It may not have been the most heralded of San Diego restaurant openings in 2013, but the Sept. 25 debut of American Voodoo (4655 Park Blvd. in University Heights) came complete with a New Orleans-style second line parade and procession following a small brass band and street performers. It was fun and it augured well for the evening.
But the most promising stuff was what came to the table after the procession arrived at the restaurant. Executive Chef Gustavo Cruz (formerly of Blanca, Arterra and Bouchon) and Chef Daniel Augustin have created a menu they (as well as owner Joshua Hamlin and general manager Josh Hernandez) describe as “Cali-Creole.” The term connotes a cross between the spare, almost minimalistic, health conscious, farm-to-table ethos of California cuisine and the characteristically rich, powerful flavors and foot-long ingredient lists of Creole cooking. And that first impression was, at times, what showed up on the plate.
But not always. Neither of the first courses—a butternut squash soup and a smoked-salmon blini with crème fraiche—really fit the “Cali-Creole” concept, but both were successful dishes. The salad courses were closer to the program. How can a salad featuring fried pork belly as well as smoked chanterelle be bad? The richness of the pork belly played well with the meaty texture and smoky favors of the mushrooms, both of which were set off by the Meyer lemon vinaigrette.
Perhaps the dish of the evening, though, was in the third course, a habanero mac-n-cheese featuring home- and hand-made little rigatonis serving as the macaroni. It was a textural playground of a dish with a deep savoriness and a hint of the habanero’s fruity spice. Also quite tasty was the fig-glazed Cornish game hen with apple-fennel dressing and tasso mustard greens. The bird was beautiful and demanded—and received—the use of the hands. The plates were not going back to the kitchen with meat still left on the bones. The greens were not such a hit. The level of spiciness simply overwhelmed both the greens and the tasso. Another hit was the sweet-potato brownie a la mode; the flavors were great but the look of the dish may have been even better.
In the end, rather than Cali-Creole, American Voodoo seems to be dealing in a broader look at coastal Southern cuisine (owner Joshua Hamlin has South Carolina roots) through the lens of California sensibilities and ingredients. Based on what I saw at the opening, there are still some minor kinks to work out but the place is very promising.