It’s 7:30 on a Sunday, and dinner has just begun at the most exclusive izakaya in town. The first course: agedashi tofu, artfully arranged and topped with shaved daikon, paired with a toasted mochi-infused shochu crème cocktail that tastes almost like cereal milk and brings out the crisp-skinned tofu’s subtle sweetness.
There are only ten seats for this service, and all are filled like there’s no tomorrow – because there isn’t. By the stroke of midnight, Cellar Door Izakaya will cease to exist.
Three hours earlier I’m sitting in the tiny, brightly lit, buzzing-with-energy kitchen of an upstairs apartment in Normal Heights. Logan is dicing segments of chicken thigh for karaage. Gary is polishing small round glasses that will soon hold sakes and Japanese whiskeys, and telling me the story of Cellar Door. In other words, how the couple – one a front-of-house veteran with a passion for cooking, the other a fast-learning novice with an interest in handcrafted cocktails – decided to open up their living room for one weekend every month, transforming it into a donation-based pop-up supper club.
“We had friends that went to Paris,” he says. “They had read about this underground restaurant in Paris – this couple runs a restaurant out of their apartment. They started out once a week, and ended up booking up months in advance. Now they do it five nights a week. I was like: ‘that sounds so cool, I wish there was something like that in San Diego.’” Then I was like: ‘well, you’re a really good cook, and I can learn.’ So we just decided to do it.”
Second course: tender salmon collar with pickled cucumbers. Most of us are strangers to one another – I only know two of my nine companions – but conversation flows easily. The topic has recently shifted from The Jersey Shore to the advent of social media. Someone mentions the old days of Facebook, when one needed a college e-mail address just to join, and makes a link between the social interest that exclusivity generated and the exclusivity of an underground supper club.
One of Cellar Door’s most interesting aspects is this social nature. “I think that food is more than just what you put in your mouth – it’s a whole experience of having people to share it with,” says Gary. “That’s what we wanted to create, and it’s not something you can get in a restaurant.”
Not that it’s an easy sell for everyone. “We were just talking about this last night,” he says. “I’ve been to lots of houses that I wouldn’t want to eat dinner at. So it’s a pretty big thing for people to hear about us and be curious enough to actually want to come check it out.”
But as Logan points out, the very nature of Cellar Door also attracts a different breed of guest – one who’s up for meeting new people and trying new things, the latter of which is equally important because Cellar Door’s concept changes every month – where tonight is Japanese Izakaya, a month ago it was hearty soul food leaving the kitchen. “The fact that the types of people who come here are friendly and adventurous and love the same things that we do: that means we can take more chances.”
Third course: a trio of yakitori. Crisp chicken skin, three cuts of scallion, a strip of mocha all coated in a sweet soy glaze that tastes exactly the way I remember it growing up. Fourth course: chicken karaage, crunchy and addictive, drizzled with lemon and shichimi togarashi mixed into Japan’s ubiquitous Kewpie mayonnaise.
Conjuring a memory can be an important aspect in a good meal, but it’s also a major motivating factor for Cellar Door’s existence. “Coming from San Francisco, it comes up time and time again that I have had experiences there that I can’t get here: so I want to recreate them,” says Logan. “It’s really exciting for people to be able to try stuff that I’m very familiar with, that people in this town haven’t found yet. It gets a little frustrating sometimes, when I know exactly what I want to find and I can’t find it anywhere” – she references a particular pet peeve, Italian pickled peppers that she has to visit San Francisco or mail order from here – “but it also means that I’m showing people something they’ve never had before. That’s really cool.”
“I think being in San Diego gave us the opportunity to do this, where there’s a market for it and people want new fun dining experiences,” adds Gary. “There are a lot of foodies here who are adventurous eaters, and not enough places to explore. If we were living in San Francisco, this probably wouldn’t be…”
“It wouldn’t be special,” Logan offers.
“Yeah,” he concurs. “It wouldn’t be as exciting.”
Of course, introducing people to new things (or conjuring up memories of old favorites) is a precarious task: along with flavor, accuracy is also an issue. But it’s an issue that Cellar Door takes to heart. “People may not notice that I got Cellar Door translated [into Japanese] onto the menu and bought an izakaya lantern – but I know that’s how it’s supposed to be in my mind. It makes it more important to us, we can be more proud of it. And for our vegan dinner, we literally had one vegan the entire time across two dinners. But we made sure that our wine was vegan.”
“We made sure that the olives were vegan,” adds Gary.
“Yeah, they use lactic acid, and I would say that 99.8 percent of wines are not vegan,” Logan continues. “People don’t know that, but we learned it and we were like: ‘we have to make sure,’ even though no one cares, even though everyone who comes here eats meat except for one person – and she’s our friend and is very lenient. We wanted to know that everything we were serving was exactly what we said it was.’”
“We really care about the quality of the products that we’re using,” says Gary. “If you put good quality products in the food, you’ll get good quality products out. Maybe the subtlety of it is lost to a lot of people, but I feel like, if you pay attention to all those little details over and over again, it creates a cumulative excellent dining experience. You don’t notice it in the minutiae, but overall it brings the whole quality level up.”
Fifth course: shrimp and bacon okonomiyaki, light and savory, paired with a malty Angry Boy Brown Ale. Sixth course is dessert – one delicate scoop of black sesame ice cream, and one of blood orange sorbet topped with candied orange peel. The pairing is The Yamakazi, a 12 year single malt whiskey by Suntory. Gary references Lost in Translation as he presents the bottle. It seems at first a strange choice to pair with a dessert, but it pairs perfectly with the bittersweet nature of the final dish.
“At this point we’re trying to come up with ways to do more dinners,” he says, cleaning the glasses that will hold the whiskey hours later. “It’s just a matter of – how can we, with our limited schedule? We both have full time jobs, so how can we find time to do it when we have other things in our lives too that we’d like to do on other weekends? So in April I think we’re going to try to do a double seating one night and see how that goes.” The couple will also be hosting a Valentine’s Day dinner – if that goes well, they may offer similar engagements. But Cellar Door has no plans to grow beyond that. As both Gary and Logan point out, this is not a career. It’s a passion, and to turn it into a day job would be to stifle what makes Cellar Door special, from its leisurely pace to its social elements to artistic flights of fancy in each dish.
“People have asked us, ‘are you going to open a restaurant?’ says Gary. “You know, it would be really cool to have our own restaurant somewhere, but it would be really difficult for us to do what we’re doing. We’d probably just be another restaurant, whereas right now we are able to offer something that’s really unique. At a restaurant we probably couldn’t even serve the things that we’re serving, especially at the price that we do, because we’re only making it for ten people at a time. It allows us to really pay attention to the details.”
In the end, it’s the details that matter most. “Working in the restaurants that I’ve worked in, one of the things that came through is that you don’t want people to notice anything – that means their experience wasn’t perfect. It just has to be smooth, and it’s hard to do that. Everything should be presented in a way that doesn’t really stir up that much, it should just be there.”
“Yeah, we want people after they leave here to go, ‘wow, that was really amazing.’ Not one amazing thing about the night, but the whole overall experience.”
It’s 10:30 when we leave, after a final take-home treat – soft mochi filled with sweet red bean paste. I think about my favorite part on the way home from dinner. It’s hard to answer the question – but in the best way possible.
[Additional photos courtesy of Cellar Door]