660 K Street, Downtown San Diego
My partner was still hors de combat with food poisoning from the latest flunk-out café, so I met up with Lynne and Sheila, our Aussie friend, at Soleil @K. If we'd had a Samantha to join us, we could've been Sex and the City -- The Sequel. (Actually, I'd need to take off some pounds and years to play Carrie, but you get the idea.) Cheryl was going to come, too, but had to back out to take her cat to the vet for last rites.
Soleil, on the ground floor of the new Gaslamp Marriott, is spiffy-looking, with lots of shiny chrome, walls the color of a mustard-mayo mix, and an open kitchen. Half the seating is at long communal tables where you can share a meal with strangers, assuming any strangers are present and you want to eat with them; the rest consists of cozy booths and small tables. But we saw not a soul eating inside, merely two couples on the sidewalk patio. You could tell by their outfits that they were from Tucson: Bermudas. One wife sipped soup, while the husband ate pasta; the other pair were finishing a pizza. That didn't look promising, but Lynne had enjoyed a meal here a few months back, and I remembered that early reviews had been favorable.
It was a balmy evening, not yet dark, and the music inside was too loud for our taste, so we, too, chose the patio, facing a street that's deeply quiet if there's no game at Petco. But the quiet ended abruptly: As we settled down, the staff turned up the piped-out music to party volume. While we were engrossed in talk of former cats we'd known and loved, the waitress delivered menus. "What will you have to drink? Do you need a wine list? You ready to order yet?" she blurted. We wanted the wine list. She whizzed away and promptly returned with both it and the bread plate.
We gnawed on a length of San Francisco-style sourdough served in a waxed-paper bag printed large with the restaurant's logo. It came with a mixture of parmesan cheese, lemon peel and extra-virgin olive oil, with cloves of roasted garlic to squish onto the bread -- a nostalgic echo of the roast-garlic fad that swept Bay Area bistros some 15 years ago.
We'd barely started to choose a wine (we were concluding our cat-chat) when the waitress popped back, STAT. "I know, I know, you're catching up on each other. What'll you have?" she said with undisguised impatience. I spotted a Brancott Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand ($22) and recalled its weed-free, grapefruity flavor -- good with seafood appetizers. Sheila, who's a wine expert in her spare time, approved. The waitress riposted, "Have you tried the Cakebread?" (a bottle costing considerably more). "Yes, many times," I said shortly. (Not that it's bad, but I'm bored with big Cal Chardonnays.)
As a New York minute is to Trinidad Time, so our waitress was to the group's preferred pace. We shooed her off again while we perused the menu of simple Cal-Mediterranean standards. I searched in vain for the dishes that had won earlier critics' plaudits. Nearly all had been lopped away, particularly luxuries such as foie gras and oysters. The omen presented by Zonies eating pizza proved true. "People were staying away from those items, so we took 'em off the menu," the chef later told me. The appetizers were reduced to a half-dozen salads and a few Cal-cuisine staples like steamed mussels and crabcakes. The "velvet garlic soup" was still listed, but it was too warm out for hot soup.
Lynne had enjoyed a fried calamari salad on her previous foray, and its recap that evening was our best dish before dessert. Tender batter-fried squid rings and tentacles were touched with a squirt of lemon juice and served amid a tangle of arugula, frisée, and halved cherry tomatoes in a zesty "Louis"-style dressing of tomato-spiked aioli. "These flavors just keep on giving," said Lynne.
The crabcakes are made with Dungeness, my favorite of the species. The plump pair were luscious -- nearly all-crab, bound with lemon aioli and a touch of panko. Served over avocado mousse, they were festooned with microgreens and more cherry tomatoes, as sweet as home-grown. But you have to eat the cakes while they're still hot and gooey: As they cooled, the mayo and salt seized dominance over the delicate seafood.
A pleasing but unfocused salad featured a multicolored array of heirloom tomatoes amid cucumber batons, baby radicchio leaves, and a mild champagne vinaigrette. Something vital was missing: The menu advertised fresh basil, but it was colorless, odorless, and tasteless. (It's odd, but when restaurants are near-empty, food and service often suffer. Too little stress, I guess.) Next day, I added a handful of the missing herb to the leftovers, along with a shake of balsamic, and the dish suddenly coalesced.
The next menu segment is devoted to half a dozen wood-fired pizzas. Since this town boasts the ubiquitous Sammy's, specializing in that very item, we passed and moved on to "hand-rolled pastas," choosing veal cannelloni. "Oh, great! That's our newest dish!" exclaimed our waitress with frightening enthusiasm. (As soon as she turned her back, we speculated on the possible causes of her over-amped condition.)
Cannelloni are traditionally made of crêpes rolled around a light, creamy veal forcemeat filling. Here, they seemed to be thick pasta sheets joined at the hip to rubbery provolone cheese -- not a separate layer of melted cheese, but fused to the skins, which were glazed with a sweet tomato-and-Port reduction sauce. Inside the wraps, minced veal bound in floury béchamel sauce was spiked with aggressive bits of smoky pancetta (tasting more like Southern country bacon). Alongside was a haystack of naked frisée, filling up the white space on the plate. "What are we supposed to do with that?" I asked rhetorically, poking a fork at the bitter heap. "Beats me," said the Lynnester. "I hate frisée. I don't get the point of it."