By David Rottenberg
San Diego’s big-name Downtown, La Jolla and other transient touristy restaurants compete with neighborhood restaurants for local business. Both broad categories of dining establishments — neighborhood and touristy — would like to build a steady local clientele. Some even speak of patronage from residents as the “bread and butter business” that keeps them afloat.
The converse is not as true. That is, few neighborhood restaurants compete for the transient touristy business that crowds our Downtown and beach areas. Some of them are just not large enough and don’t have the advertising dollars to spend.
As a consequence, tourists often miss out on some of the finest dining experiences available in our city. Too bad!
Those were some of my thoughts as I enjoyed dining at Kensington Grill, a cute storefront at the far end of Adams Avenue, at the gateway to a pretty neighborhood that is convenient to almost any section of our central city. It has great freeway access.
Tracy Borkum, its owner, knows both sides of the business. She operated Chive for years off Market Street in the Gaslamp, clearly a touristy area. She’s leading the reincarnation of the landmark expensive and transient-oriented Laurel Restaurant in Hillcrest into Cucina Urbana, a California-inspired Italian kitchen and wine shop with moderately priced menu. She’s even in the catering business, running Urban Kitchen. She’s very busy!
But perhaps her greatest achievement was creating Kensington Grill, which is ensconced in the heart of its neighborhood and works to attract locals. Not having a large transient business isn’t hurting. The restaurant was packed on the midweek evening I visited. It was one of Borkum’s earlier ventures and remains one of her most successful.
The reasons for being so are clear. First, it’s “location, location, location.” The restaurant is in a small commercial area surrounded by upscale single-family residences where a lot of young, successful families have moved. That exposes them to an upwardly mobile clientele that enjoys fine dining. Second, the ambiance is casual but sophisticated. The earth tone colors of the interior are attractive and soothing. Finally, and most important, the delightful dishes prepared by Chef Hanis Cavin bring diners back again and again.
The restaurant entrance is adjacent to the Ken Theater. A long, narrow patio offers outdoor dining. The interior consists of three areas, two dining rooms divided by a drinking/eating bar. A small shop near the hostess stand offers unique books, CDs, soap and other products. High back wicker chairs introduced an organic feel to the tables, which was carried through by the coarse paper that protected the tablecloths.
The cuisine features organic dishes. Fresh local produce is used. Wines also are select vintages from organic wineries. These usually only do small bottling, so the wines served here are delicious and not widely available. There is a limited choice of wines by the glass.
Servers bring a platter of delicious edamame to the table when seated. Bruschetta is also fun to munch on when studying the menu. The “brie + mango” and “bacon + havarti + marinated tomato” are particularly appealing.
Among starters, the White Bean Cassoulet, a kind of stew, is a medley of flavors of duck, ham, pork and herb sausage. The Sesame Seared Ahi is a beautiful presentation of the tasty seafood, accompanied with avocado salad, on a plate where the aoli was drawn in decorative design. Fried Calamari, one of the more popular starters, was topped with a spicy cabbage and sweet pepper slaw and crushed peanuts.
The seafood entrees were superb. Sea bass that was moist and firm was served with a horseradish crust on top of mashed potatoes. Salmon, pan seared, was topped with half a dozen small shrimp to create a variety of textures to the palate. Braised Lamb Shank was presented in a unique way, sliced on a platter, along with Mediterranean orzo in a cabernet reduction that was very flavorful and satisfying. As an “aside,” the Mac & Cheese with Truffle Oil was one of the best I’ve ever had.
Neighborhood restaurants can have great qualities – convenience, comfort, familiarity. When they also serve great food, it’s a winner! Kensington Grill certainly is. Try it and I’m confident that it will become one of your favorites.
Kensington Grill is at 4055 Adams Ave. It is open for dinner daily and for Sunday brunch. Prices are moderate. Street and some free lot parking are available. Call (619) 281-4014 for reservations.
David Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine, a guide to many of the city’s favorite restaurants. He is a member of the Southern California Restaurant Writers Association and vice president of the North American Travel Journalists Association.z