Frank Sabatini Jr. | Downtown News
In an age when burgers are sizzling moneymakers for even the most stylish of eateries, Cooper McLaughlin decided to move beyond the Angus disks that attracted a devoted patronage to his startup restaurant, The Corner.
To the delight of those who were initially taken aback by his concept change at what is now Table No. 10, he’s remained firmly planted within the two-level structure that served as The Carnation Milk Factory nearly 100 years ago. His gamble earlier this year at eliminating hearty tavern food in lieu of “playful, modern-American” cuisine was buffered also by entering into partnership with whiz-chef Jason Gethin, formerly of Union Kitchen & Tap.
Gethin earned culinary degrees from institutions in Louisiana and South Carolina and worked under seasoned chefs in those states, which explains the Southern twists you’ll find across Table 10’s menu.
Where else in San Diego can you nosh from a bowl of super-addicting fried chicken skins, for example? They’re better than potato chips and probably worse for you. But when accented lightly with red-wine powder and sherry vinegar, flavor wins over health.
Mushroom grits with sweet onion vinaigrette and daily renditions of deviled eggs also rotate through the succinct “bites” menu. Regarding the latter, the piped yolks on this particular evening aligned to a conventional mixture of Dijon mustard, mayo and smoked paprika. It had everything going for it except for an above-average dose of sodium.
“We’re probably heavier with salt than what most San Diegans are used to,” McLaughlin admitted. “I love salt, the chef loves salt — it’s our personal taste.”
Much to our relief, we didn’t detect any overloads in subsequent dishes, which graduated in size and led to more complex flavors.
Compressed watermelon salad is an emerging trend dish that I encountered at The Patio on Goldfinch a few nights prior. Here, pieces of the fruit are put into vacuum-sealed bags with Branca Menta, a minty digestive that infuses the sweet flesh with poetic justice while cucumber and grapefruit alongside impart fitting blasts of citrus.
In another well-executed small plate, pearly seared scallops teamed up with pork belly that was braised in luscious ham stock. The chef’s stroke of originality stemmed from the addition of coconut cream mingling with a smear of starchy sunchoke puree.
The evening’s most elaborate dish starred the deep-sea fish known as opah, prized for its firm and rosy belly meat. Served as an entrée on a stone slab, the arrangement looked like a Dali painting with charred corn, Fresno chilies, shiso pesto and white-soy vinaigrette placed whimsically around the medium-cooked fish pieces. Part Asian and part Southwest, the differing influences united beautifully.
My companion chose Kobe beef brisket slathered in house-made barbecue sauce that beckoned to the vinegar-based recipes found in South Carolina, replete with onions, mustard and brown sugar. Crisp house pickles and soft pan de mie (sweet white bread) rounded out the meal.
The restaurant’s name corresponds to a chef’s table adjacent to the kitchen on ground level. It seats up to 10 guests. The kitchen is fronted by several counter seats, which are easier to grab without reservations.
We sat upstairs in the multi-level main dining room featuring large paned windows, loosely strung Edison light bulbs and an expansive wall painting of birds perched on telephone lines. The depiction appears remarkably three-dimensional even from a short distance. Also in easy view is an illuminated bar, where mixologist Cory Alberto sets a variety of cocktails on fire before sending them out to guests.
The El Pinche Gringo is one of them, a smoked-and-torched tequila libation sporting a mossy green color from Serrano chilies, cucumbers and Mexican “Tajin” spice. I took the kiddie route at first before switching to wine with a couple of house-made sodas that Alberto makes with Indian sarsaparilla bark and a medley of fresh citrus used in another.
Neither my companion nor I are big dessert buffs. But we agreed that the panna cotta with pistachio cream and berry consommé was ridiculously toothsome, partly because it wasn’t overly sweet. We also obliterated an order of white chocolate ganache with sesame sauce and Concord grape sorbet that tasted both sweet and tart.
Table No. 10 is clearly putting its best foot forward in terms of service, food and drinks. Its re-branding will leave you forgetting about the wings and burgers you ate here in previous years, even though McLaughlin’s former team did a decent job at making them. Also, the remodeled interior with its open spaces and non-forced natural elements is the final bonus that leaves you wishing you could lie down in some corner after dinner and spend the night.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began writing about food two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.