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The best meal…. ever!

By Paul Knowles

 One of the best and worst things about being a travel writer is that, while on a research trip, you may encounter absolutely spectacular experiences… and then not have an outlet in which to write about such specific occasions. My trip to San Diego was amazingly full of such incidents – and while I am writing the “big picture” articles for large-circulation print media (eventually to pop up on joyoftravel.ca, as well), I feel happily compelled to publish a few highly focused pieces, right here.
Let’s start with perhaps the best meal I have ever – yes, ever – enjoyed. (Shown: Brian Malarkey, left, and Chris Puffer; Paul Knowles Photo).

 

It had been a magical, and slightly mad, day, filled with activities ranging from a leisurely stroll along the ocean-side Sunset Cliffs, to adrenalin-charged adventures in speed-boating.

By dinner time, we had done a lot – and it would take a very special dining experience to capture our full attention. Well, Herb & Wood not only accomplished that – for me, it became the number one highlight of the day.

Herb & Wood is the creation of celebrity chef Brian Malarkey and his “co-conspirator” (according to his business card), Chris Puffer. Malarkey is responsible for the food – Oh, the food! – while Puffer designed every other element of the ultra-hip establishment, including commissioning many paintings by artist John Lane (more of this later).

Herb & Wood is about a year old, and one of the trendiest and most popular restaurants in San Diego, where it is located in “Little Italy”, the hottest dining neighbourhood in town.

First impressions are… well, impressive. You enter through their newest venture, the “Herb & Eatery Café & Chef’s Market” – and more about that, below, as well.

The Herb & Wood space is large, extremely well planned, and absolutely pulsating with an exciting vibe. Puffer pulled together his favourite, diverse but complementary design elements, and clearly paid close attention to every last detail, from the shape, size and colour of the couches in the banquets to the edging – yes, the edging – on the dining room tables.

The room has high, high, curved ceilings, a bright central bar, unique lighting, and an adjacent “garden” room where a Cape Cod cottage façade is the entrance to the restrooms.

(Photo: Artist John Lane, left, with Paul Knowles; Photo by Lorraine Zander)

The walls are covered by John Lane’s art; when I mentioned to Puffer than I admired the work, he announced that Lane was, in fact, in the house tonight… would I like to meet him? Yes! So after the meal, I met Lane, he talked with great enthusiasm about his influences (especially Modigliani – which is evident in his work), and showed us around his new gallery, now part of the Herb & Wood complex, and yet another great reason to drop in – as if you needed that.

I’ve left the food to the last, because clearly, everything at Herb & Wood is designed to accompany the truly superb menu, described as "coastal California and Mediterranean-inspired cuisine that centres on wood-fired dishes of seasonal vegetables, meats, fish and pizzas, prepared simply with everything made in-house." All true, except that description is equivalent to saying, "paradise is a rather pleasant place."

Our herd of six travel writers received the ultimate dining invitation – “Don’t bother ordering. Brian has chosen a selection of dishes for you to sample.”

What a sampler! We started with two salad dishes – and to say that is to deny everything about them. Here are the details: Dish One: Citrus Salad, Castelvetrano Olives, Pistachios, Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Lemon; Dish Two, Roasted Beets, Burrato, Sherry, Walnut Pesto, Jamon Iberico (cured ham).

There was general agreement that we could enjoy these two dishes, perhaps have one more helping of the beets, and leave happy.

But we didn’t have to.

We proceeded through an astonishing meal – I encourage you to look at the website, and check out the menu. Frankly, the various dishes on offer are blatant examples of Foodie Porn.

Linger over the Roasted Branzino – a suggestion I was unable to follow, because it tasted so darned good.

I’m an omnivore with carnivorous tendencies, so you know a veggie dish must be terrific when I tell you that I could live on the roasted baby carrots. No need – there was so much more. Astonishing.

We finished the meal back in the Herb & Eatery, where the pastry chef delivered four fantastic desserts to our table. We were already stuffed to the gills – so we sampled all four, including the best meringue ever made in the history of the world – I say this without exaggeration.

So when in San Diego, you must, you absolutely must, make a reservation (don’t even think about walking in unannounced) at Herb & Wood. Tell ‘em Paul sent you – they’ll remember me as the guy with the gigantic smile and a bit of meringue in his mustache.

For more information, www.herbandwood.comwww.sandiego.org.and www.visitcalifornia.com