The WineSellar & Brasserie
Many years ago — well 2011, to be exact — a young and dogged chef, Luke Johnson, helmed a gourmet gem masquerading as a quaint wine bar at the foot of the Segal Building in Little Italy, the pet project of the food- and wine-loving spouse of the building’s namesake. It served dishes from special tasting menus that were consistently stunning and highlighted the latest culinary techniques. Despite serving fantastic food, the high-cost, low-volume venture failed, leaving Johnson without a kitchen and his cult following starved of his talent for five years.
Johnson did work as a private chef and held numerous underground dinners over those wilderness years. An executive chef stint at La Valencia’s famed Sky Room in 2012 was short-lived when new hotel ownership decided to scrap and revamp mere months after bringing Johnson aboard. Other restaurateurs came knocking, but Johnson’s insistence on a tasting menu format was a non-starter for most contenders. It wasn’t until recently that Johnson finally met the right man with the right restaurant, concept, and complementary wares to convince him to sign on the dotted line. And now, the three of them — chef, owner, and location — are better off.
Gary Parker, founder and owner of The WineSellar & Brasserie, has cultivated a die-hard clientele over the past 28 years. Like Johnson’s initial eatery, which was tucked away off India Street with no connection to the main thoroughfare, The WineSellar is a bit hard to find but worth the work. It’s almost completely shrouded from sight on a side street in the business park thicket of Sorrento Mesa. The main draw has been a downstairs shop selling a wide range of high-quality wine. However, now with Johnson in charge, the brasserie component will surely lure in newcomers.
There is a standing à la carte menu featuring a number of classic European preparations: escargot in herb butter, shellfish in white wine broth, duck confit in Madeira sauce. Johnson’s beloved tasting menu model is in place daily, offering straight and slightly adapted dishes from the menu as well as some off-the-menu inspirations.
A recent tasting menu began with sweet corn stuffed in tender house-made pasta, covered in intensely flavored froth made using foie gras with a touch of blueberry to provide acidic contrast. For ideal pairings, access to Parker’s extensive wine cellar is an incredible amenity for Johnson and his diners. Every prominent wine region in the world (as well as up-and-coming appellations) is represented and thoughtfully culled by The WineSellar’s passionate and highly educated staff.
A crusting of togarashi (a Japanese spice blend) added an exotic zest to pristine hamachi tataki and a purée of Meyer lemon brought in a refreshing zing. It was followed by perfectly cooked California spot prawns nestled in a blanket of bubbly lemon foam over tender fingerling potatoes. A traditional pairing of duck breast and Pinot Noir (Gallegos Boekenoogen from the Santa Lucia Highlands) was accentuated by a rich purée of cherries and a touch of mint. The tasting menu’s main dish of Kurobuta pork tenderloin came plated with dozens more multi-colored dots of purées of date, orange, and a surprising but brilliantly tart and vegetal tomatillo. A dusting of cocoa on the pork and the rim of the plate completed the delicious flavor combinations.
In a sense, Johnson’s current culinary approach at The WineSellar & Brasserie has become less complicated than his previous endeavors. But the result is fare that is a little more focused, compact, and easy to grasp. Like many ambitious and artistic chefs, he had a tendency to gild the lily here and there, but time and age have helped him to hone his technical skills in tandem with his experimentation. The WineSellar has always been a standout, and with the addition of Johnson’s food, it may be better than at any point in its long and storied history. 858.450.9557, winesellar.com BRANDON HERNÁNDEZ