Croce's is more than just a restaurant. Infusing the memory of her late husband Jim Croce's warmth and generous spirit into the establishment, owner Ingrid Croce presents guests with a place in which not only to celebrate and indulge in delicious food, but also to appreciate good music. Croce’s strives to bring together family and friends to enjoy one another's company. The overall resulting experience encourages guests to simply love and appreciate all the good things life has to offer.
Located on the corner of Fifth Avenue and F Street, Croce’s occupies a prestigious corner in downtown San Diego’s Gaslamp District. Street parking is available, but during busy dining times Horton Plaza’s parking garage, as well as other parking garages located nearby, offer ample parking. Dinner is served nightly from 5:00pm to midnight, as well as brunch on Saturday and Sunday from 10:00am to 2:30pm. A cozy glow draws diners in off the sidewalk and I gladly step in from the late fall-chilled street outside. Inside, our hostess Jessica shows my guest and me to our table in the windowed corner, allowing us an open view of the spacious dining room and the bustling downtown atmosphere. Simple elegance is called to mind and showcased in the form of high ceilings and polished black and white marble floors. Without feeling forced or overly done, the space has a luxurious air. An upper level dining area seats patrons inside a balcony lined with a string of soft white lights looking out over the open first floor. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer a view of the sidewalk outside the restaurant, making diners feel as if they are immersed in the outdoor surroundings, yet enclosed at the same time, warm and protected. Outdoor seating is also available on the patio, allowing diners to people-watch during their meal as the downtown crowd comes out to play.
Visitors to the restaurant quickly realize music holds a special place in Ingrid’s heart, and aside from the jazz bar, the theme of music is pervasive in subtle ways. Numerous gold and platinum records, along with other musical memorabilia, line the walls, celebrating and paying tribute to Jim Croce’s climb up the charts. Next door in the jazz lounge, the bar’s live band plays nightly Jazz and Blues-style music starting from 7:30pm-8:30pm. A rotating set list features local and internationally-renowned musical acts and guests are not charged a cover fee, setting Croce’s apart from most of its neighboring musical venues downtown. In contrast to the polished ambiance of the dining room, the bar’s muted red brick walls and dim lighting encourage guests to relax and socialize, or simply take in the entertainment. Above the soft sounds of music and chatter in the dining room, live music filters through the entire restaurant in an engaging way, without being distracting or interfering with conversation. The lounge is located adjacent to the dining room, further encouraging interaction between the two areas.
Croce’s commitment to good food, music, and the celebration of Jim’s life are made evident through Ingrid Croce’s dedication to providing her guests with an unforgettable experience and of preserving time -- of “bottling” memories together. It is seldom that guests of a restaurant are joined by the owner, but we are lucky enough to have Ingrid sit with us for most of our meal, entertaining us with her warm, genuine personality, talking about the history of the restaurant, and suggesting menu items for us to try. It quickly becomes evident that her personal touch has pervaded every corner of this place; she conducts her business in an engaged, hands-on manner.
Lasting friendships and working business relationships are an integral part of Ingrid’s successful involvement in the restaurant business. She chooses to work with local producers, encouraging sustainable, local harvest practices and resulting in consistent access to the freshest ingredients in the county. The menu utilizes items from Specialty Produce, which provides organic produce from over 12 local farms. All bakery items are made fresh daily courtesy of Bread & Cie, a local San Diego company, whose owner is a close friend of Ingrid’s. Operating in this way helps foster a sense of connection to the community, keeping employees in touch with the people involved in producing Croce’s food long before it makes its appearance at the table.
A passion for all things culinary is expressed by the entire Croce’s staff who are professional and helpful throughout the meal. Also joining us at our table is the Executive Chef, James Clark, who lights up as he talks about the menu. “That’s the fun part about doing a contemporary American menu, we can pretty much take whatever we want and bastardize it and make it our own,” he says, with an easy smile. And if by “bastardize” it, he means make it totally distinctive and delicious, there is absolutely no question he knows what he’s doing.
Serving contemporary American cuisine, the menu at Croce’s will surprise and delight even the most challenging palates. As Chef Clark explains, the food must impress a whole range of guests – from the critiquing foodie to the family on vacation quickly glancing at plate-glass menus on the sidewalk. He meets this challenge excitedly, pushing himself to create individualized takes on comfort food and classics, presenting them in a fresh, distinctive way. Menu highlights include signature dishes like Croce’s Famous French Onion Soup; Seared Scallops with Lobster Scented Risotto; Maple Glazed Pistachio Dusted Spiral Half Rack of Lamb; Veal, Pork, Beef and White Truffle Meatballs with Fresh Linguini; and Bordeaux Braised Short Ribs and other favorites for which customers who haven’t frequented the restaurant in many years return.
At Ingrid’s prompting, we first try two appetizers – the Golden Ahi Poke and the Baked Brie with Honey Roasted Garlic. The poke is unapologetic in its forthrightness – large, robust chunks of Ahi exude a deep ruby red, almost purplish sheen. With the golden, juicy mango and other colorful ingredients, green and white onion, butter lettuce and purple radicchio, the dish is reminiscent of a rainbow, both in flavors and in presentation. Delicately fried, house made taro chips serve as a contrasting bed on which to layer the poke, complemented by a thinly sliced, fanned-out wedge of ripe avocado. The textures, from the succulent mango, to the firm Ahi and crisp taro, are enhanced by a gingery, sesame soy sauce with just a hint of sweetness. A final spicy finish is evident in a drizzle of blood orange-color Sambal vinaigrette. The dish is full of contrasts – textures, colors, and flavors – that complement one another in an exciting and unexpected way. The simultaneous theme of sweet and savory will continue to play off and balance one another throughout the ensuing courses.
Next, we move on to the Baked Brie, aptly filling the role of “comfort food” -- albeit high-class comfort food -- hearty classics Chef Clark says can be found throughout the menu. The plate is mounded high with a range of different, colorful ingredients. The centerpiece, a large wedge of brie, is nestled alongside a fresh bed of greens, a large hunk of crusty baguette, and a plentiful mound of honey-roasted garlic. The double-cream brie is rich and warm, with an almost gooey consistency. The garlic makes an amazing topping on its own – surprisingly sweet, soft and spreadable. A jewel-toned Grand Marnier-berry compote heightens the tantalizing sweetness, and fresh blackberries, strawberries, and raspberries, as well as lightly toasted walnuts stud the plate throughout. The fresh berries and fresh tender greens work well to add a light element to the appetizer. As we sample the various dishes this plate is left on the table, and I continue to nibble on it.
The Warm Spinach Salad with Poached Figs begins our next course. This plate is dressed in a sweetly aromatic Tahitian vanilla bean dressing, countered by savory crumbles of gorgonzola. The presentation is pleasing and deliberate, and mandarin oranges and figs rim the plate in a symmetric pattern. The oranges, figs, and spinach, as well as grapes and apples, all provide varying textures – crisp, soft, and juicy. The buttery-tasting vanilla dressing‘s sweetness lightly coats the salad without being overwhelming. If it weren’t for the fresh produce, dessert could be called to mind by the mix of flavors before us, but the fresh greens are still the star; the deep emerald-colored spinach is robust and slightly crisp.
The flavors still lingering on our tongue are about to be further enhanced as our attentive server, Leanne, arrives with our wine pairings for the salads. A lengthy Wine Spectator Award-winning wine list featuring a blend of New World and Old World selections is offered, and Croce’s by-the-glass wine menu is especially extensive and affordably priced. Signature cocktails are also repeat customers’ favorites and on-tap beers are available as well. The menu also matches each dish with a fitting wine pairing. These pairings eliminate the guesswork of matching complementary flavors, and for the casual wine drinker who cannot claim to be a connoisseur just yet, this is a welcome addition. Since a huge number of wines are offered by the glass, as well as many more by the bottle, coupled with the no-brainer pairings, diners’ overall experience at the restaurant is enriched. It is this attention to detail and extended service that ties into Croce’s theme of catering to guests on many levels.
A Trimbach, Gewürztraminer, from the Alsace region of France pairs with our spinach salad -- a sweet accompaniment to the vanilla dressing. The wine is not overly sweet with a crisp finish and, unlike some sweeter Gewürztramines, it allows the flavors of the dressing to cling to the palate.
For a second salad, James and Ingrid both suggest we try the Crispy Skin Duck Confit Salad. A mix of powerful flavors, resulting from star of anise, cinnamon, ginger, and sage, among others, are evident in the dish; but rather than competing, they meld together and create a wonderfully salty, exotic tasting combination. The dish is aptly named -- the skin is impeccably crisped, and the tender meat shreds away from the bone. Another layer of complementary flavors are contributed by drunken pears poached in red wine, mission figs, sweetly tart sundried cranberries, and crumbled gorgonzola. The duck lies atop a bed of ornamental Frisee, topped with a tart sherry reduction and drizzled with olive oil. Alongside the duck, a mild Rodney Strong Pinot Noir is paired, managing to stand up well to the intense flavors of the confit.
As we bask in the flavors before us, we move onto the next course, choosing a Croce’s signature dish, the Wild Mushroom Potato “Lasagna,” another creative take on a traditional main, and the Pan-Seared Sea Bass. The “lasagna” is a satisfyingly rich dish with a suggestion of “lightness” resulting from the airy, whipped lemon ricotta, popping with the taste of fresh lemon zest. Masquerading as lasagna “noodles” are thin gratin-like slices of potato, alternated with roasted heirloom tomatoes and asparagus. Alongside the lemon, goat cheese makes the dish slightly tart. Spicy tomato coulis rings the plate and atop the uppermost cheesy crusts sits a generous dollop of basil mint pesto -- another unexpected flavor combination. Basil and mint are a flavor combination I would not expect in lasagna, but Chef Clark’s judgment comes through time and time again, surprising diners with combinations they might not try on their own. Lastly, a crisp basil leaf crowns the large serving, and the presentation is truly an architectural feat. Although the end product may be far from “traditional” Italian lasagna, traditional colors are found alternating throughout the towering slice, with an abundance of red, green, yellow and white in the dish. For a wine pairing, a full-bodied Peachy Canyon Zinfandel offers a robust flavor to accompany the lasagna.
The Bluenose Sea Bass is pan seared, lightly browned on the outside and juicy and tender on the inside. White truffle oil acts as the flavorful base for the Lemon Chive Beurre Blanc with shallots, red wine and tarragon. With potatoes taking pasta’s place in the previous dish, Chef Clark’s culinary originality is present again as a Turnip Mash replaces more traditional mashed potatoes, acting as a light, sweet cushion for the fish to rest on. A delicate mix of chopped baby root vegetables and mushrooms tops the fish. The plate is simply presented; ensuring the light, natural taste of the fish remains the center of attention in this recipe.
A Kim Crawford Pinot Gris from Marlborough, New Zealand is served with the bass, and the classic pairing of white wine and seafood is fitting. The wine has sweet, citrusy notes and the flavor tastes fluid, changing slightly as we sip it after trying the fish. Hints of tart lemon, sweet honeydew and crisp granny smith apples shine through with each sip and draw out different levels of flavor when tasted following a bite of fish, vegetables, or turnip puree. The result is a combination of light tasting, subtly sweet flavors and smooth textures.
Though I sometimes have a tendency to be dramatic when indulging my sweet tooth, I can say without exaggeration that our meal ends with a little piece of heaven on earth – Fondant Au Chocolate. It is brought to us steaming fresh from the oven and exuding a divine, distinctively captivating chocolaty aroma. Two fresh red raspberries, vibrant against the dark, bittersweet crust of the small mound in front of us, adorn the dessert under a light dusting of powdered sugar. A crunchy top layer gives way to a molten, deeply colored chocolate center found within. In the dim dining room lighting, the center has an almost blackish hue and rich is somehow an understatement to describe the intensity of the flavors. Digging deeper, we are surprised with a layer of fresh raspberries buried at the bottom of the ramekin. A smaller matching ramekin on the plate holds a scoop of vanilla ice cream; the simple flavor complements the intensely flavored dark chocolate and the icy cold scoop melds nicely to melt alongside the steaming fondant. The bittersweet chocolate is nearly impossible to stop eating, and I reluctantly lay down my spoon only after persistent complaints from my very full stomach.
As we awaken from our food-induced stupor and begin gathering our things, the restaurant is just hitting its stride and coming to life. It is busy for a Wednesday night, and the bar thumps with the sounds of live music as a Blues-style band starts playing. Arriving as the sun was setting and leaving in the dark, it becomes evident that Croce’s fully participates in downtown’s bustling nightlife. If the purpose of a restaurant can fill multiple roles, that of providing diners with delicious, well-presented food, of bringing together family and friends, and also of celebrating the memory of a loved one, Croce’s seamlessly fills all these roles. We leave reluctantly, knowing this will not be the last time we will sample the mouthwatering dishes here and be enveloped in the warm spirit Croce’s embodies. Here, diners are literally encapsulated; the rush of everyday life pauses and “Time in a Bottle” lives on through treasured memories in more ways than one.