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Review: Black Radish

It’s loud in here, but this eatery is the kind of lovely little box every neighborhood needs
James Tran
black radish, 9 plates

Photo Credit: James Tran

Every neighborhood needs a few things—a good bar, a decent place to pray and launder sins, a store with paper goods, a park for bucket food and hyperactively reproductive families, a body of water to jump in, a dark box where young people play weird music, a legion of nonprofits, a villain, a healthy distrust of people who claim to know what a neighborhood needs, and a small restaurant like this.

A cozy room on a busy street corner that’s being loved more than it has in years. A soft light over some roasted bird in a sauce that beats what you’re able to make at home. A few wines you can’t find on aisle five. A place so intimate it feels like a dinner party, a nightly seance of the conversations we used to have before the remarkable little machines stole our time allotted for human connection.

black radish, cooks in kitchen

Chef Itze Behar’s perch at the end of the room, where she can see the reactions on diners’ faces.

Photo Credit: James Tran

You don’t come to Black Radish for the parking, which is of the hunt-and-luck variety. You don’t come for the massive please-all menu (small kitchen, focused menu). You don’t come for sprawled-out acreage dining. Like neighborhood eateries in New York or San Francisco, tiny tables are packed so tight you might be tempted to chime in on a conversation next to you, or make the “you got a little sauce right here” motion as a gesture of unwanted goodwill.

You come to Black Radish for the food and the intimacy of strangers, the special buzz only achievable by forcible proximity with other lives. This corner in North Park was previously a bar that felt like a precursor to fights or crimes. (Neighborhoods need those, too). And now it is one of the most raved-about bistros in the city.

black radish, veggie plate

Photo Credit: James Tran

If you didn’t know owner John Welsh is an architect, you would know the owner was an architect. It’s in the distressed red brick wall, framing a large print of gold flakes, a splash of ersatz pinned on modest masonry (which kind of sums up Black Radish as a whole). It’s in the light fixtures descending from the ceiling like black roots (radish tendrils?) with tiny bulbs at their ends.

It’s in the dark baby blue velour banquette (the crayon people might call cottonwillow), leading to the dark baby blue wall, perfectly painted. That wall opens to reveal the restroom (their lavatory is a speakeasy). The door is bank-vault thick, a smart choice to soundproof your dining experience. It’s in the single pedestal in the middle of the room with a lonely-beautiful vase of flowers.

It’s in the glossy white subway tile that frames a golden-lit window where you can watch chef Itze Behar work in her tiny kitchen. A server stands poised next to that window like a royal guard, silently surveying the tiny room for needs. It’s a lovely space and, when full (it’s almost always full), one of the loudest restaurants in San Diego. If I am ever arrested in this space, it will be for impersonating a produce delivery guy and installing acoustic panels without abandon or permission.

black radish, pork

Photo Credit: James Tran

Welsh and Behar first teamed up for The Tavern in Coronado, which feels more like a fancy, hip sports bar. Black Radish is more urban-residential fine dining. Behar was raised in Tijuana, a self-taught chef who clung to Thomas Keller cookbooks and first entered the business in 2000 as owner and chef of TJ restaurant, La Placita. So her food is Mexican heritage and French technique, like the pork belly marinated overnight in gooseberries, white wine, and aromatics, then roasted and served with gooseberry-pork jus, finished with house-pickled radish, orange, and house-fermented Fresno chile. Pork has a sweet tooth, and this satiates it nicely.

This woman’s love of tomatoes improves the lives of everyone who enters. Her tomato salad showcases six different tomatoes from four local farms: fresh Bolzano yellow and Early Girls, confit cherry Sungolds, a single fried green tomato, and a sorbet made from cherry reds. It’s finished with an Early Girl vinaigrette and a thin, almost refreshing Thai-spiced blue cheese dressing. It is… special, excellent, phenomenal. Tomatoes are San Diego’s dirt candy, and there may not be a dish that makes such a killer show of it.

black radish, soup

Photo Credit: James Tran

Vegans are the beneficiaries of the other star here: a vegetable Napoleon that comes looking like a leaning tower of plant lasagna—its architecture made by multiple layers of grilled 8 Ball squash from JR Organics Farm, a San Marzano tomato sauce, garlic, and fresh basil. Each ring is spackled and separated with whipped almond ricotta, finished with balsamic and olive oil. Hard to eat this and not envision Ratatouille, particularly that moment when the soulless food critic takes a bite and remembers there is joy in life.

The chilled corn soup is fresh local kernels blended with lemon juice, buttermilk, and basil, topped with crispy-charred shallots for texture, fromage blanc for silkiness, and some confetti of pickled Fresnos for heat. The flavors are excellent. A few bites in, I pull a dental floss-length of corn silt, which might cause culinary-school teachers to fly into reality-TV rages, but is not worth the scorn of reasonable people.

There are a couple of things here and there that show the kitchen is mortal, like the duck breast. While delicious in a Champagne and sage-honey duck jus, the one requirement of duck cookery is rendering that fat into a perfect, almost-liquid state. Crispy skin over that silky rendered fat is the principal joy of the dish, the whole point. Underdone, it’s a chewier form of missed magic.

black raddish, pavlova

That dreamy pavlova with local berries.

Photo Credit: James Tran

The Snake River Farms Wagyu zabuton is a simple showoff, demonstrating that a quality cut of meat just needs a good char, some S&P, and a restrained amount of sauce to diversify the eating experience. Behar’s spicy herb bearnaise is drinkable, made from Chino Farm eggs, served next to roasted baby tomatoes so good they question the generally accepted supremacy of French fries in the world of spuds. Also, try her herb-brined pheasant.

A good brine can turn a mediocre protein into a special one, and a special protein (like this one, from MacFarlane Pheasant) into a recurring daydream. Hers is brined for 12 hours, roasted, and served with a peach jus that tastes like summer.

Meal’s end at Black Radish is all about the pavlova. When it comes to desserts, my gross generalization is that all humans fall into two camps: chocolate people and berries-and-cream people (who meet in the middle at creme brulee). I’m berries and cream to the core, and this is my catnip—French meringue, seasonal fruit puree, farmers market berries, finished with micro-basil.

This restaurant was reportedly a couple of years in the making, and—aside from the decibels of the feel-good ruckus—they made good on that time.

black radish, drink

Photo Credit: James Tran

black raddish, steak & potatoes

Photo Credit: James Tran

black radish, mashed potato

Chef Itze Behar’s dishes mix Mexican heritage with French technique. Order alacarteora four-course prix fixe for $79.

Photo Credit: James Tran

black radish, mandarin plate

Photo Credit: James Tran

black radish, full bar

Lamps that look like black radish roots over a six-set bar nestled in the corner.

Photo Credit: James Tran

black radish, open table

Come early. About the only time you’ll see available seats in the dining room.

Photo Credit: James Tran

black radish, plaque

Photo Credit: James Tran

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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1230 Columbia Street, Suite 800,

San Diego, CA