, and what he terms a focus on simple food, prepared well.

Herb&Wood_LyudmilaZotovaThe seared Alaskan halibut entrée adeptly illustrates this point. Minimally dressed with al dente fresh peas, pea tendrils and pea vinaigrette, the flaky and succulent fish boasts refined flavor and an ideal sear. It finds complement in the meaty, earthy complexity of a most woefully underutilized breed of mushroom, the morel.

Fans of heartier meals will no doubt gravitate to the oxtail gnocchi, which manages to bring the most out of both the oxtail and the gnocchi. The stewlike sauce luxuriates in oxtail aromatics, and the gnocchi themselves are pillowy beyond comprehension.

It finishes with desserts courtesy of pastry chef Adrian Mendoza, another Oceanaire alum who credits Malarkey for giving him his start in fine dining. After years of apprenticeship in LA restaurants, he’s returned to San Diego to offer such decadence as Japanese cheesecake served with fruited rosemary semi freddo, a blueberry compote soufflé with ginger gelato, and in keeping the slight whimsical skew of this sensational new restaurant, an upscale interpretation of a pair of Twix candy bars.

We might need to consider changing our name to the Herbanist Guide.

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Herb & Wood photos by Lyudmila Zotova