America’s Finest City’s Cuisine Just Got a Little Finer
Written By: S. Alicen Reynolds
Photographed By: Julie Jones Lionfish
San Diego, a city well-known for its wonderful weather, sandy beaches, world-famous golf courses and sensational nightlife, has become increasingly popular for its mecca of beautiful bars and exceptional restaurants. Tourists and locals alike can’t wait to try the newest place to cross off their ever growing SD foodie bucket list. Perhaps not since the anticipation of Celebrity Chef Richard Blais’s Juniper & Ivy or Michelin-starred Chef Jason McLeod’s phenom, Ironside, have San Diegans awaited such an unveiling as the newly opened Lionfish at Pendry San Diego.
Located in Gaslamp Quarters, inside the ultra luxe Pendry Hotel, you’ll step in through the doors of Lionfish to a no-reservation-required bar and lounge area where the vibe is anything but pretentious. Through these doors, you’re greeted with a young, hip and friendly staff who are ready to welcome any and all. The service at Lionfish is stellar—regardless if you are dressed in board shorts or a three-piece suit. Although The Pendry appears quite posh, all walks of life are greeted here as equals.
Directly above the bar is The Loft at Lionfish, a private dining room with its entrance that holds approximately 50 people, reserved for lavish parties, upscale events, VIPs and celebrity guests. The area is warm and inviting, yet intimately high end and swanky. Anyone can reserve this spot with special reservations or a minimum number of guests.
Move in past the bar, and you’ll find yourself in the formal dining area of Lionfish. Formal dining, yes. Formal attire required? No. It’s the kind of place that doesn’t come across as stuffy or ostentatious, however, once your plate is served you may be inclined to feel underdressed no matter what you are wearing. With entrees so beautifully plated, you are automatically transported to possibly one of the most formal dining experiences you’ve ever had.
Lionfish is romantic. It’s casual. It’s comfortable and charming. Around the dining room walls, there’s jubilant décor in golds and grays leading to an open-feel kitchen encased in glass and metal that’s reminiscent of older East Coast architecture. Master craftsmen and woodworkers hand screwed every single one of the finishing screws you see along the walls. There’s a custom built butcher block on the sushi bar, custom woodwork on a 28-foot ceiling, decorative tiled flooring and a prominent light fixture hanging in the middle of the dining room—it’s almost giving off the vibe of the Titanic—resemblant of a scene from the movie, yet it’s not at all like that. It’s not nautical; it’s just very familiar. Like you’ve been there before in a different place and time.
At the dinner-service-only Lionfish, which opens at 5 p.m. for dinner nightly, you’ll want to order one of everything. Lionfish Partner and Executive Chef Jose “JoJo” Ruiz has designed a sustainably sourced menu that encourages you to do just that.
“That’s the way I like to eat; multiple appetizers and one entrée or sometimes even shared entrees,” says Chef JoJo. “I feel like if you go out with people, it should be those you enjoy being around so I take friends of mine out, that aren’t necessarily like me in ordering that way and I like to order a bunch of different things and share everything. You can taste a variety of things, it’s a good way of trying multiple dishes, and it’s a good conversation starter.”
Previously working in some of the best restaurants in town and under some of San Diego’s most reputable chefs, the 29-year-old San Diego-native’s curriculum vitae is likely one of the most stellar in all of San Diego. That being said, JoJo’s skills far supersede his on-paper resume—his passion for cooking is hardcore, and his desire for continuous learning is steadfast. His butchering is that of an art form, his plating impeccable.
Could he be San Diego’s next Michelin star recipient? He’s talented enough, but it’s next to impossible to attain in San Diego. Perhaps that’s why many thought JoJo would go off to the “big city” or across the globe to study his craft and put his talent to work in bigger Michelin stages, so to speak. But Chef JoJo, a native San Diegan, has never been about that. He’s extremely humble. And he’s never leaving San Diego.
“To be honest, I’ve never been one of those people where I really care about Michelin stars. I just want to have good food. I’d rather that people come in, be happy, enjoy their meal to the point they’re in awe and can’t wait to come back. Not just for business but I just really want them to enjoy it,” says JoJo, “and San Diego is home to me. I want to stay in San Diego. I grew up here. If I leave for two weeks and go to France, or Spain, New York or Chicago or whatever, even if I’m doing a guest chef spot or something, I always want San Diego to come home to.”
One glance at the menu, and you’ll know exceptional is exactly what you are going to get. You might think that modern coastal cuisine means seafood only, however, Chef JoJo’s take on coastal actually means seafood and prime meats highlighted with flavors from an array of coasts. The starters menu features a large variety of appetizers broken down into both hot and cold share-friendly plates. The sushi and sashimi is second to none with Nigiri Flights and specialty rolls like the Killa-Kali and the San Diego Sunshine. The raw bar boasts daily fresh crab, shrimp, lobster, East Coast, West Coast and Baja oysters as well as New Zealand Green Lip Mussels. Caviar service more your thing? Of course. There are quite a few options including Caspian, Kaluga, and Beluga. For bigger appetites, there are elegant seafood dishes, drop-dead-gorgeous entrees, and a few extraordinary off-the-menu specials. The fixed menu, featuring many responsibly sourced items, will change seasonally.
Lionfish has arrived, and America’s Finest City just got a little finer. It’s safe to say that Chef JoJo has lived up to his reputation…you can hang a (Michelin) star on that one.
Q&A With JoJo Ruiz, Executive Chef & Partner at Lionfish
Q: As not just a Chef anymore, but also a Partner, how different is it from working in a restaurant?
JoJo Ruiz: Responsibility wise it’s a hell of a lot more responsibility. I have a lot more decisions to make without having someone to ask questions to. I have my Sous Chef and my Chef de Cuisine, and we bounce things off each other but pretty much all the decisions the last six months have been mine. That’s probably the biggest difference, is having it all on my shoulders. Most of the time I got to cook to have fun, because that’s what I love to do. But now that I’m a partner it’s like it has to be THAT much better.
Q: Tell me more about the communal idea, your share-friendly menu. How did you come up with that idea?
JR: It’s how I like to eat. My girlfriend is the same way, so it works really well for us. Multiple appetizers and one entrée or shared entrees. I want people to enjoy the company they’re with, and this way it’s a little more fun too.
Q: Lionfish is being hailed as a “modern coastal cuisine restaurant.” Can you explain your take on that?
JR: Because it’s coastal, people automatically think of the ocean. Coastal for me usually means the coast of countries. It’s the taste of France, the bottom areas of France. The Mediterranean too. Peru, Japan and so on. I just want to do a lot of different flavors, a lot of different spices. That’s my big thing.
Q: The name Lionfish sounds very seafood forward. As a butcher, do you have a few items to entice the non-seafoodies?
JR: I want to make sure there’s the same amount or a large variety of both. I want to make sure we appeal to those that don’t eat seafood, so they come in and have a couple of the vegetable dishes or the entrees. For the entrees we have some big meats. We have a 20-ounce Kansas-City-cut natural New York steak, bone on. We have a 12-ounce double bone chop, a lamb porterhouse with the loins and the tenderloins on it, cut lengthwise down the bone. Stuff is always better cooked on the bone. [And] if someone wants meat— they’ll get good, quality meat. Like the New York steak – it’s natural, so that means what it’s fed is natural. That kind of stuff is important to me. And its certified humane [the way the animal is put down.] I’ve spent a lot of time on the menu and understanding the sustainability and the sourcing, and using farm products and understanding what the feeds are, understanding the seasons.
Q: What is your favorite dish on your menu?
JR: I really enjoy the lamb tartare. And the stuffed squid. The stuffed squid I spent a lot of time on. A lot of people just get squid and they fry it. With sourcing, I really went out of my way to make sure I found a US product that’s processed in the US. A lot of people don’t understand that squid is usually caught in the US, shipped to China for cheaper, because of slave labor, then shipped back. By the time you get it here, it has been frozen, defrosted, frozen again and defrosted again. That’s why sometimes you get squid with not very good flavor. So I made sure I have a US product. Anyway, we stuff it with shrimp and pork Italian sausage mixture piped into the squid. Sear it off. Roast it. A lot of herbs. Slow roasted tomato puree. Pickled baby bell peppers, fennel, some greens on top.
Q: What is your favorite go-to dish at a different restaurant?
JR: To be honest, what I crave on my days off is Cantina Mayahuel. The mole there is probably one of my favorite dishes. They call it the ‘green monster mole.’ Give me that with the rice, the black beans, and a nice warm glass of mescal and I’m happy.
Q: San Diego is rampant with big name Chefs. Which one has inspired you most for Lionfish?
JR: Rob (Chef Rob Ruiz, owner, Land & Water Co in Carlsbad) is one of my biggest idols in San Diego. What he does is great. He cares about food sustainability. As Chef-to-Chef he’s one of the people I idolize the most when it comes to what he’s doing, and he’s going about doing it. Not just for San Diego, but for the world—he’s bringing more national recognition to sustainability.
Chef JoJo’S Lionfish Faves:
Golden Beets, Fennel, Arugula, Vadouvan Yogurt, Lavash
-Spicy Grilled Octopus
Fermented Chile, Crispy Garlic, Marble Potatoes, Cilantro Aioli
-Roasted Icelandic Una Salmon
Crispy Artichokes, Farrotto, Herb Asparagus Sauce, Sorrel
-16 oz. Prime Natural New York Strip
Bordelaise, Sunchokes Lyonnaise, Miso-Sunchokes Puree
435 Fifth Ave
San Diego, CA 92101
Chef JoJo Throws Down to Ensure Fresh and Sustainable Menu at Lionfish