Housed in San Diego’s first skyscraper dating to 1913, Dakota Grill is a reminder of the distinguished past of its Gaslamp Quarter location. The restaurant’s staff manages to transform this potentially imposing atmosphere into a relaxed and welcoming environment, an inviting backdrop for Executive Chef Todd Nash’s culinary creations. Mixing haute cuisine and classic American comfort food, Chef Nash’s crafty dishes combine the sense of wonder imbued by true culinary artistry and the familiarity and nostalgia of a home-cooked meal. Dakota Grill blends the reliability of tradition with a refreshing contemporaneity to create a dining experience that is accessible, refined, and deeply satisfying.Read More ...
With its stately architecture and vintage sophistication, Dakota Grill and Spirits is well situated in San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter. The two-story restaurant exudes an air of nostalgic romance evocative of the distinguished past of its location. Residing within San Diego’s first skyscraper, Dakota Grill is a quietly conspicuous monument amid the flashy hipness of the Downtown area. Far from being a stuffy, antiquated relic, its decorous space is infused with a refreshing contemporaneity. Executive Chef Todd Nash’s menu similarly blends the reliability of tradition and the temporality of the modern, transforming American comfort food staples with bold flavors and novel ingredients. Dakota Grill negotiates the space between au courant trendiness and historic distinction to deliver a dining experience of timeless luxury without pretention.
The opulent tone of our evening is set before we even enter by the building’s massive Art Deco buttresses and expansive windows that dwarf neighboring businesses and passersby. Inside, the sense of monumentality and distinguished historicism are reinforced by visually arresting decorative accents: an swooping staircase leading to the second floor and bar area suggests an almost Ziegfeld theatricality, while a molded plaster ceiling references the handcrafted splendor of a bygone era. Despite this somewhat imposing façade, we are instantly put at ease by Dakota Grill’s gracious staff, who remain consistently attentive throughout our visit even on this surprisingly busy midweek evening. We are led past the inviting heat of the open kitchen through a maze of tables to our roomy, semi-circular booth at the far end of the dining room. Unlike the cool greys of the building’s stone edifice, the interior is awash in warm, autumnal hues, radiant from the soft glow of modernist light fixtures and table top hurricane lamps. We slide into our cozy seat and watch the kitchen’s bustling activity in gleeful anticipation of Chef Nash’s culinary machinations.
While Dakota Grill’s wine list offers an impressive selection of mostly California wines, their unique cocktails are hard to resist. Succumbing to temptation, we are presented with a flight of three of Dakota Grill’s distinctive martinis, each created in homage to a specific Cohn Restaurant. The Kemo Sabe Cosmo, Pineapple Grill-Tini, and C-Level Lemon Drop are daintily served in miniature martini glasses, a dazzling pastel liquid rainbow of pinks, oranges, and blues. Each is its own distinct confection, alternating between light and refreshing, and almost heady with sugary sweetness. The Kemo Sabe Cosmo and C-Level Lemon Drop are the more subtle of the three: the aroma of lime that precedes consumption of the Kemo Sabe Cosmo is an excellent foreshadowing of its lightness, while the citrusy notes of the C-Level Lemon Drop are punctuated by a sugar-rimmed glass and unexpected hints of blueberry. The Pineapple Grill-Tini, on the other hand, dominates the palate with tropical flavors, flooding the taste buds with pineapple and an aftertaste of green apple. As clever twists on iconic drinks, they are a fitting prelude to the meal that follows.
While we sip our charmingly Liliputian cocktails, the evening’s culinary onslaught begins. The Roasted Garlic Stuffed Flatbread, Crispy Duck Wings, and Tempura Calamari are well paired with our impromptu happy hour: each is an haute cuisine reimagining of classic bar snacks. The Crispy Duck Wings, a somewhat cheeky elevation of the proletariat buffalo wing, are an immediate attraction. The sight of the crackling skin on the dark, glazed drummettes as they languish on their “nest” of julienned squash and carrot slaw immediately provokes a Pavlovian reaction, my mouth watering in anticipation of their sinful, fried comfort. As my teeth crunch through crispy skin and juicy meat, and the sweet and spicy flavors of the cherry-peppercorn glaze mix with the salty, gamey duck, my initial craving is satisfied and simultaneously expanded into new and nuanced horizons. The hint of celery in the accompanying slaw makes for a crisp and invigorating counterpoint.
The Grilled Garlic Stuffed Flatbread and the Tempura Calamari are similar manifestations of Chef Nash's sophisticated culinary play. The Grilled Garlic Stuffed Flatbread re-conceptualizes the pizza, another classic bar menu option, and turns it on its head, literally. Two golden flatbread discs sandwich a gooey, aromatic mixture of gorgonzola, mozzarella and caramelized onions. It is a light and toasty treat: the sweetness of the onions and the pungency of the cheeses blend together into a complex harmony.Flavorful surprises are hidden within the Tempura Calamari as well: cached away inside a pile of golden tempura calamari rings are battered caper berries, adding a pleasant pickled flavor to the calamari’s hint of ocean sweetness.
We move from bar to bistro in our epicurean travels with the arrival of the Wedge of Butter Leaf and Tomato Bisque. Charmingly served in a white porcelain mug, the Tomato Bisque’s creamy texture is disrupted only by a golden gruyere cheese crisp, floating like an island in the thick, red soup. It slowly melts and adds a sharp, salty richness to the sweet and acidic tomato base. Each spoonful warms me to the core, bringing a welcome flush of heat on this blustery winter evening.
True to its name, the Wedge of Butter Leaf salad consists of a whole miniature head of butter leaf lettuce, sliced into four sections and fanned out like the petals of a flower. Its components are deconstructed from the leafy body of the salad, giving the diner the option of selective pairing for novel flavor combinations. Large wedges of Maytag blue cheese rest to one side across from a grouping of dark pinkish beet half moons. My curiosity is piqued by a golden brown toffee-like element on the plate. To my delight, it is revealed to be a walnut brittle which, in conjunction with the Maytag blue, proves to be an ingenious interpretation of the classic salad pairing of candied walnuts and blue cheese. The smokiness of the roasted beets adds another level of surprise, their earthy sugars nearly caramelized by the roasting. Sweet and salty, sharp and buttery, earthy and crisp, this salad is a careful study in flavor juxtaposition, revealing the hidden complexities of a dish commonly misconstrued as simple.
A trio of entrees is presented next, filling the air with a mixture of mouthwatering aromas. The Marinated Skirt Steak's spicy, sweet, meaty scent, demands my attention. It is a vision of earthy autumnal colors, aflame in oranges, reds, and browns. A sizeable slab of grilled beef, draped with long filaments of charred scallion greens, rests atop a pile of Latin-style rice and a slaw of jicama and chili powder-dusted orange supremes. The dish is well balanced in flavors and textures: the heat of the marinade and spicy rice punctuates the tender beef while the citrusy tang and watery crispness of the jicama and orange cool the palate.
The vibrant pink of the Cedar Plank Salmon captures my interest. The fillet balances neatly on top of a colorful platform of roasted red potatoes, purple onions, and arugula. Slicing through the miniature tower reveals a hidden foundation of horseradish cream, adding spiciness to the buttery salmon and the potatoes. The smoky, sweet purple onions and the bitter arugula add new flavor layers. A chunky salad of heirloom tomatoes placed in front of the salmon construction acts as a palate cleanser, heightening the clean, subtleties of the salmon, while preparing us for our next experience.
Returning to comfort, the Dakota Meatloaf refines a classic, home-cooked meal. A generous slice of meatloaf leans against a pristine orb of creamy mashed potatoes, its milky smoothness contrasting with the courser texture of the loaf. A delicious mixture of corn and sauteed mushrooms spills out in front, soaking up the jus of the meatloaf. It is a riot of flavors: the spicy, near-sausage flavor of the meat, the mushroom’s earthy umami, the corn’s sweetness, all mediated by the starchy simplicity of the potatoes. It is the climax of the culinary trends of the meal, combining the loving care of a family meal with the mastery of haute cuisine.
In spite of our growing girth from this multi-course indulgence, we make a little more deserved room for Dakota Grill's Apple Crisp. A large, flaky square of pastry is crowned by a dollop of vanilla ice cream. The fork makes a satisfying crunch as it slices through, revealing sweet innards of cinnamon and caramelized apple filling. Like many of the dishes that came before it, the Apple Crisp is a reinterpretation of classic culinary Americana, the all-American apple pie. It imparts a light airiness to traditional apple pie flavors, challenging the merits of nostalgia through culinary invention. It is a pleasing conclusion to a meal that has so skillfully negotiated the boundaries between the familiar and the unexpected.
As we leave through Dakota Grill’s weighty doors and spill out into the sparkling Downtown nightscape, I remain entranced by the lingering flavors and sensations of our dining experience. Blending homey comfort with culinary elegance, it is an experience that my dining companion and I are still talking about days later.
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