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A pour-over of green garlic oyster chowder finishes a roasted halibut dish.

The Jwalk

by Amy Finley | Photography by Andrea Bricco | Riviera San Diego magazine | April 4, 2014

Christian Graves is a micro manager.

When the tall, bearded chef places his double-cut pork chop on the table before me and my husband, Greg, the plate is as brown as the distressed wood tabletop. Golden-crusted hush puppies the size of pingpong balls nudge the edges of the crisp-seared chop, itself several shades of umber. The plate swims in a puddle of blond pork jus that laps the edges of creamy buff-hued corn grits. And topping the chop are warm, tawny sultanas that will burst with winey sweetness at every chew.

It is utterly monochromatic. These days, that’s a serious restaurant sin.

But Graves smiles slyly. “No microherbs anywhere on the menu,” he says as he prepares to head back to the kitchen. “Small victories, right?”

As Jsix relaunches after its winter hiatus, during which it treated itself to a dramatic makeover, the ever-diplomatic Graves indulging in a little snark (even snark this veiled) is easily as startling as my first look at the new bisected and brick-lined dining room had been. Even Greg, working his way through a cayenne-and-bacon-infused Big Sky cocktail from new bartender Nate Howell, notices the chef’s tone. But he’s not fluent in foodie code, and misses the subversive message. “Who cares about microherbs?” he asks, digging into the chop. He drags a chunk of meat through the grits, swirls it in sauce, pops it into his mouth and moans with pleasure.

He’s right, of course. Who does care about microherbs? But that crowning flourish has been a signifier, a chef’s voila!, and an emblem of participation in the mores of a middle-of-the-road foodie-approved establishment.

And Graves, it seems, has no intention of playing by those rules anymore. This is thrilling.

I don’t think it’s a disservice to one of S.D.’s most talented chefs to say that he used to break my heart. Graves’ capabilities are monumental; his palate tuned like a Stradivarius. But even though he was an early adopter and advocate of nose-to-tail cooking, he’d never go off the (good) deep end. I’d goad him about serving short ribs and scallops, trendy placeholder proteins. His abilities, I’d argue, obligated him to help craft a regional identity for his adopted hometown. A true taste of San Diego! He would calmly, reasonably retort that the transitory nature of a hotel dining room demands a certain level of prudent predictability.

Call that his once-upon-a-time microherb philosophy.

The new menu at Jsix is shorter than before, and more playful. While the construction crew took down the floral light fixtures and removed all traces of the old dining room’s sinuous curves, Graves and his talented crew were hiding out in the kitchen (literally—a brick wall now hides the formerly open kitchen from view). They trained to go beyond seasonal cooking and to become larder-driven and improv-savvy, a la restaurants like San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions, where you may never see the same dish twice. “If you come to Jsix on Tuesday, and then again on Thursday or Friday, maybe half the menu will have changed,” says Graves.

Of course, by design that makes it hard to name don’t-miss dishes. It can be said, though, that there are more vegetables on this menu than just about anywhere else in town, and they’re not relegated to side-dish status. How’s that for a taste of San Diego? One night, for example, a bowl of chicken dumplings in hen broth will be bright with fragrant lemon oil, the dumplings nested atop a deep tangle of spinach and young onions. A small dish of grilled or roasted veggies, like broccoli or orange and purple cauliflower, can be topped with a fried egg, pork belly or perfectly cooked sweetbreads; or served naked. If you’re lucky, there might be a simple dish like blanched asparagus, taken to a new dimension with a shower of sandy, sunny cured egg yolks.

How shrewdly Graves puts ingredients to use over the course of a week—rabbit lollipops merging into rabbit confit, then giving way to a velvety fennel-punched sugo for handcut pasta, for example—also shows that his prudence was always authentic. It serves a better end now. The new format forgoes courses in favor of bar snacks (pickle pots, venison jerky), nibbles (raw and spicy baby turnips with Point Reyes blue cheese), shareable starters (fried chicken thighs with apple slaw) and mains (halibut with oyster chowder). It’s not cliched social dining, and it’s more than small plates, though it borrows elements from both. I’d call it “what are you hungry for?” dining, as nimble as the kitchen. Graves’ native calculation turns out to be of the sensei-to-young-grasshopper variety, and not at all the killjoy one.

I love being wrong.

Of course, when you’re lightening the vibe, it doesn’t hurt to have Nate Howell in the restaurant, either. The impish cocktail impresario (best known for the Ron Burgundy at his former haunt, Cusp; though expect his regionally themed cocktails—like an Holla Y’All with barbeque-rub-infused vodka—to take off) is a charmer, and the heart to Graves’ soul in the new space, where the bar is so prominent. Graves calls bartenders “the new maitre d’s,” and handing Howell the Jsix ringleadership was another of Graves’ executive decisions.

Score another point for micromanagement.

The Theatrics
Look for interactive dishes, like crab pancakes with a hollandaise pour-over, or a finishing broth for dumplings, brought to the table in a thermos.

The New Look
A cool color scheme and distressed brick and woods are warmed by brass accents and pops of yellow. High-top tables are perches for drinks, snacks and light bites, or wolfing the famed Jsix burger, now on the bar menu.

The Week
Vegetarians will love meatless Monday, while Wednesday deals in half-priced wine. And Friday is fry-day, when normally health-conscious Graves fires up the oil boil.

The Bottles
Homebrewer Graves worked with Howell on a top-notch beer list—think hard-to-find sours and lots of locals. The wine list is deep and well-priced.

Jsix
616 J St., San Diego, 619.531.8744

Sun.-Thu., 7am-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 7am-11pm. Small bites, $4-$10; starters, $5-$18; entrees, $18-$32; desserts, $5-$7