An elegant expanse of warm wood, leather seating and brass fixtures welcomes guests to Lionfish—the largest of six new dining and entertainment venues at San Diego’s poshest new hotel, Pendry. Chef JoJo Ruiz (formerly with Ironside Fish & Oyster) is sharing his take on refined coastal cuisine using seasonal, local and responsibly sourced ingredients in everything from his small plates to his entrees and craft cocktails.
Innovated by Andy Masi of Clique Hospitality, the experience at Lionfish is elevated but approachable. The dining space is threaded with varying neutral textures, incorporating handpainted tiles, herringbone banquettes and washed brick walls. The vintage chandeliers and pendants throughout the eatery are custom made using repurposed warehouse lights. Windows lining the back wall provide a glimpse of Chef JoJo’s well-oiled kitchen.
Shared plates are celebrated at Lionfish, so it’s recommended that you start with a selection of vegetables and appetizers. The grilled chicories and sunchokes make a beautiful dish in shades of green and purple: Bitter endive, frisee and radicchio are drizzled with a housemade Italian dressing, then perched upon wedges of the smoky sunchokes. The exterior of the grilled tubers has a pleasant snap, while the insides are luscious and silky. A slick of broccoli-top pesto on the side provides a moment of green richness followed by the tingle of garlicky heat. Lamb tartare topped with sweet golden beets, fennel and arugula is a unique version of a classic. The tender meat is irresistible when paired with crunchy housemade lavash and a rich yogurt sauce tinged yellow with vadouvan—a French-influenced curry blend.
On the warm front, the seared albacore is visually stunning with flavors to match. Seasoned with Tajín—a classic Mexican spice made of chilis, lime and salt—the tuna is served rare in a vibrant ponzu sauce. Crispy onions and spun, chipotle-spiced radish are nestled on top of the dish and add notes of savory crunch. The grilled octopus is another appetizer not to be missed. A mound of tender, charred tentacles is paired with creamy potatoes, house-fermented Fresno chilis and slivers of fried garlic. Bold and punchy, the dish is balanced with a bright cilantro aioli and a sprinkling of fresh cilantro flowers.
The restaurant’s warm and cold shared plates pair beautifully with Lionfish’s handcrafted cocktails. Light and crisp, the Raspberry Beret is made with Aperol, Cocchi Americano Rosa, Sancerre, thyme, raspberry and lemon. A thyme sprig garnish provides herbaceous aromatics with each refreshing sip. If you’re after a libation that’s a bit more out-of-the-box, order Chai Me a River. The complex drink is an interesting combination of shaken chai tea-infused tequila, ancho chili liqueur, vermouth, tamarind and angostura bitters. You’ll taste a deep spice at first, followed by a rich, buttery warmth.
It’s easy to make a meal of the many enticing appetizers and vegetables at Lionfish, but I urge you to save room for an entree or two. The glazed Salmon Creek pork chop is a triumph. The 12-ounce, double-cut chop is served with sweet, creamed onions, black kale, halved potatoes and bits of salty pancetta—you may find yourself fighting with others at the table for a bite of seared pork fat or the bone end of the chop. The roasted Icelandic Una’s Salmon is plated with fried artichokes, creamy farro risotto and a flourish of delicious green things like braised leeks, wood sorrel and asparagus. The salmon’s golden skin is seasoned with flaked sea salt—a crisp contrast to the succulent meat below.
After dinner, head down to the Oxford Social Club to close out the evening. Located below Lionfish, the intimate space has plenty of cozy corners to discuss your delicious meal over an equally delicious craft cocktail.
435 Fifth Ave., San Diego, 469.730.2937
Hours: Sun.-Thu., 5am-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5am-11pm
Prices: Appetizers, $11-$24, entrees $24-$36, desserts $8-$12
Originally published in the March issue of Modern Luxury San Diego