On Wednesday morning, the Kimpton Alma San Diego hotel opened for business in the Gaslamp Quarter, along with two of its three planned restaurants, the Desmond supper club and the all-day Café at Hotel Alma.
The restaurants, which will also include the L.O.A. rooftop bar opening next spring, were all created by renowned Los Angeles chef Jason Neroni, whose name may ring a bell with local restaurant fans. In 2009, Neroni made a big splash on the San Diego culinary scene as executive chef at the high-end Blanca restaurant in Solana Beach. His pricey and cutting-edge menu was a hit with critics, but Neroni departed for opportunities in Los Angeles after one year.
In a phone interview Tuesday, the 46-year-old Neroni said he’s excited to be back in San Diego again, which he praised for its excellent and vast variety of produce from purveyors like Girl & Dug Farm and Chino Farms, land proteins like all-natural Brandt Beef in Brawley, locally caught fish and uni. He also mentioned some of the city’s new crop of forward-thinking chefs, like Eric Bost of Michelin-starred Jeune et Jolie in Carlsbad and Travis Swikard of the award-winning Callie in East Village.
“San Diego has grown since I was there, on the food scale,” Neroni said. “My good friends like Travis and Eric are doing amazing things.”
Best known for his award-winning Rose Café restaurant in Venice, Neroni said he won’t move to San Diego to run the Kimpton eateries, but he will be a hands-on chef, overseeing seasonal menu changes and working closely with the onsite team of chef de cuisine Aldo Negrete and pastry chef Erin Steidley, who are both San Diego natives.
“I really enjoyed my time, as brief as it was, in San Diego 13 years ago, and (Kimpton Alma) seems close enough that I could actually keep a close eye on it and still be a part of it, not just phone it in. I will have the opportunity to be much more involved all around,” Neroni said.
The 211-room Kimpton Alma at 1047 Fifth Ave. replaces the former Kimpton Hotel Palomar, which recently emerged from a $25 million makeover that included the addition of new restaurants and kitchens, a reimagined lobby, an upgraded pool area and meeting spaces and the refreshing of its 211 guest rooms.
The hotel’s new 116-seat signature restaurant, the Desmond, is located on the mezzanine level. Neroni said Desmond’s slightly hidden location, an elevator ride is required, inspired his concept for the space as an old-school supper club with a retro 1960s vibe.
“It’s tucked away, and we had this idea of it as a rendezvous spot that’s unique and special. We really threw around the idea of it being adult and very grown up,” he said.
Some of Neroni’s favorite dishes on the Desmond menu are his Brandt beef tartare with Spanish pan con tomate and Parker house roll croutons, and the wakame (seaweed) noodles with local uni miso butter and spiny lobster. He said the restaurant’s ambitious cocktail menu offers twists on old classics.
The newly opened Café at Hotel Alma replaces the former Curadero, a Mexican restaurant that, in turn, replaced the original Saltbox in 2017. Neroni describes the new restaurant as a European-style café with a bakery program and rotating menus throughout the day.
Menu highlights include the green shakshuka with avocados and local tomatillos on the breakfast menu and lunch offerings of smoked salmon tartine, tuna chirashi bowl and lamb burger Merguez. During the dinner hours, the café will offer lighter, shareable fare, with oysters, seafood crudo, salads and just a few entrées.
“The nighttime there will be more adult, with smaller bites and heavy on the cocktails and sparkling wines,” Neroni said.
The still-to-come rooftop bar-poolside restaurant L.O.A., an acronym for Leave of Absence, will serve wood-fired pizzas and flatbreads, Mediterranean-style hummuses and other small plates, as well as bar service.
Orange County-raised Neroni started his cooking career at 16 with a kitchen job at Disneyland’s members-only Club 33 restaurant. He then trained at Chez Panisse in Berkeley and worked at Spago in Beverly Hills before moving to New York City, where he worked at Essex House and the Tasting Room. He later opened his first restaurant, 10 Downing Food & Wine, which earned a two-star review from the New York Times. In September 2009, he was named one of New York’s “Rising Star Chefs,” but just a month later he took the job at Blanca and moved back to Southern California so he could raise his then-infant son where he grew up.
When Neroni came on board at 3-year-old Blanca in October 2009, he revolutionized its cuisine, but then he relocated to Los Angeles a year later. He was replaced at Blanca by chef Gavin Schmidt, who headed to the Bay Area when Blanca closed in 2011.
In 2015, Neroni reinvigorated the popular beachside Rose Café in Venice Beach and in the years since he has helped create several other L.A. restaurant concepts, including Superba Food & Bread. His next project will be a Tokyo-style pizzeria in L.A.’s Westside in 2023.