Real talk: picking out a great restaurant for dinner in the Gaslamp is probably as overwhelming for San Diegans as it is for visitors. Most of the time I can barely pick out a place when I need to for myself, let alone make recommendations. And it definitely doesn't help that restaurants downtown sometimes seem to disappear overnight.
This was exactly the predicament one of my best friends, Bonnie, and I found ourselves in a couple of weeks ago, when we were looking for a dinner spot before having a Scandal night back at Bonnie's place. Then we were invited to try out barleymash's menu... problem solved!
I was familiar with barleymash because, how could you miss it? I've walked and driven past its prime corner location on 5th and Market a billion times. Still, I'd never eaten there because while it had always seemed like a fun spot to drink, honestly I just expected the food to be your typical semi-decent barfare, similar to the other large, corner bars on 4th and 5th Ave.
Which is a shame, because I was completely wrong.
Talking about it afterwards with a few people, the assumption was generally the same: Why would a giant sports bar with a great cocktail list that turns into a fun dance club at night also need to have great food? That's usually the compromise downtown: places are usually one or the other... you're a restaurant or you're a bar with food. And given barleymash's size, it's easy to assume that their focus is not on the dining experience.
So when we arrived on Friday, I figured the food would be good, maybe even really good.
I didn't know it would be great.
Bonnie and I got there around 7pm and it was absolutely packed. We ordered a couple of drinks while we tried to manuever the menu. I started off with Retail Therapy, a delicious lemony gin drink, while Bonnie ordered some wine. By the time our waitress came back we had a couple of appetizers in mind: a cup of their Five Chile Chili and their Spicy Shrimp Skillet.
When the chili came out, I was surprised by the focus on presentation. This was my first indication that I had completely misjudged their menu. One bite of their savory three cheese blended turkey chili was my second. The chili came topped with sour cream and green and fried onions and with a little side of toasted bread for dipping. I devoured the cup in minutes, grateful that it had just the right amount of mild spice for me.
And while my diet still very much follows the "nothing from the sea for Bri" rule, it was nice having a seafood lover's input on the seafood dishes. Bonnie's shrimp skillet appetizer looked so good even I wanted to try it. I didn't of course, but I was happy to hear that she loved it.
We ordered another round of cocktails while we figured out what to get for our main entrees and this time I switched it up for the Kate Sessions, a dangerously tasty gin drink with St. Germaine, lemon and strawberry.
After being completely blown away by their chili, deciding on a main course proved extremely difficult. I was torn between getting one of their barleymacs, a menu of 6 tasty-sounding mac and cheese dishes, or one of their barley pies, like the Gaslamp, a flatbread pizza with whiskey-carmelized onions, three cheeses and garlic cream, or even their stout-braised short ribs.
But in the end, I decided on something completely different: their Farmhouse entree, which consists of quinoa-veggie meatless balls on a bed of citrus spent grain pasta, roasted farmhouse veggies and roasted tomato sauce, topped with Parmesan cheese and a balsamic-Jager reduction.
Just writing about it makes me wish I could head downtown and order this for lunch. These meatless balls were the most delicious quinoa-based recipe I have ever eaten. I could literally eat them every day.
Bonnie stuck with their fresh seafood menu and opted for the Herb Crusted Scottish King Salmon with pearled barley risotto, roasted farmhouse veggies, a sauv blanc-citrus cream and roasted red chili puree.
After cleaning our plates, I was stunned at how absolutely delicious everything had been. I had no idea that barleymash was such a foodie's haven, with progressive barfare and impeccable presentation. Of course, it makes more sense now that I know more about the chef behind the menu, Chef Kevin Templeton, who won the 2013 Lamplighter Award for Chef of the Year. Templeton's inspiration for these delicious recipes? "Lots and lots of booze." That's a cooking philosophy I can get behind.
Another one of barleymash's philosophies worth noting? Their focus on "farm to bar": they work hard at making their menu as organic, natural, local and sustainable as possible. Not to mention, they make all of their sauces from scratch. Very rarely do singular dining experiences convert me into such an enthusiastic fan, but I can't wait to recommend barleymash to anyone who's looking for a night out downtown.
Whether you're planning your Comic-Con food tour or just looking for a great place for date night, barleymash should rise to the top of your restaurant to-dine list for the Gaslamp. Personally, I'll be back to try their brunch very soon.
Isn't my bestie so pretty?
Bonnie and I closed the night with a final round of drinks for dessert: an old fashioned for her and the super sweet James Appleseed for me, a cocktail with a Jameson Whiskey-Atomic Fireball infusion, Barenjager, Angostura bitters, lemon, and Angry Orchard Apple Cider. It was the perfect dessert to close out the perfect meal.
600 5th Avenue
San Diego, CA 92101
Phone: (619) 255-7373