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Restaurant Review: Kettner Exchange

Kettner Exchange is where Little Italy celebrates its modern ascent

By Troy Johnson | Photography by Sam Wells

Kettner Exchange

2001 Kettner Boulevard,
Little Italy

Troy’s Picks

Suckling Pig Larb
Skuna Bay Salmon
Caramel Budino

The economic bamboozling of 2008 was especially hard on industries dependent on expendable income. Like restaurants. But a lot of good came from the San Diego dining scene’s midlife crisis. The democratization was especially thrilling. The city’s glut of white-tablecloth restaurants was euthanized one by one. A fog of pretension lifted and never returned. Four-star chefs opened affordable, no-frill bistros in Spartan, post-industrial spaces. The marginally employed—which is a lot of us these days—could afford their deliciously glazed pork belly, served with a dish rag as linen.

There’s joy in that.

Predictably, though, the scene overcorrected. Every new project subtracted a bell or whistle from the experience, relying only on good beer, kale salad, and yard sale decor. Our dining scene now looks like a white hipster has attempted to recreate the set of Sanford and Son. We lack sex appeal. But San Diego’s reclaimed-everything spaces have all the allure of a Home Depot.

So, thank you, Kettner Exchange. You have brought sexy back to San Diego’s dining scene. Ironically, the restaurant is built mostly of concrete, steel, and wood. And yet it is a strange, alcove-ridden, beautiful, alluring, architectural and design stunner—a collaboration between Bluemotif Architecture, Tecture, and [oo-d-a] Studio, Inc. The sexiest restaurant in San Diego.

Restaurant Review: Kettner Exchange

Restaurant Review: Kettner Exchange

There is something about the mixture of hard and soft edges, the curve of the booths and the squareness of the brown, tufted leather lounge seats. Maybe it’s the fireplace with the oil painting of San Diego founding father William Kettner, or the two-story sculpture of giant, dangling driftwood. Maybe it’s the yin-yang of the illicitly dark bottom-floor bar area, which yields to a sort of salvation as you climb the stairs to reveal the sun-dappled main dining room, whose roof is arced like a treasure chest. That room then spills into the 8,000-square-foot space’s main attraction—the fully sunned rooftop bar.

Or maybe it’s the people. Everyone on the UV-worshipping rooftop seems to be an alpha robot of sex, fashion, or power. It smells of Niman Ranch pork chops and quality genetics.

Or maybe it’s the fact that there’s a bed on a swing. Yes, a Little Italy restaurant now has a bed on a swing, as well as five private cabanas with their own kegs, TVs, and sound systems for $400 ($800 for the larger ones). Welcome to your new era, Little Italy.

It’s those touches that have some bemoaning the arrival of KEX. The word douchebag is bandied about a lot. KEX is also owned by Matt Spencer and Tyler Charman, emergent nightlife kings whose other projects (Analog Burger and Firehouse) are in the Gaslamp and Pacific Beach. Little Italy has proudly separated itself from the nightlife-as-foreplay airs of the Gaslamp. I think the grousing is largely unwarranted piss and vinegar. If you build a beautiful attraction, beautiful people are going to come. In many ways, KEX feels like the Gaslamp that the Gaslamp always wanted to be—a lively mix of hip, fashionable, expendably-incomed locals and international visitors.

Little Italy is where everyone wants to be right now. Searsucker chef Brian Malarkey is opening a huge new concept here soon, as is acclaimed Baja chef Javier Plascencia. It is the apex of San Diego’s restaurant world and—with its ambitious projects and location next to both downtown and San Diego Bay—it should remain that way for a long while.

Restaurant Review: Kettner Exchange

Restaurant Review: Kettner Exchange

He’s got the chops: Niman Ranch pork chop with aji chile rub

He’s got the chops: Niman Ranch pork chop with aji chile rub

Ideally, incoming operators will not cannibalize existing businesses. Ideally, they will look at what the neighborhood lacks, and fill that hole. And Kettner Exchange does that by being—somehow, inexplicably—the first quality open-air rooftop bar in the neighborhood (not counting Porto Vista Hotel, which has struggled). As a rule, San Diego roofs should serve only to bring us closer to the sun, with drinks in our hands. We pay a lot for that sun.

KEX’s rooftop hosts DJs and live bands until 2 a.m. Thursdays through Sundays. It won the zoning lottery. It’s a party. It’s a place for Little Italy to celebrate its re-emergence as a thriving, pulsing part of this city.

If it feels like I’ve talked more about the space, the sex, and the people than the food of KEX, that’s because that’s true to the KEX experience. It’s not that the kitchen isn’t good. It is. Chef Brian Redzikowski previously worked at Le Cirque, at Nobu in Aspen, and at Joel Robuchon at the Mansion in Vegas.

It’s just that, as one employee told me, “I wouldn’t necessarily eat dinner here Thursday through Saturday—but it’s a hell of a party.” The rooftop and bar manager Steven Tuttle’s cocktails are so popular that the elbow-to-elbow bonhomie spills into the dining room. It feels like a good restaurant being actively swallowed by a club.

Over two meals, we don’t have a “bad” bite at KEX. We also don’t have a groundbreaking one. It’s a very well-executed menu from a French-trained chef with a heavy interest in Asian food, who is keenly aware of what’s en vogue among San Diego diners (kale salad, fried chicken, fish tacos, Niman Ranch pork chop, Mary’s chicken, Brussels sprouts, doughnuts, etc.).

Restaurant Review: Kettner Exchange

Restaurant Review: Kettner Exchange

Sustainable flavor: Skuna Bay salmon with sunchoke chips

Redzikowski serves his kale salad with almonds, apple, golden raisins, Parm, and olive oil. The fish taco is made with sushi-grade big-eye tuna, guacamole, crème fraîche, and cilantro. The result is a tad saucy. A big-eye pizza is also served, with ponzu, shiso, and truffle oil. He does fried chicken, but with a fun Westernized Chinese play—breaded balls of phenomenally juicy dark meat with jasmine rice, Vietnamese herbs, hoisin sauce, and a spicy aioli.

His spicy shrimp is breaded and tossed in a spicy chipotle aioli. It’s good, although not much different from P.F. Chang’s staple, “dynamite shrimp.” His Skuna Bay salmon (one of most sustainable operations in the world) with hot sesame oil is one of the best things on his menu. The hot sesame oil lightly sears the fish and sunchoke chips add a salty, textural bite. Redzikowski serves a perfectly seared and browned, miso-glazed black cod. Both of these dishes are also signatures at Nobu. I’d prefer to see two of Redzikowski’s own creations that aren’t so tightly associated with his famous former employer. A dish like his grilled eggplant with feta cheese, almonds, mint, and romesco sauce, for example.

Redzikowski uses a suckling pig for his larb­—an odd choice to use the delicacy for a ground meat dish. Suckling pig is usually roasted whole because the phenomenally tender meat is the attraction. But spiced with Asian herbs and lemongrass, including haricots verts and fried shallots for texture, and served with a cupful of different lettuces (endive, radicchio, etc.), it’s a wonderfully floral, herbaceous ground pork.

A crab, green papaya, and mango salad is a riff on the iconic Vietnamese dish som tum. Vietnamese food thrives on balancing salty, sweet (palm sugar), savory (fish sauce), and sour (lime). And this comes close, if being a little too enthusiastic with the lime. He also riffs on one of Japan’s greatest hits with an okonomiyaki—a savory pancake topped with Kewpie mayonnaise and a ketchup-based okonomiyaki sauce. Kewpie is the ne plus ultra mayo with a little MSG, and with it topping the deliciously soft, creamy-starchy, herbal sweet potato cake, the dish is excellent. Redzikowski’s Niman Ranch pork chop, cooked in a saucy rub of Peruvian aji chiles, is hash-marked, medium rare, perfect.

Redzikowski is obviously a fan of the Vietnamese practice of excessive, wild piles of herbs. Some might view it as sloppy. I view it as a wise approach to serving food to human beings, who have wildly different palates. The kitchen is essentially giving you a bevy of herbal condiments; adjust to your liking.

Restaurant Review: Kettner Exchange

Restaurant Review: Kettner Exchange

Tasty Topper: Okonomiyaki Japanese sweet potato pancake

Tasty Topper: Okonomiyaki Japanese sweet potato pancake

From the beginning, KEX has expressed plans to open a doughnut-and-coffee shop at the space next door. That explains the zeppole—traditional Italian doughnuts filled with warm crème and topped with caramel sauce. Very good, though secondary to the caramel, crème fraîche, and sea salt budino.

Kale salad, doughnuts, budinos—the current menu doesn’t feel like the outer reaches of Redzikowski’s talents. No one will confuse KEX with WD~50. But he’s executing straightforward pretty damn well.

So, call far ahead in advance and ask for the corner window spot. The one overlooking the bay, with the operable antique telescope for looking at the boats or into neighbors’ apartments. If you want a quiet dinner, go Sunday through Wednesday. If your life calls for a party, go Thursday through Saturday or for Sunday brunch. Get the larb and the Skuna Bay salmon and two cocktails ($10 each—reasonable for craft options).

It’s good to feel sexy again.

Restaurant Review: Kettner Exchange

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