You spot Brian Malarkey working the room, as we did when we recently visited his latest restaurant, Herb & Wood in San Diego, and you think: “I recognize him from somewhere…” And sure enough, since appearing on TV shows including Top Chef and The Taste, this chef has found his star in the ascendency.
Now an executive chef with 12 restaurants under his management from Las Vegas to San Diego and Los Angeles, he has discovered a formula for success. “It’s all about scale,” he tells Monkey and I, when he generously gave us a tour of the kitchen and off-limits areas of Herb & Wood. “I’ve closed restaurants because they are too small to be worthwhile,” he continues, acknowledging the difficulties that many have making the economics of restaurateuring (I know it’s not a word), work. And according to the formula, Herb & Wood, is indeed big, but definitely not impersonal.
“We’ll probably do 500 covers tonight,” he shares, as we overlook the bustling, vibe-filled bar, dining room, lounge and patio, from a high vantage point. The design is chic, chill, see and be seen, although not too intimidating—however, San Diego is definitely home to beautiful people, unlike San Francisco, which is all man-buns and farmer hipsters.
We had booked our table at Herb & Wood just a few hours before, on the recommendation of a friend. I asked to be seated on the open-air patio to enjoy the light (better for photography) and frankly, because it beckoned aesthetically.
The main bar and dining room are housed in what appears to be a giant high-ceilinged brick warehouse. In fact the entire property seems to occupy about half a block, with plans to open a deli and pantry next door, and an art gallery for private events next door to that.
A huge, marble square bar is in the center of the space and you can eat or drink around it. The main kitchen, at the back of an atmospheric, low-lit dining room, is visible through paned glass and adds to the sense of theater. A stylishly comfortable lounge with an open fireplace offers yet another area with a different vibe, depending on your mood.
It’s not often you see one venue able to accommodate a cozy girls’ night, a guys’ get-together, couples on a date, and dinner for a big group of friends, all under one roof. But Herb & Wood does it with ease.
Enjoying the people watching, I noticed someone I assumed to be the chef, moving from table to table, and figured he was talking to guests he knew. But no. As he soon made a beeline for our table, I realized that this was a brand of hospitality that Malarkey is no doubt known for.
Amiable and welcoming, he introduced himself to us, a humble gesture which doesn’t assume you know who he is (thank goodness for Google). We shared with him that Monkey was about to embark on a chef camp. His response? “I’ll take you on a tour of the kitchen as soon as your meal is over.” The spontaneous, giant grin which erupted on Monkey’s face, made the whole evening worth the visit. And Malarkey was as good as his word.
But first we ate. To start, roasted cauliflower with a piquant dressing of peppers, oil and vinegar ($7.98). Tasty and yet, rich. Second, a crudo tuna dish, served on aioli with thin slivers of pretty radishes and crunchy quinoa. Needing just a dash more salt and acid, this was a fresh, light dish. Perfect for a summer’s evening.
Monkey opted for the sausage pizza ($17.44), which we later learned cooks in just a couple of minutes after being blasted in the 700+ degree oven. It came with a nicely blistered crust.
I kept with the seafood theme, ordering the clams ($15.03) which came in a rich smoky tomato broth, topped with some delicious fried pieces of bread (which I couldn’t partake of, but Monkey assured me were the bomb).
Keen to try the Twix dessert ($12), Monkey dug into this caramel-coated chocolate mousse atop shortbread, accompanied by ice cream and other goodies. Sweet as you like, this dish is definitely one for sharing, as Monkey wasn’t able to polish it off himself.
With our bill paid, Malarkey came to collect us and whisked Monkey into the kitchen, while I stood outside for a while, not wanting to cramp my teen’s style, which you understand I do anyway, by sheer virtue of my existence on this earth.
But first, Malarkey proclaimed our arrival, by commandeering the attention of the kitchen staff and loudly exhorting them to welcome “Chef Benjamin!”. What a class act.
From there, the main tools and different areas of the kitchen were explained and I soon joined on the tour which included the cold storage walk-in, viewing where pickles and fermentation projects were underway, and seeing the charcuterie cabinet.
We were impressed to learn that around 15 kitchen staff turnout nearly 500 meals in one night.
A dad himself, Malarkey was generous with his time and knowledge. His big piece of advice to Monkey: “Always put your mis en place in exactly the same location each time you make a dish. That way you can make anything blindfolded. It makes you efficient and fast.”
He added that working in the kitchen is a young person’s sport: organized chaos, fast and furious, almost like a dance. While he spends his evening front-of-house, he teaches the staff how to make new dishes and says he always cooks at home.
Watch for the opening of the deli and pantry, which will offer homemade preserves and more. If you’re lucky enough to visit and find Brian in the house, expect him to come and say hello. He certainly made one young man’s week with his welcoming hospitality.
Herb & Wood is at 2210 Kettner Blvd, San Diego