Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Renewed Ave. 5

I love the luxury of a gorgeous white tablecloth restaurant. But I'm just as partial to hanging out at a casual spot with a great burger. Chef/owner Colin MacLaggan's Avenue 5 in Bankers Hill started out with the white tablecloths and the upscale menu to match--but he always had great burgers and other casual fare, too.

Now, he's given in to his casual side--and economic realities. Avenue 5 has been rebranded as Ave. 5. The tablecloths literally have been removed. And, there's been a little remodeling. The front wall has opened up with more windows. His brother Brian designed a couple of oversized wrought-iron lighting fixtures that hang in the dining room. And, at the front of the house, the bar area is more defined--with belly tables and an enormous blackboard filled with the day's specials, beer lists, and the like. White tablecloth has given way to light-filled bistro.

The menu, too, has changed. You'll still find favorites like truffle fries, duck confit, shellfish linguini, and the Ave. 5 burger, but they've been joined by a variety of new dishes, including several new burgers focused around cheese and onion pairings.

Such as the French Burger, a luscious melding of ground beef with Brie and caramelized onions.

French Burger
MacLaggan has also included a Lamb Burger, with Middle Eastern flavors of cucumbers and yogurt; a BBQ Burger with soft goat cheese and balsamic onions, and a Blue Burger with, yes, Danish crumbled blue cheese and crispy onions. The Ave. 5 Burger, with aged cheddar and pickled onions, remains a house favorite, and rightly so given the strong cheddar flavor and tanginess of the pickled onions paired with the beef's umami qualities.

Ave. 5 Burger
All of the burgers are accompanied either by a house salad or irresistible truffle fries.

Truffle fries with white truffle oil and parsley
The starters are an eclectic collection of dishes, from a charcuterie and cheese plate to local Carlsbad mussels in ginger, garlic, and jalapeno. There's a roasted squash risotto with sage butter and a delicious scallop taco, which is married with chorizo, potato, and a tomatillo, jicama, and mango sauce. I also enjoyed the Ave. 5 Mushroom Tortellini with corn and grapes in Madeira cream. The tortellinis were smooth and earthy, while the corn and grapes added sweetness and texture that paired well with the creamy sauce.

Still looking for a more upscale meal? Try the Braised Lamb shoulder with garlic whipped potato and rosemary jus, Organic Scottish Salmon with confit potatoes and lemon and dill beurre blanc, or the Bacon Wrapped Pork Loin with sweet sausage stuffing and stone fruit glaze.

Whatever you choose, save room for dessert. You can't go wrong with a cheese plate. This is a holdover from the old menu and MacLaggan has selected the creamy Humboldt Fog, a tangy Spanish Manchego, and rich Camembert, each served with toasted bread and fruit. But I say go with the Butterscotch Pot de Creme. You'll simply want to dive into the bowl and lick your way out. And the accompanying rosemary sugar cookie is an added treat.

Butterscotch Pot de Creme
Or, for something just a little more decadent, try the Baked Fromage Blanc with creme anglaise. It's got the rich tartness of a great cheesecake, but with more elegance. This month, MacLaggan also added a pumpkin creme brulee and bread pudding.

Baked Fromage Blanc
MacLaggan has found new footing with these changes, which he says are more reflective of the way he likes to cook. The setting, too, seems more in line with the casual Bankers Hill locale he's been in--perfect for pre-theater dining, to meet friends for drinks and then eats, or for Sunday brunch. And, it's one of the few good spots in the neighborhood open during the week for lunch.

Ave. 5 is located at 2760 5th Avenue. The phone number is 619) 542-0394.

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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Cafe Madeleine: "French Fast Good"

The last time I was in Paris, I took a long walking tour of Le Marais and afterward wandered up and down little streets until I just ran out of steam. I was famished in a city where hunger is an absurdity. Little cafes dotted the neighborhood's major avenue but which to choose? I finally just chose one, the name of which I don't remember, but I sank onto a chair at an outdoor table, and wearily ordered a cheese omelet and café décaféiné. It was a sublime meal.

I remembered those simple, delicious flavors and my happy settled feeling as I was eating not an omelet but a smoked salmon crepe at South Park's new Cafe Madeleine, owned by Mistral chef de cuisine Patrick Ponsaty and Christine Perez (who owns nearby Vagabond with husband Jerome Gombert). Ponsaty, who recently joined Mistral after being at Bernard'O, had been planning this spot before he took the new job. The cafe, which opened in June, is still getting some finishing touches, like sweet Toulouse-Lautrec-like decorative paintings on the Juniper St. side of the building that were being painted this week by Ponsaty's friend Alexandra Pastorino, a French artist now living in Los Angeles.

But, let's get back to the crepe, which was filled with bite-sized slices of the salmon, along with capers, creme fraiche, little bits of red onion and confit pepper -- and surprising little chunks of lemon. Topped with a small green salad, almost as a garnish, the crepe was light and with popping flavors. Like that omelet in the Marais, the crepe was an easy, sophisticated, and satisfying dish. The perfect black dress of meals.

Of course, like any good French cafe--in San Diego--the little black dress itself would be far too much for this casual neighborhood eatery. It's a tiny spot on the corner of 30th and Juniper with a sidewalk wide enough to sit several tables comfortably--Ponsaty points out that they're dog friendly, by the way. Inside, are just a few tables and a counter behind which most of the food--crepes, paninis, and salads--is made.

The other savory crepes on the menu include chicken with bechamel, blue cheese, pear, and walnut; beef with horseradish, caramlized onion, and tomato, and vegetarian with tomato, mozzarella, pesto, and balsamic. The paninis mimic the crepes--vegetarian, chicken, ham, proscuitto, beef, and the smoked salmon. And there are two distinctive salads--Baked Goat Cheese Crouton with honey, green salad, and dijon vinaigrette and Arugula, blue cheese, chicken, walnut, fresh pear and balsamic vinegar.

Then there are the sweets. With such a small kitchen, Ponsaty brings in some pastries from his friends Thierry Cahiz and Vincent Garcia at Opera Patisserie. But many are made in house, like madeleines, of course, and several crepes "sucrees," including one with nutella and an intriguing sounding orange and grapefruit with pastry cream. Ponsaty presented me with a lemon crepe that's not on the menu. It reminded me of Dutch pancakes I had grown up with--thin pancakes that are folded up and topped with a swipe of melted butter, a squeeze of lemon juice, and dusting of powder sugar. This crepe had the lemon juice and powder sugar and the perfect flavor combination of sweet and tart.

Also try the house-made comfort food dessert that is Gateau Basque. Made with a yeasty butter crust that envelopes pastry cream, Gateau Basque is a confection that Ponsaty grew up with in Toulousse, France. Another variation of the pastry is made with black cherry jam, but I enjoyed every creamy spoonful of this version with a decaf espresso.

Along with the food, which Ponsaty describes as "French Fast Good," the owners pride themselves on the Illy coffee and a line of Damman Frères teas they serve. And, as you're thinking about the upcoming holidays, so are they--Ponsaty is planning on making a variety of holiday cookies and, of course, Buche de Noel.

Cafe Madeleine is open daily at 7:30 a.m. and closes Monday - Thursday at 3 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 5 p.m. It's located at 2248 30th St. at  Juniper St. The phone number is (619) 544-1735.

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Friday, August 13, 2010

The Regal Beagle: Tapping into the Beer & Sausage Crowd

Mission Hills has a new neighborhood gastropub: The Regal Beagle. No, you won't find Chrissie, Jack, or Janet -- or Mr. Roper -- there but look around and you will see a Thigh Master.

More to the point, you'll also find a rotating selection of 24 tremendous craft beers and some of the best sausages around in San Diego, made by the very talented San Marcos sausage maker Jacob Kappeler.

The Regal Beagle, owned by Tim Girsch and Matt Guilbert, is a friendly, casual spot that is already picking up a good local crowd. Go and hang out with friends, play a game of darts, watch a game or perhaps old episodes of "Three's Company."

I tried a flight of beers the evening I was there that included the Ballast Point Big Eye IPA, the Belgium Duvel Green, the Brewers Special Brown from a new local brewery called New English Brewing Co., and Scrimshaw Pilsner, a cold-filtered lager. 

Their website isn't really ready for prime time yet, so you can go to Tap Hunter to learn what 24 beers they're serving up on draft on a given night. This week, for instance, you'll find choices that range from A'chouffe Houblon Chouffe and Ballast Point Wahoo Wheat to Lost Abbey Witches Wit and Stone Ruination IPA. They also have another 18 varieties in cans -- including Pabst Blue Ribbon, Oskar Blues Mama's Lil Yella Pils, Maui Island IPA, and Old Speckled Hen.

The chalkboard behind the bar will also give you the full range of their selections. And, if you can't make up your mind, just spin the wheel of indecision!

Now, to be honest, I'm only an occasional beer drinker. I enjoyed the Duvel Green the most and gave the others a good go. But I came alive when I saw the grilled sausages. The choices here change, too, but my friends and I gave most of what was on that day's menu a whirl. All had great bite and flavor, even though none of the sausages has more than 15 percent fat.

The linguica is your traditional garlicky Portuguese sausage. The smoked beer, make with Stone Smoked Porter, was a robust tasting sausage. The Turkey Cranberry was a tremendous surprise; it was moist and tender and tasting just like freshly roasted turkey. The Moroccan-style lamb was herbilicious -- again moist but with lovely Middle Eastern flavors. Finally, there was the German garlic sausage, giving great snap with every bite.

The sausages are enveloped in Sadie Rose rolls -- you have your choice of buttermilk or whole wheat. I enjoyed the buttermilk, but found the whole wheat roll too dense and chewy for the sausages. Topping the sausages can be sauerkraut, grilled onions, grilled peppers, or cheddar cheese. And, of course, there are plenty of mustard choices. All sausages come with hand-made potato chips, but there are also house-cut French fries, sweet potato fries, potato salad, and something I got a kick out of: Tater Tots. Not house made but the real deal.

The night I was there -- a week night -- there was a full crowd so it looks like this little space is taking off. I'm looking forward to a return visit to try some unusual brew and perhaps the smoked cajun sausage. Or maybe the veal bratwurst.

The Regal Beagle is located at 3659 India St. Phone is 619-297-2337.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Marvelous, Dangerous Porkyland

I try to get around. It sure seems I'm out a lot eating here, there, everywhere. But I do miss spots. And, until yesterday, I'd somehow missed Porkyland in Hillcrest. But it's a favorite of my friend Jon Bailey and I figured it would be only right to have lunch with him there when we were organizing a get together.

The Hillcrest Porkyland is next door to Biff's in the little strip mall on University at 6th. It's a cute little place with its black tables and chairs, scribblings in Spanish in white paint against a black background, and a banquette with colorful throw pillows. It's just fun.

Porkyland may be new to me, but it's been around since 1982 so it's got a reputation. The new owners Deborah and Pepe Stepensky have held the mantle for just three years but they knew the original owners, even helping them out when the Barrio Logan site had fire damage. Deborah Stepensky helped the next set of owners with accounting and when they decided to sell, the Stepenskys took it on, along with their restaurants in Seaport Village.

But, of course, we're there for the food, not a history lesson. And, in particular, we're there for the carnitas.You can get them in various forms: tacos, which I had, mini tacos, burritos, sopes, tostadas, and chimichangas.

You can see that the preparation is simple. A warm corn tortilla, a heaping serving of rich and tender carnitas, and a sprinkling of cilantro and chopped white onion. Go to the salsa bar for a selection of sauces.

Jon and I really indulged, toying with the carne asada sope and the nopal quesadilla. I had to try the chicharron taco and it blew me away. Tender and a little crunchy, the texture and flavors from this fatty indulgence are worth getting yelled at by a cardiologist. I also really liked his chips and the thick, sweet guacamole they're served with.

Pepe, who is a friend of Jon, happened to be there and insisted we try the buche. Now buche is pork stomach -- not for everyone. But I was game and Jon reluctantly joined in. I have to say it was delicious. It's an unusual flavor and texture. I suppose if you were to come up with a flavor for offal, this would be it. Verging on the coarse. I would compare eating traditional cuts of meat and offal like pig stomach to the difference in flavor between eating a mild brie and a ripe camembert. It's very tasty but it takes a true love of strong flavors to go for the latter.

Pepe then wanted us to try his wife's flan. You can order it at the restaurant or buy it to go -- along with a wide range of other housemade specialties -- including tortillas, several types of salsas, and rice pudding. The flan was a gorgeous circle of sweetness, drenched in a lovely syrupy caramel.

It's denser than most I've had in the past -- almost to the texture of cheesecake. But still soft and creamy. It was simply the perfect end to a decadent meal. Everything tasted fresh, and was wonderfully seasoned.

Porkyland is open daily in Hillcrest and their La Jolla location for breakfast, too, with buritos, chilaquiles, and huevos Rancheros or whatever other style of egg you like. And, they have a big catering business.

Porkyland is located at 646 University Ave. in San Diego and 1030 Torrey Pines Road in La Jolla.

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Two New Favorite Eats for Summer: Cali Deli and Jimmy's Famous American Tavern

I've been hopping from one spot to the other in the last few weeks and there have been some encounters with original dishes that still make my mouth water thinking of them. Time to share a couple of new places with fun takes on traditional dishes:

Cali Deli's banh mi sandwiches -- particularly the ginger chicken and the lemongrass chicken. Tam Huynh recently opened this little spot in Hillcrest's prime real estate of Fifth Ave. between Robinson and University. His older brother Tuttuyh, a chiropractor in Indonesia already has six locations there. The Hillcrest spot is the family's first U.S. restaurant. They bake their own bread to achieve the perfect sandwich delivery system -- light and crispy crust and a soft interior. Inside the bread is a mix of cucumber, pickled carrots, cilantro, and jalapeno slices on request, along with whatever protein, even tofu, you order. If you're a Top Chef fan, you'll get a kick out of the fact that the brothers' cousin is season 3 winner Hung Huynh. They're at 3852 Fifth Ave.

Jimmy's Famous American Tavern is a welcome addition to Pt. Loma's harbor. Here's another restaurant that's now serving deviled egg starters (a little spicy and served with pickles and chips -- and can be topped with Dungeness crab). Woo hoo! I am worshipful of their big and puffy and oh so crispy onion rings and the fact that they get that way because of a dunking in buttermilk and Ballast Point beer. Add a little sweetness to your bite with a further dunking in housemade ketchup.

Their burgers are huge -- 10 ounces -- and they love to tout them. I had the plentiful Blues Burger, filled with Point Reyes Blue Cheese, Balsamic Glazed Onions, and tomato. It was a splendid mouthful. But I adored the very creative short rib Reuben brimming with a crunchy coleslaw. The acid from the slaw and the juicy richness of the meat were a perfect coupling.

The restaurant also won me over with their emphasis on buying ingredients from local farms and purveyors, as well as their focus on handcrafted cocktails. I like any restaurant that has a "liquid relations" vice president. Plus, chef James Nunn is an old punk rock drummer. Jimmy's Famous American Tavern is located in The Promenade at Point Loma at 4990 N. Harbor Dr.

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Friday, June 4, 2010

Playa Grill: Casual Play on Traditional Flavors

It's a relief to see so many new eateries opening up in San Diego these days. Yes, you've probably heard about Carl Schroeder's new Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant -- and the steady change in and around Fifth Ave. in the Bankers Hill neighborhood. But there are other places opening in other parts of town, and even if they don't command Schroeder's name power, they're worth checking out. I've got a few to talk about, starting today with Playa Grill.

Playa Grill & Margarita Bar in Mission Valley has taken over Fish Market's old spot near Costco and Ikea. It looks like it's part of a chain, which makes sense since the guy behind it, Doug Kollus, is the former CEO of Island's Restaurants. Partner John Creed is the former CEO of Chart House and menu developer Dean Betts has worked with restaurants such as The Fish Market, Pizza Nova, and the Chart House.

Fortunately, the chain mentality stops with the decor, which is casual but nothing cutting edge -- although I did like the outdoor covered patio and fire pit. Playa Grill is not part of a chain; it's one of a kind. And they tout it as "next generation" Mexican.

Where the food is concerned, Kollus and company are out to create Mexican cuisine San Diegans are oh so familiar with, using fresh farm produce and sustainably harvested meats from Niman Ranch, but they're torquing it a bit. Sure, there are slow-roasted carnitas, quesadillas, and taquitos, also "tacos al vapor," which in which the taco ingredients are steamed in corn husks for a strong flavor. 

There's the Merry Piglet, a slow-roasted pork slider with homemade barbecue sauce, jicama slaw, and caramelized apple. And, a flat iron steak served with Maytag blue cheese served on a bed of sauteed onions and chiles. Not exactly Mexican food, but assimilated Mexican? Still the flavors are winning. 

And, of course, there are fish tacos -- but at Playa Grill it's Panko-crusted Mahi Mahi with chile aioli, salsa fresca, and jicama slaw (you can also get grilled fish if you prefer). Fajitas? Of course, only with sweet filet mignon, along with juicy, delicately flavored Mexican white shrimp (a change from Tiger shrimp). And lots of grilled onions and peppers, naturally. All of these are served with pinto or black beans, rice and warm corn or flour tortillas.

The dessert menu is limited to a Valrhona chocolate martini, a scoop of ice cream, and, my favorite, a chocolate banana burrito.

I liked the freshness of the ingredients, the effort of the owners to take advantage of local agriculture for their ingredients, and the willingness to upend a cliche, like typical fish tacos and carnitas. The flavors were a little surprising. The salsas were housemade and popped with spice and tang. All this speaks to the creativity of executive chef Fernando Roman, a native of Guerrero, Mexico, who has previously cooked at The Prado, The Hotel del Coronado, the Bahia Hotel, and the Island Palms Hotel.
Playa Grill is open for lunch and dinner with a full "to go" menu. They also serve brunch on the weekend. The restaurant is located at 2401 Fenton Parkway in Mission Valley.

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Fish Tacos, Chevy, and Me

Fish tacos. They're the quintessential San Diego dish. And so when Chevy decided to take their "Best of" tours to our part of the world, they decided on a "Best of San Diego Fish Taco Tour." They partnered with my friend, local food writer Susan Russo, to tour four fish taco places. She got things organized, coming up with the four tasting venues and suggesting the names of local food bloggers/writers to invite to test the tacos (with the tab picked up by Chevy) and, important to the Chevy folks, test drive brand new Chevy Camaro, Malibu, Equinox, Traverse, and Silverado Hybrid vehicles.

On the day of our tour, a beautiful Saturday afternoon in early May, we were about a dozen, caravanning around town. And we were more than a group of food writers. We also had surfing bloggers and mommy bloggers in tow. Our first stop was Ocean Beach, where we hit South Beach Bar & Grille. The place was mobbed and the crowd a mixed bag of young beach dudes and dudettes and very middle-aged+ locals chowing down on, what else, fish tacos. Our group got two apiece and they were enormous, packed with large pieces of mahi mahi--both grilled and fried--and lots of salsa and other condiments. The fish was delicious but I wasn't a fan of the flour tortillas. I prefer corn for my fish tacos.

From OB, we cruised over to Shelter Island to enjoy the Brigantine's version of fish tacos. Now these did have corn tortillas so I was a little happier. They were also smaller and easier to eat. But I wasn't mad about the flavors. It seemed I was having a Goldilocks moment.

Onward then to one of my favorite fish spots, Blue Water. Funny thing, Blue Water. They were so busy they weren't exactly able to seat us. So, tailgate party! The husky blue Silverado hybrid was our countertop. Blue Water is next door to El Indio, so of course, they use their corn tortillas. Their fish tacos also include a homemade white sauce to accompany the fish, cheese, cabbage and tomatoes. I enjoyed the grilled mahi mahi version.

 So, by now we've consumed six fish tacos, driven in large trucks and tiny (but so sexy) Camaros and everything in between. But we still have one more stop, World Famous on Pacific Beach Dr. It's closing in on 5 p.m. and the customers there seem to be a happy group, some clearly with some assistance from alcohol because when I got out of the Camaro a couple just leaving the restaurant rushed up to me, gave me a hug, and enthusiastically welcomed me to San Diego. Why bother telling these sweet, inebriated folks that I've lived here since '88? They were so thrilled to be my personal greeting committee!

Since this was our last stop, we also got to enjoy some alcohol ourselves. Beers clearly were in order and they went beautifully with our fish and shrimp tacos. So did the gorgeous oceanfront view.

Now, to me the very best thing about the whole day (after riding in the Camaro; that really was cool for a middle-aged SUV driver) was Chevy's generosity. At Susan Russo's behest, they donated $500 to the San Diego Food Bank's Food 4 Kids Backpack Program. Several friends and I (including Susan) are organizing our second fundraiser for this project. This was our first donation and we couldn't be more thrilled or appreciative!

I also appreciate Chevy letting me use their photos from the day's event. I took mine on my iPhone, which subsequently died and the photos expired with it. Thank you, Chevy, for a fun afternoon in my town and for helping us feed kids!