A fresh San Diego breeze mixed with the sound of a nearby fountain teases my senses as I park in the lot behind Serenity Bar and Lounge. Across the trolley tracks from the entrance of Serenity sits the San Diego Convention Center, showcasing its beautiful architecture. I notice the fountain I hear is part of Martin Luther King Park. On a sunny day, this area is a haven. It’s no wonder that the owner of Serenity, Paul Morev, chose this location to open his brand-new Asian-fusion restaurant. With Executive Chef Josh Hernandez at the wheel, word has quickly spread that this restaurant is an experience that is not to be missed since its grand opening on April 20, 2012.
My guest and I reach the front door and notice the outdoor dining area on either side. Upon entering Serenity, I am struck by the elegance and ingenuity of the interior. The first sight we see is a spiral staircase (what we later learn leads to a gorgeous upstairs dining area). Wrapping around the classic stairway is Serenity’s bar. Guests are encouraged to sit here to enjoy happy hour from 3-7 p.m. on weekdays. During this time, Serenity features specials on bar snacks, such as the Garlic Edamame, as well as five-dollar drinks, including wine, house drinks, beer, and cocktails. To the left of the bar awaits our hostess, Yarenni. Menus in hand, she gracefully leads us into the dining room, located just beyond the bar. My guest and I are left breathless as we gaze upon the focal point of this room: the word “Serenity” at the center of a beautiful water wall. The hostess, obviously understanding our awe, seats us in a booth right underneath it.
As the decorative waterfall takes up an entire side of the dining room, the rest of the establishment is accented with yellow-green bamboo shoots. A crisp, white table cloth covers each table that is then topped with a vivid red flower as a centerpiece. Although the décor might seem eclectic on their own, together they combine to create an atmosphere that is just as the name of the restaurant suggests: calm and soothing. Our server visits our table and introduces himself as Jesse. After taking down our drink orders, he asks if we’re willing to leave the meal up to the chef’s discretion. We agree enthusiastically; everything on the menu looks so tempting that we wouldn’t make a decision. Stealing a peak at the lunch menu, we realize that it’s very similar to the dinner menu. However, it also includes a section featuring burgers and sandwiches like the Crab ABLT and the Jerk Chicken Sandwich.
The first delectable dish Jesse brings out is our amuse bouche, a bite-sized Salmon Beignet topped with Remoulade. As I place this treat in my mouth, I take note that although it’s called a beignet, it’s very different from the traditional French pastry. Not only is it heavier than a normal beignet, it’s also savory instead of sweet. The meaty center is filled with salmon, and the flavor of the fish is prominent throughout the remoulade sauce. If this small taste is any indication of the meal to come, my guest and I are in for a treat.
As we wait, Jesse graciously offers to answer our questions about Serenity. The first one that we have is about the unique bar and the many beverages available. With its Signature Craft Cocktails, varied wine list, and special section entitled “Serenitini’s,” the restaurant has all its bases covered. Jesse informs us that the success of the bar can be accredited to the mixologist, Oscar Olivares Takahashi. Trained in a special school in L.A., Takahashi learned all there’s to know about mixing specialty concoctions. Jesse even tells us that his skill is so advanced that customers sometimes come specifically to watch him mix. With this information, it’s only fitting that we try one of the Signature Craft Cocktails first. While looking at the list, tempting imbibes like the Season of Serenity and the Flying Dragon jump out at us, but we decide to go with the Thai Pedi-Cab: Maker’s Mark bourbon, Domain de Canon ginger liqueur, fresh peach puree, Thai basil, lemon and angostura bitters. I take my first sip–amazing. While we enjoy, Jesse informs us that all of the cocktails are made with fresh ingredients, and the bartender strains them in order to maintain the pure liquid consistency.
Then, Jesse brings out two appetizers: the Lump Crab Cake with Mango Chutney and Passion Fruit Sauce and the Caramel Pork Belly with Cucumber and Chili Bamboo Shoot Relish. In spite of my eagerness to dig in, I admire the presentation of both dishes. While the mango chutney and passion fruit sauce are laid out in a decorative pattern on the plate, it’s clear that they’re not meant solely as garnishes, but also to be enjoyed with the crab cake. The crab cake is purely crab meat, no fillers. However, butter, tarragon, and bell pepper are added for a zest of flavor. The added mango and passion fruit complement the savory crab, which creates playful medley on guest’s palates.
I take a look at my next victim: the Caramel Pork Belly. The meat itself is a beautiful golden brown color topped with sesame seeds. The chili bamboo shoots and cucumber are mixed into a relish sauce at the center of the formation. The entire dish is topped with what Jesse tells us is “micro-cilantro”. The pork pulls apart easily, and I’m soon chewing a piece of the caramelized meat. With my next bite, I decide to try the relish, and it’s clear why these two are served together. The flavors, both sweet and savory, complement each other, and I devour this rather generously-portioned appetizer in just a few moments.
Next, Jesse brings over one of the Stir-Fry Dishes, the Sweet and Spicy Cashew Chicken. The presentation of this dish seems to match the table setting with its red bell peppers and white rice noodles mirroring the flower and tablecloth perfectly. Chili pepper, onions, cashews, and rice wine vinaigrette are mixed together to create a satiable flavor in the dish. I take my first forkful and truly appreciate that the chicken is neither under nor over-cooked. The chicken has clearly allowed the vinaigrette to marinate, allowing for a copious amount of flavor with every bite. The rice noodles are simple, but when they’re allowed to mingle with the other components, they act as a sponge for the slightly sour sauce that causes an explosion of flavor.
In between the appetizers and mains, my guest and I decide to order another drink, this time from the Serenitini section of the bar menu. Jesse recommends the Hemingway Daiquiri and the Jack Rose. We finally settle on the latter. Jesse mentions of homemade grenadine that won us over for the Jack Rose. As he heads back to our table with the objects of our desire, the dark pink coloring makes me think that we chose wisely. The Jack Rose is made with Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy, fresh lemon juice, and house grenadine. Amazed when the drink goes down, I’m left with only the aftertaste of a crisp apple. Grenadine is often overly sugary, but this homemade mixture is perfectly balanced, and a citrus punch from the lemon juice adds the finishing touch.
We haven’t taken more than a few sips of our beverages when two entrees are brought out: the Stuffed Quail and the Filet Mignon. I focus on the beef first. Served with potato basil gratin, glazed shallots, and haricot verts (a special variety of green beans), this dish covers all of the food groups. I bite into the tempura green beans first; I’m delighted by the flaky, fried exterior that preludes the fresh, green interior of the bean. Next, I go for the potato basil gratin. This is something completely original; the creamy basil sets them a cut above all other varieties of potato. I have to pull myself away from this side to try the filet mignon itself, but when I do, the tender, juicy meat makes me glad that I did. Marinated with a Sichuan peppercorn sauce, the filet absolutely melts in my mouth.
Next, I move onto the Quail Stuffed with Quinoa and Black Currants surrounded by a chocolate sauce. The meat itself is gamier than chicken but less than duck. When I try dipping the meat in the chocolate sauce, I’m blown away. I wave to Jesse, who’s always waiting in the wings, and he graciously comes over to answer my questions about this dish. The homemade sauce is actually chocolate mole, and it’s something that Chef Hernandez has become known for. Infused with the essence of the quail, the chocolate mole does not retain much of its sweetness. It’s clear that the uncommon nature of this dish is what makes it one of Serenity’s most sought after selections.
My guest and I sit back to muse over the dishes we’ve ate while Jesse recommends the Koyo Saketini. As the now familiar bartender mixes our drinks, Chef Hernandez comes over to our table and introduces himself. This extraordinary chef tells us that Serenity gave him liberty to design the entire menu himself, and he shares his history as a chef. Chef Hernandez does his best to respect traditional methods while still leaving a few trademarks of his own. He mixes ingredients that aren’t common combined to create incomparable flavors. When he heard that an old friend, Adam Quick, became General Manager at Serenity, Hernandez jumped at the chance to lead the kitchen staff as their trusty executive chef. During Chef Herandez’s talk about his philosophy in the kitchen, the Koyo Saketini arrives in a prompt fashion. Noticing our affection for quality liquor, Chef Hernandez insists that we try one of their premium sakes, and saunters off to the bar. My guest and I take our first sips of the Koyo and are pleased to find that it’s served chilled. It’s a beautiful shade of amber and goes down smoothly. This Saketini is well-balanced with its Dubonnet Rouge and Yellow Chartreuse, and the warmth of the sake is felt without the burn. The lemon twist garnish adds extra flavor to the already aperitive drink. Regrettably like all good things, the drink comes to an end.
Jesse comes right as we finish our drinks with two of Serenity’s most popular desserts, Housemade Flan and the Apple Tart. The first is made with a banana essence and garnished with fresh raspberries, a square of crisp toffee, and a mint leaf. As I dip my spoon into the flan, I take note of the texture. Although it’s a flan, its light consistency is almost like a custard. I take my first bite and it melts on my tongue. The banana essence is very subtle, and I am left with the taste that is unique to this traditionally Mexican dessert. I try a spoonful with the toffee garnish and I’m rewarded with a dichotomy in textures. Where the toffee is crisp and crunchy, the flan is soft and airy.
Then, I hone in on the Apple Tart. This dessert is topped with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and generously covered with Serenity’s homemade caramel sauce. I dive into the crunchy crust and take my first mouthful. The tart is warm and sugary, and as I work my way closer to the middle, I’m rewarded with more and more apple taste. By the time I get to the center, the tart itself is melted and soft, providing the perfect match for the cool ice cream.
My guest and I polish off these last two dishes and sit back contentedly. Just as we think that we have expertly handled all the deliciousness they’ve thrown at us, Jesse comes over with the sake we must try, Cranes of Dewa Sake, which Chef Hernandez has thoughtfully scheduled to arrive after our dessert. Unlike the other drinks, this one is completely clear. After my first sip, I’m confused when I taste almost nothing. The cold sake is so smooth I could be drinking water, if not for the powerful burn as the liquid finds its way down my throat. We finish up and thank Jesse for all the kindness he has shown us. He modestly accepts our praises and points us in the direction of Charles Butcher, the assistant manager.
Charles offers to give us a tour of the rest of the restaurant and starts by leading us up the spiral staircase in which left such a strong impression on us. When we reach the top, we see the only thing that could impress us more: a beautiful view of the San Diego skyline. Just over the Convention Center, familiar skyscrapers of San Diego are visible. In the upstairs area, Charles informs us that there are enough tables to serve about 30 people. On regular days and nights, the room is used for walk-in guests and reservations, but it shows more potential as a spot for large parties. Next, Charles shows us the Serenity Lounge, which is open Friday and Saturday nights. The space is cozy and hip. Couches line the walls, while a VIP room allows for a more intimate setting. Charles informs us that the lounge is also available for large parties.
As we head back down my favorite stairway, I am saddened by the fact that my journey through Serenity has come to an end. As we say one last good bye to all the servers that have made this night memorable, I look back at the water wall that cascades over the establishments title and feel a sense of calm wash over me.
INSIDER TIP: If you want to see the view from the top without getting too much sun, it is best to sit in the upstairs seating after 5:30 pm. The city lights allow for an even better view, anyway.