Absolut Achatz not only yielded my most memorable food and drink of experience of 2010, it also allowed me to meet a number of interesting industry professionals. For example, chef Craig Jimenez sat two seats away at the mirrored table and informed me of his involvement with Craft & Commerce, a downtown San Diego restaurant and bar that spun off from Neighborhood last August. My initial experience at the sister gastropub was positive, so it was natural that my next visit to San Diego would start with a stop at Craft & Commerce, opened by brothers Marshall and Nate Stanley and Neighborhood owner Arsalun Tafazoli, he of the world-class moustache.
The logo is the image of a man shaking a pig man’s hand. No, it’s not a reference to Seinfeld, it’s a play on the album cover for Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” with commerce as the man on the left, According to the assistant manager, instead of a man on fire on the right, it’s “craft” posing as a suited pig. Commerce refers to ideas, but also an “exchange of ideas and dialogue.”
The eccentric space at the base of a contemporary mixed-use building includes a brick wall featuring “Demand Less” in sunken black letters. They painted our lime green banquette with Steinbeck quotes. Another banquette sported the opening lines from David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.”
The interior incorporated reclaimed wood for the tables and ceiling. They plastered certain walls with book pages, and the Kool Aid man even made an appearance. The base of the bar resembles the faces of credit cards, complete with strings of numbers. Unfortunately, none of them worked when trying to pay our bill.
The Craft & Commerce crew developed four beer cocktails with assistance from vaunted Mayahuel bartender/co-owner Phil Ward. We passed around three different beer cocktails, bypassing the Cry Baby Cry, since it’s apple lambic base was least compelling.
The Michelada ($6) was certainly above average, boosting Negra Modelo with house-made sangrita, lime, and a spicy cayenne salt rim. My contribution to the table was Up In Smoke ($10), featuring Allagash Curieux, a bourbon-barrel aged, Belgian-style tripel, smoky Islay Scotch (Laphroig) and some balancing brightness from tart Fuji apples and lime juice. The richest beer cocktail was the Darkest Storm ($10), a play on a Dark & Stormy involving Port Brewing’s Old Viscosity strong ale, Goslings dark rum, ginger beer, lemon juice and a harpooned cube of candied ginger as the garnish.
Drinks in hand, we moved on to chef Jimenez’s state-of-the-art Fried Chicken ($14). He brined half a bird with salt and sugar, dredged parcooked pieces in flour and spices before deep-frying. The chicken remained juicy, with great color and even better flavor. The skin is also unusually light, and works even better when dipped in the dish of red vinegar that touts a hint of spicy jolokia chile pepper.
The chicken garnered tablewide raves, but it was the sides that took the plate to another orbit. Jimenez lavished his fingerlings with garlic, thyme, lemon, salt and pepper, then cooked them with cream, more lemon and thyme. It was a sumptuous side with addicting flavor. The red cabbage slaw wasn’t too creamy and provided good crunch. A stack of impeccably prepared string beans rounded out the memorable plate.
A hopper of Bacon Cracker Jacks ($4) was surprisingly simple, but still effective. They just pour out a box of the same Jacks you’d find at nearby PETCO Park, “prize” and all, then gild the corn with chunks of candied bacon, cooked hominy, herbs, sea salt and Marcona almonds.
We had a vegetarian in our midst, and she ordered the Grilled Cheese ($9) which matched brioche with a blend of brie, Gruyere and aged cheddar. The soft grilled bread appeared with a fan of tart green apple, a decorative squiggle of Dijon mustard and a thatch of house-made potato chips.
The final contribution to the table was the Seared Fish Sandwich ($10), which during our visit featured flaky mahi mahi. It appeared on a puffy toasted bun with cilantro, chives, fresh-shucked avocado, butter lettuce, tangy lime & cilantro remoulade and fried green tomato. The sandwich was pretty unwieldy to split, and it didn’t approach the heights of the fried chicken, but it did taste good.
My friends and I made several more stops throughout the course of our weekend, and no experience compared with our initial foray to Craft & Commerce. We were even compelled to commemorate our meal with a group photo. On the way out, we passed a door embossed with the words THE REST OF YOUR LIFE STARTS HERE – aka a PROPER EXIT.