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The Taste Buds Discover Hidden Gem, Wet Stone Wine Bar

By The Taste Buds -

SAN DIEGO – Tucked away in a nondescript location on Fourth Avenue just south of Grape, Wet Stone Wine Bar is easy to miss. No spotlights or neon signs welcome passers-by.

We had to circle the block to find it, but boy are we glad we did. The Taste Buds known as Sweet and Bitter are delighted to discover the eclectic talents of Chef Christian Gomez, who offers a fusion of flavors that hint at his multi-ethnic roots.

Chef describes his early culinary influences as his executive chef father, who is of Filipino-Spanish descent, and his Panamanian-Chinese mother. Indeed, the menu and the wine list reflect his exotic heritage with marvelous tributes to places he obviously loves.

Wet Stone has been around for about three years in a cozy spot that seats up to 46 people. Chef says his current demographic is about 85% female because he thinks his Bankers Hill location is considered a “safe spot” not Downtown and not quite Uptown. Chef serves lunch and dinner from a small kitchen seen through the small wine bar.

For our visit, the Taste Buds were treated to the Chef’s Table in the center of the dining space, and Chef created a special menu for us. We were deeply honored by that special touch.

The first course

To begin service, Chef brought out his signature drink, Tropical White Sangria ($7). It featured mint leaves, a cinnamon stick, apples, a slice of orange, mango and lychee (see the middle photo to the left). Sweet thought the drink was light and refreshing, not overbearing as many sangria recipes can be. Bitter found that the added touch of fresh spices was a surprising touch that complimented the sangria’s fruity flavors.

The first course was Quesadilla Do Guayaba ($8), featuring three cheeses (queso fresco, Cotija and Panela) and guava paste, served with a charred scallion. Sweet said the guava paste gave the dish a sweetness that was nicely balanced by the three cheeses and the crème freiche; however, would have preferred this dish served as the last course since it was almost like a dessert. Bitter did not prefer each of the ingredients apart from the others. But together, the quesadilla tasted like a South American twist on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was a tasty treat, but one that Bitter would have preferred as dessert with a cup of coffee.

Chef served Cava Barcino ($9 per glass), a sparkling wine from Spain, as the wine pairing. Sweet called it a perfect marriage.

The second course

Both Taste Buds raved about the second course, Seared Macadamia Nut-Crusted Ahi Tuna ($15).

The presentation was outstanding. There was soy sauce on the bottom, covered by a bed of fresh spinach leaves. Stacked on top of that was a chilled sweet yam spear. The tuna steak in all its glory rested atop the yam, gently covered with a mango-habanero salsa.

Chef explained to the Taste Buds that he strips the habanero – known as one of the hottest peppers on Earth – of the seeds and mixes it with the mango to reduce the heat.

Sweet called the dish exquisite and advises diners to dig to the bottom to add the soy flavor to the overall tasting experience. The heat was subtle, almost conservative, and Sweet almost wished the dish were slightly hotter and had more of the delicious salsa. Bitter felt that the heat, while understated, was at an acceptable level for the average diner to notice and enjoy.

The tuna was accompanied by a Gruner Veltliner ($9 per glass) from Bio-Weingut, Hofer, in Austria. Sweet felt the wine was too fruity for the dish and would have enjoyed a Pinot Noir instead. Bitter found the young wine’s citrus and mineral qualities an unpleasant distraction from the subtle flavors of the dish.

The third course

Another big hit was the third course, Braised Pork Belly Crostinis ($9).

Served on a bed of spinach and arugula, the dish was an explosion of heat and flavor. The pork belly was mesmerizing with its Chinese Five-Spice Powder (star anise, cloves, cinnamon, ground fennel seeds and Sichuan pepper), a mixture that embraces all five flavors of sweet, sour, bitter, pungent and salty.

This dish brought more heat, and Sweet was pleased as punch, calling it outstanding. Bitter thoroughly enjoyed the spiciness as well, but cautions the average diner to keep some dairy handy in case the heat is too overwhelming.

The crostinis were perfectly matched with Steelhead ($5 per glass), a Scotch-style porter made by the Mad River Brewing Co. in Humboldt, Calif.

The fourth course

After three consecutive hits, the Taste Buds were prepared for a possible letdown. The fourth course was Churrasco ($16), a play on the Argentine grilled meat plate. The dish (top photo at left) featured three grilled meats: Achiote Marinated Chicken Breast, Flat Iron Steak, Merguez Lamb Sausage. It also has the chef’s chimichurri and bleu cheese crostini.

Sweet liked the dish, but felt it lacked the pizzazz of the first three dishes and perhaps should have been served first. The chicken was gently flavored and tender, the favorite among the trio. The flank steak, which is a tough meat to tenderize, was nicely marinated but lived up to its reputation. The lamb sausage, a first for Sweet, was slightly dry.

Bitter thought the dish was executed perfectly. The lamb sausage was flavorful and had a nice slightly crispy skin that only comes from the freshest of sausages. The chimichurri served as a nice compliment to the dish, instead of being overpowering as it often is.

The plate was served with Melodia, a Bonarda from Mendoza, Argentina ($10 per glass), a flavorful red that matched up well with the grilled meats.

About the wine selection

As a wine bar, Wet Stone is certainly competition to any of the typical wine bars in San Diego. The wines are mostly drinkable and unlikely to offend the average foodie looking to experiment with some new flavors from around the world. Wine snobs might be disappointed with the limited selection of refined wines, but Chef’s exquisite food menu easily makes up for any shortcomings – especially when compared to food options at most other wine bars in San Diego.

More about Chef Christian Gomez

The San Diego native has been a world traveler, where his opportunities to sample many cultures and cuisines began to formulate his own cooking interests.

In the early 1990s, he began working at the famed Border Grill in Los Angeles, learning from famed Chef Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken. He says that experience inspired him to adventure out on his own.

In 2005, Gomez co-produced 13 episodes of “Green Eats” for NBC Los Angeles, focusing on the “farm to table” movement. After that, he took time off to travel some more, visiting such places as Tuscany, Amsterdam and Brazil. A few years ago, he decided it was time to come home to San Diego and live out his dream of owning his own restaurant.

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