March 23 2011 10:42 AM

Red Velvet made this girl feel fine

Sommelier Kyle Showen serves up vino at Red Velvet.
Photo by Kelly Davis
Updated June 23, 2011: Red Velvet is closed.

I think we can all agree that the word “foodie” is irritating, yes? And yet, what are our alternatives? “Epicure”?
Blech—this isn't the SAT.

“Gastronome”? Meh—too Frenchie. “Foodie” has begun to imply more than just a person with a passion for good eating. It has somehow been co-opted by the pretentious, the obsessive and the self-righteous. Can't we just a have a word for people who really like to eat? I mean, besides “glutton.”

These are the things I ponder after a night of gastronomy at a place like Red Velvet Wine Bar. Red Velvet is just the kind of spot to stretch your fancy-pants food-liking muscles without feeling like a pig. That's partly because you're not going to get much food.

But that's OK. The food you do get is innovative and delicious, and all that wine at your fingertips only heightens the experience.

Red Velvet is intimate; you enter through an unobtrusive side door that's part of a Little Italy high-rise. The waterfront-facing wall of windows is framed by flowing drapes of a Cabernet-colored material that recalls the restaurant's name.

A three-sided bar takes up most of the room, with a few tables for two around the bar's perimeter. This isn't the place for a boisterous group meal. But it's surprisingly unstuffy, with two dashingly urbane bartenders who welcome you with a smile, pouring wine and intelligently explaining everything you're eating and drinking.

Chef Luke Johnson updates the menu every Tuesday, creating a six-course, prix-fixe tasting menu that ranges from $69 to $80. You can order each course a la carte, but you'd be missing what the Red Velvet dining experience is all about. Each course is presented with a Top Chef kind of flare, with your server explaining what you're eating and how it's been prepared.

When I visited, my meal started with a savory broth of maitake mushrooms, green garlic, onion and thyme. Plopped in the bottom of the soup was an egg-less flan; that seems like an oxymoron, but thanks to Johnson's clever techniques, the little dollop of custard gave a tantalizing bite of creaminess with every slurp.

The pasta course was exceptional, the only negative being the tiny amount on my plate. I loved the beet ravioli with burrata, the sweet purple filling marrying perfectly with the snappy cheese.

Our prix-fixe menu came with two proteins, halibut and duck. Halibut is so meaty and flavorful that it's always a winner, but pair it with sugar-snap peas and brown butter and you've got quite the fish course. The duck was rich and well-cooked, paired with carrots, parsnips and greens.

Johnson's quirky presentation really shined on the cheese course. Three differently prepared versions of brie decorated the plate: solid, melted and mixed with truffles. An insolent smear of cheese was painted on the plate's edge, just artful enough to let you know the mess is intentional.

Red Velvet's goal is a sophisticated wine bar with the feel of New York or Europe.The folks behind the restaurant have succeeded in creating that worldly vibe, but the warmth, friendliness and quirky sense of adventure behind the food is all San Diego.

Whether you're a gourmand (meh) or not, this kind of dining experience is just plain fun. It's not cheap, and you might find yourself filling in the cracks of your gluttonous belly with gelato when the meal is over, but spend a few bucks for a special occasion and enjoy a sexy, cosmopolitan night.

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