I met up with a friend just after the holidays to do our own little gift exchange, both of us relieved to be released from family obligations and glad to be back to normal life. She was in dire need of tasty food after a disappointing Christmas dinner; I was celebrating the ability to taste again after a bout with sense-numbing cold.
We were both anxious to leave work, so we decided to rendezvous at Ritual Tavern at an early-bird hour and continue the holiday festivities. The restaurant sits on a quiet block of 30th Street in North Park, and stepping across its threshold, in from the chilly night air, felt like being transported into the warmth and fellowship of an old-world tavern. These public houses, neighborhood standards in places like Europe but still too few and far between here, are my favorite kind of hang—legit, honest drinkeries with food worth eating.
There's a cozy, candlelit dining room on one side of the restaurant, but my friend was already seated in the narrow but cushy bar, which parallels an open kitchen that can be viewed from the sidewalk. She had already ordered a Trappist ale from Ritual's doozie of a bottled-beer list, and I started with pint of seasonal winter brew from Coronado Brewing Company, one of the ever-changing, all-local taps available. The restaurant's background music is low enough to talk over but can be heard enough to occasionally groove to. My buddy Claire, a keen-eared DJ, picked out a couple of Black Heart Procession songs and a Portishead tune while we were eating.
We were pretty famished, so we kicked off by sharing a platter of batter-fried veggies, their coating puffed from the addition of Ballast Point pale ale. This night offered fried sweet potatoes, onions and tender, skinny stalks of broccolini served with a mayonnaise-based remoulade sauce and ketchup, just two of the condiments that are made in-house. Mussels, a frequent dinner special, come from nearby Carlsbad Aquafarms, a fact gleaned from the back of the menu, which lists many ingredient sources—mostly local farms and other artisan producers. The shellfish came in a deep bowl of garlic-laden broth that I tried to soak up with some toasted bread wedges, though I should have asked for a spoon.
This being a gastropub, I had to order its version of Shepherd's Pie, which arrived in a large casserole dish holding slow-cooked chunks of Niman Ranch lamb and beef in a rich gravy with parsnips, carrots and green beans, topped with a layer of golden crusted mashed potatoes. Some such dishes can be boringly all one texture and flavor, but this pie was superb. The potatoes were fluffy, not gluey, and the meat and vegetables, both in ample supply, still retained a nice chew. Best of all was the gravy, deep in flavor (maybe from beer?), with an addictively spicy kick that was just hot enough. The pie also comes in a vegan version, with tofu subbing in for the meat.
Claire, who's an itty-bitty thing but an ace eater, ordered the griddled chicken breast and was a little surprised with what she was given. The chicken is from Jidori, which supplies free-range, high quality birds. I'm used to seeing Jidori chicken prepared as a plump airline breast, named for the little wing joint still attached, cooked with the skin on for the moistest result. Claire's portion was about the size of a chicken tender, only not quite so tender. This was the only bummer of the meal, although the organic wild rice and sautéed greens that came alongside were delicious. Luckily, my Shepherd's Pie was seemingly bottomless, so I had lots to share and even plenty enough for leftovers.
I'm still mourning the eastward migration of the Liar's Club, a cherished coastal beer parlor, so it was nice to find a new place owned by people who seem to know their beer and can provide a little guidance. I was in the mood for a sour beer, so our bartender suggested a Gueuze—which is almost too puckery—or another lambic beer, Framboise, which is a little sweet. We finally settled in the middle with a Kriek, the sour cherry tartness of which was great with the spicy meatiness of my dinner.
We left the restaurant as the dining room was filling, but I'll be back to this cozy, friendly spot for more beer refreshment and accessible gourmet food. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.