Florent Bar + Lounge's New Executive Chef Brad Hightow Refreshes Menu With Vibrant Produce And Unique Flavors

August 21, 2015
By Rosanne Adamo | SanDiegoVille Contributing Writer

Florent Bar + Lounge has been calling the corner of San Diego Gaslamp's 5th & G home for just over a year now. Rich in history, the Florentine style building was built all the way back in 1874 and served as City Hall from the 1890's to 1938. Now, the old City Hall building is home to a few of San Diego's hot spots. We were recently invited to experience the fresh menu creations of the establishment's new executive chef Brad Hightow and indulged in a delicious and inspiring five course meal.

We were greeted with an invitation to sit at the swanky bar, enjoy a Cucumber Watermelon mojito and soak in the atmosphere. The venue achieves a whimsical feel with grassy patches and antique street lamps adorning a few of the walls. There are leafless white trees covered in twinkly lights hanging from the ceiling throughout the lounge. Florent offers live music several nights a week (and we were lucky enough to experience some awesome jams while we were there!) and the restaurant space doubles as a club after dinner hours on Saturday nights.

Crab cake
After acquainting ourselves with Florent's vibe, we dined. We began with a Maryland crab cake comprised of blue crab coated in a panko crust. The crab cake sat on top of a roasted corn infused tarter sauce. This was the first opportunity we had to hear Brad passionately speak about his food. Being from Maryland himself, Brad knows his crab cakes - the key is to use pure crab meat without fillers or anything to bind the meat together. The panko crust and whole corn kernels embedded in the tartar sauce added the perfect amount of texture to the dish.

We were then served the most beautiful item on the menu, an heirloom tomato Caprese salad with a variety of radiantly colored tomatoes topped with burrata, a balsamic reduction and micro basil. The summertime freshness of the ingredients sparked my favorite conversation with Brad about the produce selection for his dishes. Florent uses local produce that is in season. Every Friday, a farmers' market truck arrives at the restaurant and Brad picks the best fruits and vegetables for the week to come, undoubtedly contriburing to the menu's pizazz. This simple practice had me imagining European chefs combing the street markets cautiously selecting their ingredients, as it should be.

Heirloom tomato Caprese
The third course, a Togarashi seared albacore appetizer, was served with sushi rice and wakame seaweed salad garnished with a candied kumquat and a mango vinaigrette drizzle. While gorgeous, the subtle flavors of this dish were underwhelming. The fish itself was tender and spiced nicely, however, I wanted the mango vinaigrette to add a POP of flavor, but unfortunately it fell just a tad short.

Drawn out next from Brad's culinary arsenal was my favorite item on the menu, a strawberry and stone fruit salad. Baby arugula, unsalted pistachios, cotija cheese, nectarines, red plums and a white balsamic all sang in perfect harmony like Adele and Kelly Clarkson teaming up for a power ballad. Nothing about the salad felt forced and it was apparent that every ingredient was thought through. We spoke with Brad about salad selection for the menu and he reconfirmed that he's a firm believer in serving what's in season. This approach creates a rotating salad menu with only a couple favorites remaining constant.

Seared albacore appetizer
Next up was the main course, another tuna dish which (surprisingly) did not feel like a reprise of the first. The seared big eye tuna was placed on top of sweet chili glazed spaghetti squash with a ponzu  garnish. This ponzu was delicious! It was the perfect compliment to the fish. Additionally, I typically laugh at the idea of making noodles out of squash (squash is NOT a carb, so it must not be as delightful as a carb) but the sweet chili squash had the perfect touch of heat making this dish the most diversified flavor experience we had.

Last but not even close to least, as if we had any room left, was dessert. Brad whipped up a foie gras bread pudding. I was skeptical when I saw the item on the menu because I've never been a huge fan of bread pudding, but I was pleasantly surprised. The dessert had the consistency and flavor of a perfectly moist French toast and was topped with a strawberry-black pepper jam. I had never imagined black pepper being infused into a dessert, but it was a highlight. I could feel the pain in my heart when I realized that my stomach was too full to polish off the whole thing.

With a warm send off and expressions of thanks from Chef Brad we left Florent. The idea of a rotating menu inspired by fresh produce served in this wonderland excites me. I'm confident that we will be returning for date night soon.

Florent Bar + Lounge is located at 672 5th Avenue in San Diego's Gaslamp. For more information, visit florentsd.com or call (619) 595-0123.