Chive: A Chic, Urban Culinary Playground
Along the brick walkways and heritage buildings of the historic Gaslamp Quarter, Chive’s unobtrusive stainless steel and green sign quietly makes its presence known. Housed in an old brick building, Chive manages to pay homage to the rich past of its neighborhood while simultaneously projecting a faultlessly hip cosmopolitan and contemporary aesthetic. It is the epitome of the urban bistro, blending an industrial, slightly gritty aesthetic with pristine, modern minimalism. The menu is as experimental as the décor, as new Chef de Cuisine Ted Cipolline awes diners with provocative yet approachable dishes that take taste buds on a rollicking adventure. An evening at Chive is a journey of discovery, where surprise and wonder reign supreme in a stylish epicurean playground.
I am drawn to Chive before I realize it is my destination; its understated entrance is a seductive whisper amidst the surrounding restaurants’ more overt plays for my attention. Little details attract me to the patio and tempt me inside: stainless steel planters house lime green ice plants that mirror the color scheme of Chive’s sign while crisp, white tablecloths and burnished steel chairs exude an immaculate, serene simplicity that is a welcome respite from the busy Downtown scene. The carefully chosen contemporary accents create an enchanting pastiche, an avant-garde hyper-modernity housed in a historic facade. With building anticipation, my dining companion and I enter the restaurant, eager to enter this gastronomic wonderland.
Inside, a sleek, white bar beckons from the right, with an edgy, modernist backdrop of orange plexiglass that illuminates a plethora of thirst-quenching options. The main dining room is divided by a white wall, with cutout windows providing brief voyeuristic glimpses of the other side. White-washed brick walls give Chive the stylish cache of an underground club or artsy loft. The overall aesthetic is clean and spare: the color scheme is dominated by white, black, steel, and neutral tones with butcher-papered table tops, cushioned banquettes, and surprisingly comfortable stainless steel chairs carefully placed around the restaurant. It is an environment that is sophisticated and modern without being severe, embracing the whimsy embodied by Chive’s creative menu.
Although Chef de Cuisine Ted Cipollone is a recent member of the culinary team, his inspired dishes fully embrace Chive’s California-inspired fusion philosophy. Like the setting, Chef Cipollone’s eclectic menu is an invitation for experimentation and culinary play, with dishes organized tapas-style according to “Small Plates,” “Medium Plates,” “Extras,” and “Sweets” that encourage sharing and tasting.
Like kids in a candy store, my dining companion and I marvel at the enticing possibilities presented by the menu, our minds reeling from the choices. The servers, we discover, are a valuable resource when embarking on a meal at Chive, providing advice on ideal dish combinations and the appropriate number per group. Medium Plates are between the average size of an appetizer and a standard entrée; our server suggests that a Small Plate, three Medium Plates, and possibly an Extra or two or a Sweet, would best replicate the portions of a more conventional dinner. In Chive’s unconventional and uncharted culinary terrain, it is reassuring to be surrounded by such knowledgeable and helpful staff.
Our feast begins with a flourish as the Sweet Corn Soup is brought to the table. A dollop of white candied lemon yogurt coats the bottom of a fluted bowl, crowned by the earthy rust colors of a tomato and eggplant caviar. While my companion and I look dubiously at the seemingly minuscule portion, our server brings out a teapot and pours fragrant, yellow broth into the bowl. The air around us fills with a multitude of aromas, evocative of the warm and familiar comforts of home-cooked soup, but punctuated by unexpectedly exotic notes that hint at hidden subtleties. The sweetness of the corn broth mingles with the acidic zing of the tomato and eggplant, while the yogurt conveys a rich creaminess and leaves a slightly sweet, candy-like aftertaste that is a delightful surprise. It is a hearty and complex dish, one that confounds expectations.
The Tea Rubbed Hamachi Sashimi and Wasabi Pea Crusted Tuna arrive like twin minimalist compositions, each dish laid out with the precision and care of an artist. Four delicate slices of slightly pink hamachi rest on top of carefully arranged piles of orange daikon carrot salad. Between each pile, purple beet microgreens and vibrant green chive oil add splashes of color. The flavors are pleasantly light, with subtly sweet and citrus flavors mingling with the earthy carrots and surprisingly understated hints of spice from the daikon. It is fresh and light, leaving our palates clean and refreshed.
The Wasabi Pea Crusted Tuna platter is an abstract geometric masterpiece. Four thick squares of nearly purple ahi tuna congregate at one end of the plate, a fine crust of crushed wasabi peas dusting their sides. On the other end, a small, square dish holds a mixture of soba noodles and mushrooms. In the middle, a red mound of finely diced tuna tartare, crowned by a lace-like taro chip, rests alongside a smear of yuzu lime mayo. Like a carefully-planned composition, each element on the plate builds on the next while remaining captivating as an isolated focal point: the cool, earthy taste of the soba noodles and mushrooms balance the sweet fish, while the yuzu mayo activates the taste buds with fresh ginger and citrus. While the dish’s title suggests confrontational, almost aggressive flavor combinations, the experience of the dish is more subtle. The crust has little of the overpowering heat associated with wasabi, instead imparting more of a textural component, similar to a cornmeal crust. It is a stunning dish: light, substantial and highly nuanced.
The Chicado Roll continues our stroll through Chive’s culinary art gallery, presented with sculptural care. Four precariously thin towers are centered in the plate while a smear of sriracha aioli and what incredibly turns out to be tiny steamed basil seeds punctuates each corner of the plate like a painter’s signature brushstroke. Bright green, impossibly thin slices of avocado wrap gingerly around the sides of each tower, each crowned by a sprinkling of diced tomato that hint at the tasty treasures that lie within: diced braised dark chicken meat. The spiced gaminess of the chicken mingles with the roll’s creamy avocado “skin” and the acidic, almost pickled, pungency of the sun dried tomato vinaigrette-marinated tomatoes. Dipping the roll in the aioli adds new layers of flavor to this intricate culinary construction, infusing it with spiciness and herby pungency. Like the restaurant and its culinary philosophy this dish is bold, risky, elegant, surprising, playful, and above all, an utter triumph that completely wins us over.
The heartier Seven Spiced Pork Tenderloin and Braised Short Rib arrive together, a marked change from the lighter dishes that preceded them. Although they indicate a strong flavor transition in the meal, both dishes reflect the Chive culinary vision: transforming the familiar with surprising and novel preparations, ingredients, and flavor combinations. The Seven Spiced Pork Tenderloin is smoky, almost cured, punctuated by the flavorful spice rub that coats each medallion. The zesty acidity of tomatillo blends seamlessly with the pungency of the pork, its flavors dancing on the tongue.
The heady aroma of the Braised Short Rib immediately fires up our salivary glands. Two massive short ribs rest atop a purple platform of Peruvian potato mash, each with its own golden fried shallot for a coronet. A bright, verdant pile of sautéed totsoi divides the plate, sectioning off the short rib portions. The slightest touch of my fork makes the tender flesh fall away, translating to melt-in-the-mouth juiciness on the tongue. The lemongrass bordelaise that accompanies the short rib coats it with a smoky, rich flavor that heightens its meatiness and brings the dish to new heights of satisfaction. It is no surprise that Chef Cipollone cites this dish as one of his favorites: his care and affection for it translates brilliantly to the table, with a flavor that is homey and familiar, yet unexpectedly bold and nuanced. Each ingredient is a play on traditional comfort food, but given a cheeky Chive twist by the addition of more exotic variants. My dining companion and I agree with Chef Cipollone: the Braised Short Rib is a unanimous favorite.
Our eating adventure comes to a satisfying close with the Strawberry Rhubarb Tart. Its crisp, oat-crumble top and sweetly tart filling is reminiscent of a classic pie, while the accompanying quenelle of lemon ice cream and mascarpone sauce add a hint of decadence. It is a lovely return home after the daring culinary exploits we encountered during our visit to Chive, and helps ease our transition back to reality. As we prepare to leave, I marvel at our experience at this innovative bistro. It has been an awakening of the senses: Chive’s creativity and whimsy have opened my eyes to new possibilities in cuisine and have exposed my palate to novel flavor experiences. With the wonder of a child, I leave Chive behind, my appetite satiated, yet hungering for more.