On the edge of residential Rolando, far from the sparkle of coastal locations, chef Coral Strong’s Garden Kitchen pulls from San Diego’s soil and presents the treasures in their naked glory and preserved peaks. No dish captures this as well as the Kitchen Sink ($16).
On menu it is a meat and cheese plate—but I rolled the dice on Coral’s veganization and won a bonanza. The dairy cheeses were replaced with luscious sunflower seed pate and a lemon and chive spiked cashew cheese. Served alongside spicy picked beet stem (a scrumptious no-waste solution), strawberries, blackberries, cherry tomatoes, avocado, gherkins, radish, pickled cherries, curry hummus, strawberry sage jam, strawberry rhubarb compote, smokey grilled bread, and glossy Surinam cherries from La Vigne Organics in Fallbrook (distributed via @wesavegoodfood). But the pot that I wished to drown in was the sweet and earthy fennel carrot marmalade. Assuming all vegan variations of this dish provide this level of quality and innovative, I’d say this is THE must order item in this restaurant.
The beverage menu is short and well curated. We diversified the table with a Benchmark Brewing Brown Ale and a glass of Chuparosa Vineyards (Ramona) 2016 Albarino ($12). I took a shot of the South Coast Winery (Temecula) California Girl Table White midway through the evening, but I stuck with the Albarino for the meal.
Sometime when a item is marked “vegan option” you look at the subtracts need and wonder if it will still be good. Such was the case when I eyed the Greek Artichokes ($10). Described as “baby artichokes with arugula, feta, roasted red bell pepper, tzatziki, and grilled lemon” I took the risk and ordered it. The result exceeded expectation. Feta was replaced with an invisible to the eye, but not to the tongue, sage oil and the tzatziki gave way to a rich thai coconut curry. I filled the crevasses with drippings of charred citrus and devoured the entire flower, including its carefully dissected heart.
Waves made still in the mire of Cream of Butternut Squash ($8). Pureed squash with a modest amount of house-made vegetable broth and topped with crisp sage leaves.
Berry Goat ($14) arugula, strawberries, blackberries, roasted fennel, candied pecans, shaved radish, and red onion in a strawberry champagne vinaigrette. In lieu of goat cheese, chef Strong offers up avocado and radishes. Roughage was needs for this meal, but the avocado didn’t temper the tart of the berries they way a cheese would. But having just indulged ourselves in the Kitchen Sink, I understand the chef’s attempt to not repeat herself with a cashew cheese.
Tacos–especially those filled with mushrooms–are never my first pick. But that was the vegan option my night at Garden Kitchen. Double stacked, scratch-made, corn tortillas could not contain the heaping base of finely ground cremini “Chorizo,” nugs of hass avocado, cabbage, carrot and fennel slaw finished off with a strawberry pico de gallo ($20). As I’ve always complained about tacos, a fork was necessary to transport these into my mouth. But while I may lament form, I am thrilled to encounter fruit in unexpected places. Here, strawberries got to expose their savory side–tart and crunch twinkled in the forefront as sweetness slid behind the scenes. The pot of black beans were rich with seasonings of the southern islands and I feel eminently guilty for having not scraped that ramekin completely clean.
With one vegan dessert option listed, Chocolate Mousse ($9), the waitress let us know the kitchen could also make us a Peach & Blueberry Crisp ($9). Stuffed silly and unable to reach a conclusion, we let the kitchen choose: The kitchen chose both. The base of summer fruit, tart with lemon zest, lies hidden under a crisp on top and oatmeal gooey below cinnamon and steel cut streusel. Mildly sweet, as fruits should be, it was no match for the luscious glass of chocolate-whipped avocado and coconut cream, grounded by base notes of mocha powder and tart cymbals of strawberries.
Beyond the thoughtful vegan options, Garden Kitchen stands as my ideal restaurant. A space build without pretension–a renovated home patio made cozy with awnings and heat lamps and the occasional wail of a babe living next door–Chef Coral’s presence screams sincerity. She takes each table to heart, serving her talents without ego, and enabling her staff to funnel the kitchens graces through attentive service and culinary accommodation. It kills me to think there are people missing out of this restaurant simply because of its location. But on a random week night the house seems full enough to keep a smile on chef Coral’s face and my table full of wine and surprise vegan dishes beyond what the menu promises. If I had the means, I’d eat here regularity. But till then, I’ll be directing as many as I can to come to Rolando for what is truly a taste of San Diego.
4204 Rolando Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92175