The San Diego Spirits Festival saw another successful year in the Port Pavilion on the San Diego Harbor. An intimate event in comparison to your typical festival, the San Diego Spirits Festival kept a strong focus on its namesake, bringing together an assortment of vodkas, tequilas, whiskeys and other libations.
Big brands such as Ketel One and Don Julio came out to show off some of their newest flavors, with Ketel One’s grapefruit & rose making a strong impression. Tito’s vodka and Reed’s ginger brew teamed up to make ‘the American mule,’ and Lillet made a signature wine cocktail as well.
The festival was dominated, however, by smaller, emerging brands that brought the same panache to the table. Caramba tequila got the party going with a number of extravagant margaritas. American soju surprised everyone by distancing its branding away from the drink’s Korean roots, and making a [rather tasty] soju-based margarita.
44 North Vodka, an under-the-radar brand that secretly supplies the key ingredient to electric lemonades at Las Vegas pool parties and popular restaurants [Hash House a Go Go being one of them] showcased an excellent cocktail selection. Big Gin served alongside, with a number of namesake drinks. One of the absolute highlights, however, was Mule 2.0, which absolutely elevated pre-mixed cocktails by delivering a great product right out of the can.
With the historic Midway on one side, the downtown skyline on the other and perfect sunshine all the way through, this annual event couldn’t have asked for better conditions. The San Diego Spirits Festival took place over two days, and also included live entertainment [samba dancers and a snake charmer in tow!], a spirit competition and a bottle competition. While limited food is available for purchase at the festival, guests are strongly encouraged to eat prior to the event. SanDiegoSpiritsFestival.com
Downtown San Diego’s exploding Gaslamp District carries a distinct energy, spread through young partygoers and hip clientele that flock to the area’s restaurants, bars and nightclubs that transport San Diego from laid-back beach town to something closer to Las Vegas Boulevard. Lionfish embodies this energy in every aspect, serving a haute menu to an even hotter crowd, where groups come to see and be seen.
And who better to be behind the helm of it all than Executive Chef Jojo Ruiz, an up-and-coming visionary that’s continuing to push San Diego’s culinary scene.
“I want people who want to try something, and then taste it and discover it’s amazing…I want them to feel adventurous,” Ruiz said about the crowd who comes to Lionfish. Beyond the restaurant’s nightclub-esque feel is a sophisticated menu, dedicated to fresh and innovative seafood, seasonal produce and Mediterranean, Asian and Latin American flavors.
The food at Lionfish is simply superb. A small mountain of rock shrimp comes bursting at the seams with slightly spicy, slightly tangy, and totally savory character. Pair it with the wild mushroom and potato gnocchi, which enters the palate like an angel resting its head on a pillow. Flavors here are elevated and pronounced in a way that can only come with fresh ingredients executed with fine attention to detail.
“We try to use everything that’s in season, matching the fish to the produce,” Ruiz said. He takes pride in his ability to change the menu on a dime. “If corn is done, that dish needs to change tomorrow.”
Seafood at Lionfish is as fresh as can be. Ruiz spearheaded Lionfish’s ability to source from Tuna Harbor Dockside Market, located about a mile away.
“We get every fish fresh and break it down from whole,” Ruiz said. He’s established personal relationships with market vendors to bring in new seafood to experiment with, allowing guests a new and different experience every time they walk in through Lionfish’s doors. At the time of this writing, it happened to be spiny lobster season, whereby Ruiz showcased whole lobster dressed in spectacular fashion.
Ruiz’s talents come from more than a decade training with some of hospitality’s hottest names. After starting his career as a sushi chef and going through culinary school, Ruiz trained at Oceanaire, one of San Diego’s most acclaimed seafood restaurants and Brian Malarkey’s home base when he rose to fame on Top Chef. He followed Malarkey to Searsucker as a su chef, then to Herringbone as an executive chef. Ruiz then transitioned to Ironside, another San Diego seafood establishment, under Michelin-star Chef Jason Mcleod.
Lionfish brings Ruiz in partnership with Clique Hospitality, run by the founders of The Light Group, a wildly successful Las Vegas-based organization that ran some of the Strip’s hottest restaurnats and clubs, which sold to Hakkasan in 2014. It’s no wonder, then, that anyone who’s dined at a Light Group restaurant gets a hint of déjà vu at Lionfish.
Ruiz’s big eye tuna pizza is a near spitting image of a similar dish served at the Bellagio’s Yellowtail. Each bite encompasses fresh, tender fish and perfectly crispy crust—Decorated Yellowtail Chef Akira Back would tip his hat here in the Gaslamp. Lionfish’s sushi program is another story in itself. You’d be missing out if you didn’t treat yourself to the surf and turf, a roll of wagyu beef, Maine lobster, avocado and crispy shallots that embody Ruiz’s mantra toward ‘taste, texture and presentation.’
The cocktail program is another force to be reckoned with. Mixologist Antony Sazerac has created a cocktail program that matches Ruiz’s culinary flare. Drinks such as the raspberry beret, with Absolut Elyx, aperol, raspberry and Sancerre white wine make for the tasteful and visual creations that equally tasteful partygoers crave in a dining scene like this.
If you’re not worried about a food coma getting in the way of your late-night escapades, then dessert is every bit as good as the rest of the restaurant experience. The churro ice cream sandwich is exactly as it sounds, with fresh churros dripping cinnamon syrup over ice cream. The peanut butter tart is rich as can be, delivering a fine finishing touch.
Lionfish pays homage to its Las Vegas predecessors in the quality of its food and drink as well as the feel of the experience itself. It’s not for the faint of heart or the budget-conscious diner, but it is for those looking for an electrified night and a dining experience that lingers in the memory books.
Lionfish is located at 435 Fifth Ave #2, San Diego, CA 92101, at the Pendry Hotel. Open 5 – 10 p.m. Sun – Thur, 5 – 11 p.m. Fri – Sat. Avg. out-the-door price for appetizer, split sushi, entrée and 1 – 2 drinks is ~$95/person. For more information, call (619) 738-7200 or visit Lionfish online.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.