Jan. 30 2012 07:09 PM

In Gingham, the former Top Chef contestant-turned-restaurateur's got a good thing going

Photo by Amy T. Granite

Fittingly, Gingham's identity is checkered. It's more like a half-sister to executive chef Brian Malarkey's first two creations, Burlap and Searsucker—it's smaller and has a more modest design that departs from kitsch-master Thomas Schoos, and the menu is inspired by chef de cuisine Ryan Studebaker's southern-spiced affection for meat. Everything's priced at less than $20, and the casual vibe bodes well in a neighborhood known more for its antiquing than its dining scene.

Seated at the bar, I forked my way through the prehistoric-looking fried whole catfish ($17), served with tartar and cocktail-like sauces, plus a chipotle hollandaise that I could've thrown back like a shot. As obsessed as I was with the flaky fish, I couldn't help but notice the jubilant woman to my left.

“Live around here?” I asked between bites.

“Oh, yes. Just up the street. Is this your first time?”

“Second,” I said.

“It's my sixth! I keep bringing my friends here. The locals just love it.”

Oh, they do. Malarkey's front-of-the-house post—near the kitchen's expo area over which he keeps a watchful eye—garners handshakes and hugs from locals who echo the sentiment that Gingham is tailored just-right for downtown La Mesa.

Seeing as the gargantuan Searsucker was damn good out of the box (though regular CityBeat reviewer Jenny Mongomery didn't love it), three friends and I dived into the crowd at Gingham in its second week of operation.

The overriding theme that night was confusion, kicking off with “open seating” at the bar, which literally translated to the bar, not its surrounding area. We perched at an empty table that we were shooed away from and told “a party is about to be seated there”—only to find out 20 minutes later that party was us. Ha!  
While the full Snake Oil Co. cocktail menu is still in the works, there are a few originals to sip on, so I went for the Berry Cobbler ($12) whose pulpy body served straight-up in a martini glass puckered perfectly with Buffalo Trace Bourbon. The second round, though, came on the rocks and quickly watered down. Order it “up,” like I did.  
A trail of small plates followed—the best-executed were the horny Devil Eggs ($5), with bits of spicy bacon throughout, and the divine Shrimp 'n' Oxtail Grits ($10). You must order this down-home-meets-surf-and-turf dish. Perfectly plump shrimp and rich, shredded oxtail strewn throughout creamy cornmeal is the best thing I've eaten in recent memory.  

While the Chicken Chicharones (plural), for $7, only came with one, plus several potato chips for dipping into a cast-iron dish of sweet and savory molten pimento cheese, there was no denying its deliciousness.

At 10 p.m., our server informed us, “The kitchen is closed, so if you want to put in another order, I'll see if they'll do it.” Unique approach, bro. Of the top entrées we requested, our fourth choice—baby backs with a wonderful mustard sauce—hadn't run out. But, we wound up wishing the end-of-the-night dry meat had been withheld from our table, too.

Desserts are all $6, but the one we yearned for—Granny Smith Pie with a bacon-cheddar crust—was out, and still was on my second visit. Although I did have a happier entrée experience upon my return—granted, it was earlier in the evening and on a less-busy Tuesday.

Truth be told, I dig the place, and if anyone's track record deserves a hall pass it's Malarkey's—even if he opened up a bit too soon with a full-priced menu. Come March, the vast patio will debut with a grand-opening celebration highlighting the fun flavors and experience we've come to expect, and love, from the new sheriff of the dining territory just outside of San Diego's eastern border.

Amy blogs at saysgranite.com and you can follow her on Twitter @saysgranite.


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