At long last, one of the most highly-anticipated openings to emerge in San Diego in recent years is finally on track to be unveiled in Golden Hill at the start of 2022. Announced back in 2019, Kingfisher Cocktail Bar & Eatery is a modern Vietnamese restaurant and bar founded by the owners of the Crab Hut restaurants along with a creative team led by general manager/bar director David Tye (Sycamore Den, the Lion’s Share) and executive chef Jonathan Bautista (George’s at the Cove, Realm of the 52 Remedies).
Informed by traditional flavors and family recipes from co-owners Kim Phan, Ky Phan, and Quan Le, the menu reflects the French influence on Vietnamese food and modernizes the cuisine through technique, presentation, and the focus on local and seasonal ingredients.
Though the restaurant has been much delayed, the Kingfisher team has been working to develop and refine the menu through a series of in-person cocktail pairing dinners and takeout pop-ups throughout the course of the pandemic.
Bautista, whose training is in contemporary fine dining, says that he’s spent the past year and a half immersed in Vietnamese culture in preparation to open Kingfisher. Many of his dishes are interpretations of classic dishes while others are more characteristic of plates from his time running TBL3, the tasting menu experience at George’s California Modern, including a fish crudo paired with a wheatgrass vinaigrette and Chino Farms strawberries. Dry aged meats will also be a menu fixture, from squab and beef to a dry aged duck with nuoc mam chimichurri that was served at a recent Thanksgiving pop-up.
Diver scallops: The chef’s take on canh chua, a sweet and sour soup typically made with pork and catfish, is a chilled version with raw scallops in a pineapple broth with tamarind jelly and cured tomato, celtuce (stem lettuce), and seaweed garnished with Thai basil and citrusy Southeast Asian rice patty herb.
Congee: From eating it in his own Filipino household to serving it during his time at George’s, congee is one of Bautista’s most cherished dishes. Starting his with short-grained arborio rice and finishing it with butter and lemon, he says he plans to always feature a savory rice porridge; seasonal varieties could include Chino farms corn, wild mushrooms, or crab.
Local halibut: Based on cha ca thang long, an iconic Vietnamese dish of turmeric fish with dill, this replaces the heavy fried fish with seared local halibut glazed with a light beurre blanc seasoned with fish sauce, lemongrass, and ginger. Its paired with vermicelli noodles tossed with green garlic oil, chilies, and tons of fresh herbs.
Local spiny lobster: After eating a dish of whelks in green peppercorn sauce while on a Vietnamese food crawl in Orange County and thinking about the classic French steak au poivre, Bautista was inspired to make a creamy butter sauce flavored with green peppercorns and lemon zest to top some San Diego spiny lobster. The lobster is also offered with garlic-dried scallop butter.
Since joining the Crab Hut group in 2016, Tye has been singularly focused on researching his side of the menu, traveling through Vietnam, Singapore, and Thailand to amass a library of 80 cocktails that will be rotated through on a regular basis. Although Southeast Asian ingredients factor prominently, Tye says he approached his drinks without boundaries or limitations, pulling flavors from across six continents for a list split into two categories: “Minimalism“, which is rooted in the classics and centered around balanced, easy-drinking cocktails made with unique ingredients, and “Maximalism”, which features more far-reaching, esoteric combinations. Among his innovations are the Saigon Moped, a gin drink that involved developing a technique to remove the bitter astringency from bitter melon, and a refreshing citrus cocktail that features a lemongrass distillate custom made by Seven Caves Spirits.
Vietnamese Spritz: A twist on the Italian aperitivo, this sparkler combines prosecco and Aperol with lychee liqueur and a jujube-flavored tea that Tye discovered while exploring local Asian markets.
Papaya Margarita: Based on papaya, which is a popular fruit both in Southeast Asia and Latin America, it can be ordered with tequila or mezcal and comes garnished with a rim of black lava sea salt.
Ozymandias: Named after Tye’s favorite poem, this is also his favorite drink on the menu. Ostensibly from the Old Fashioned family, this complex drink is infused with a rice tea and a blend of aquavit, Mexican corn whisky, and a honey and anise liqueur from the Yucatan.
Jungle Fang: This tropical tequila concoction features soursop, an exotic fruit also known as guanabana, along with pineapple, Thai cocktail milk, lime, and an optional dusting of venom salt, made with fiery Trinidad Scorpion pepper.