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Lunch with a sustained dose of originality

Posted: August 4th, 2017 | Featured, Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews | No Comments

By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review

From the almond gazpacho to a triple-layer carrot cake encrusted by pecan brittle — and every course in between — nothing we ate at Prepkitchen Little Italy descended into mediocrity. Or even close.

The midday meal marked my third visit to the second-level restaurant overlooking India Street. Once was for happy hour (3 to 6 p.m., daily), when tapas and select drinks are priced at $5.55. The other time was for dinner, involving Prepkitchen’s famous bacon-wrapped dates and a seasonal pasta dish tossed with shrimp, local tomatoes and Fresno chilies.

Tuna melt made with fresh albacore (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

I was never disappointed, although on this recent visit with a friend who hadn’t eaten here before, I came to wholly appreciate the kitchen’s unswerving commitment to quality and invention.

Owned by Whisknladle Hospitality, the Little Italy spot is five years old. It’s the larger of two other Prepkitchens — in La Jolla and Del Mar. It’s also the only location with a full bar, which is supported by a spacious lounge area.

An organic feel pervades the entire space. There are mini-terrariums in glass jars perched along the stairwell and parota wood strips resembling bacon slices hovering over the big-windowed dining room.

Prepkitchen overlooks the heart of Little Italy. (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Overseeing the menu for the past few years is Executive Chef Joanna Rockwell, a graduate of the International Culinary Center in New York City. Though versatile in her approach, she has a penchant for Spanish cuisine, as reflected in two starters that impressed the heck out of us.

No dish could have cooled our palates better on this humid afternoon than her almond gazpacho, a chilled and slightly grainy soup with a base of pureed tomatoes and almond gremolata. The latter imparted an underlying essence of herbs and lemon, which mingled fantastically with occasional bursts of raw garlic and honey.

Almond gazpacho (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Patatas bravas was the other appetizer, which shows up also on the bar’s tapas menu. The dish featured a pile of coarsely chopped potatoes, which I’m guessing were baked and then fried, given their steamy interiors and crispy corners. Rockwell drapes them in spicy harissa, an Arabic paste of red peppers not uncommon in Spain.

An arugula salad followed, offering rustic Mediterranean flavors from warm, tender white beans and a perfectly understated creamy pesto dressing.

Arugula salad with warm white beans (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

The mother of all tuna melts resides here. Rockwell sources whole albacore, which she stuffs with herbs and lemons before roasting the fish.

The pulled meat is mixed with dill, sage, tarragon and cornichons and then piled between big slices of bread that are grilled with aged Gouda, caramelized onions and remoulade. When tuna escapes the origins of a can, not to mention plain ole mayo and melted American cheese, it’s a superior sandwich that shouldn’t be ignored.

Falafel sandwich on naan bread (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

My friend’s falafel sandwich wrapped in naan bread was moister and more interesting than most. Inspired by Rockwell’s Israeli mother-in-law, it contained feta, red onions, shredded romaine, tomatoes and tahini-rich hummus. Buttermilk dressing inside the sandwich added a luxurious twist.

Other lunch choices include a Gouda-crowned burger, green curry mussels, pasta Bolognese, fish tacos with crème fraiche, and more. Most of those items carry over onto the dinner menu while giving way to dishes such as beef tartare, Parisian gnocchi, pork schnitzel and others.

House-made carrot cake (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Prepkitchen’s pastry chef, Carla Ramirez, steps up to the plate with two signature desserts: gooey, warm chocolate cake served in a jar with whipped cream and gelato, and carrot cake layered generously with cream cheese frosting and speckled with glassy bits of pecan brittle along the edges.

We tried both. And like the savory dishes we consumed while gazing down to the street bustle from the elevated dining room, they smacked of culinary excellence, which still defines Prepkitchen.

—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at fsabatini@san.rr.com.

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