By Frank Sabatini Jr.
In various team matches on season 13 of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” she cooked for a mass gay wedding; caused a solar oven tube to explode when adding water to it; and endured grueling hours taping other kitchen showdowns in cities throughout California. Then, during an elimination round in the fifth episode, the show’s judges told her to “pack your knives and go.”
Grateful for the opportunity, Giselle Wellman returned to her native San Diego still a champ from a career that has included working for prestigious chefs such as Thomas Keller in Los Angeles, and Mario Batali and Jean George in New York City.
Now, after endearing herself to television audiences as a confident competitor, she serves as executive chef of Pacific Standard Coastal Kitchen, the modern, spacious restaurant incorporated into Hilton’s new Homewood Suites and Garden Inn Bayside Hotel.
The dual property marks the spot where one of the city’s most distinctive art deco structures stood when it was an eye-catching pink palace that housed Top’s Nightclub in the 1940s, and then later Fat City, China Camp and a Denny’s. Sadly, much of its character was demolished and replaced by a white, generic build-out that recently garnered an “onion” rather than an “orchid” award by the San Diego Architectural Society.
But blooms are found across Wellman’s menu. Her fabulous baked brioche accompanied by house-made ricotta, for example, shouldn’t be ignored. Like warm croissants straight out of the oven, every flaky morsel melted in our mouths as we effortlessly polished off the entire six-piece serving.
Her meaty Maryland-style lump crab cakes draped in fennel-carrot slaw and spicy remoulade are yet another winning prelude leading to a concise list of entrees that rely largely on California-sourced ingredients.
Or as a shrimp starter, she perches the peeled crustaceans on toast with a sweet Latin-inspired sauce of tomatoes, bell peppers and onions (sofrito). We welcomed the thin slices of red Fresno chilies that also surfaced, but couldn’t really detect the lemon confit and Old Bay Seasoning mentioned in the menu description.
While sipping on fresh lemonade and a shamelessly boozy “dock & tai” cocktail made with Bacardi Rum, absinthe, pistachio orgeat and lots of fresh mint, we proceeded to a mountain of red endive and watercress. It’s the house salad strewn with dried cherries and Roquefort crumbles, both of which maintained their sweet and tangy flavors amid neutral hazelnut vinaigrette.
We visited on the cusp of a seasonal menu change, although most of what we ordered will stay as Wellman prepares to introduce by mid-November chicken liver mousse, house-made sausage and whole grilled fish. The fate of other dishes such as wild mushroom risotto, fish and chips, and scallops with applewood bacon and potato-leek chowder remained in the air.
In addition, the green-lentil cassoulet my companion ordered could soon transform into a traditional French-style recipe using white beans. Although I wouldn’t complain if it doesn’t, because the lentils worked superbly in offering substantial texture and flavor, especially mantled beneath braised rainbow carrots, pickled onions and a dollop of the sofrito.
In today’s never-ending monsoon of overrated burgers, Pacific Standard’s girthy creation of sirloin and ground chuck excels because of its retained juices and aged cheddar on top. Add to the scheme cipollini onion jam, Frenso chilies and garlic aioli, and you end up with a flavor outcome that isn’t necessarily as innovative as it is balanced and perky. Definitely one of the best I’ve had in a while.
The dessert my companion ordered fit the season: a donut with pumpkin pie filling in the middle and cranberry icing on top. It was surrounded by pecan crumbles and served with a mini glass mug of apple cider. I chose a Valrhona chocolate bar speckled with peanut butter crunchies and sea salt, and dotted with toasted meringue. Both confections were thoughtfully conceived and made in-house.
Unlike most hotel restaurants, which require traversing lobbies and hallways to get to them, you enter this from the street or from a central courtyard designed with inviting furniture and elegant fire features. With a large bar that was fairly busy on our weekday visit, the atmosphere holds equal appeal for hotel guests and locals alike.
Service involved two wait staffers who came to our table in fits and starts. Our empty plates and water glasses were addressed intermittently. But friendly and gracious they were when coming around, as the overall vibe is casual in the pure San Diego sense.
Pacific Standard also serves breakfast daily (buffet or al a carte), plus lunch, and weekend brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.
In addition, happy hour is held from 4 to 7 p.m., daily, when appetizers, well drinks, house wines and draft beers are $5 apiece; and select cocktails sell for $6 and $7.
—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 firstname.lastname@example.org.