4996 W. Point Loma Boulevard, Ocean Beach
This restaurant is closed.
Like most devotees of Thee Bungalow, I was saddened when long-time owner Ed Moore sold the restaurant to the famed Cohn Restaurant Group (of Island Prime, the Prado, Mr. Tiki Mai Tai Lounge, etc., etc.). Thee Bungalow was where I returned to celebrate birthdays and such when I was on my own tab and not the Reader's, because I knew the food would be good, the prices fair, and the atmosphere comfortable. For over 30 years, it's been a favorite "neighborhood restaurant," serving better than "neighborhood" food -- not a flashy destination to wow your snobbish aunt or to show off your new duds and cleavage on your way to a club -- just a cozy spot to break bread and sip wine with people whose company you cherish.
But Ed, who has done so much to make San Diego a better "food city," is entitled to kick back and relax a little. Knowing that the many regular patrons would be highly averse to change, the question about Thee Bungalow became: How much Moore would the Cohns stand for?
Quite a lot, it seems. When my partner and I arrived at 6:00 sharp on a weeknight, we were none too early to snag one of the last spaces in the parking lot. Waiting outside for our friends Lynne and Michelle, we watched the patrons filtering in. Clearly, the restaurant hasn't lost its local clientele.
The decor is much the same as ever, though there are new rugs and other small changes that only regulars would notice. Resembling a rural cottage, the premises consist of four small-to-medium dining rooms -- two in front, a narrow banquet room near the back, and a heated patio that's covered over in winter and used for parties and overflow crowds. The dining rooms are faux-rustic, with wooden walls, oil paintings of So-Cal scenery, and, in the larger of the front dining rooms, a fireplace and a peaked open-beam ceiling. Since the front-of-the-house staff are mainly new, the reception is not quite as warm and familial as it used to be, but it's still intelligent.
The menu and recipes cleave fairly faithfully to the founder's, and the kitchen staff are largely the same, under a new head chef. The community would never forgive the Cohns if the restaurant stopped serving roast duck or sweetbreads. Right now, the choices are a little steak-heavy and lack the game component (wild meats and birds) that Moore frequently featured in the fall, but chef Larry Abrams is hoping to add boar, and perhaps venison, once the hectic holiday season is over.
That evening, the kitchen had to cope with a giant party that settled in just as we arrived. Their 16 first courses had to be ready and served simultaneously, prepared along with our starters. I'm hoping that's the reason for an uneven performance on the appetizers.
One excellent choice is Abrams's own invention. The San Diego-Style Crab Cakes are nothing like other San Diego crab cakes -- they're better. "This isn't a cake," my partner observed, "it's more of a warm crab salad. You couldn't pick it up, it'd fall apart." Loose and creamy, with little filler and a light breadcrumb coating, the single generous oval was baked (not fried), then plated atop spicy jalapeño beurre blanc and red-pepper coulis. It was tasty, comforting -- and pretty, too. "I love the presentation," said Michelle, a design student. "The streaks of chartreuse and orange underneath are striking, and the microgreen frizzle on top looks like a miniature flower bed."
The Lynnester's road to foodiehood began with a childhood passion for Escargots Bourguignonne, the garlicky Burgundian baked snail dish. "It's one of the reasons I came tonight," she said. "So few restaurants here serve them." The menu says, "Ask for additional garlic if you wish." "We should have ordered the additional garlic," Lynne said sadly. Indeed, there was too little of the stinking rose for either authenticity or flavor. (Garlic-haters and those who fear bad breath should order something else, rather than force Yankee compromises on a Gallic classic.) Perhaps the demands of the crowd at the next table were the reason that the textures of our snails ranged from tender to rubbery to crispy critter.
A pâté sampler is an old Bungalow standby, but the specific pair of pâtés we sampled are the new chef's creations -- a foie gras and duck liver mousse, and a venison terrine, accompanied by the standard cornichons, baguette toast, and Dijon mustard. We all felt that, like the escargots, both spreads were too timidly seasoned. The baguette slices were jawbreakers.
A special that evening encompassed Foie Gras--Kobe Beef Sliders. These were not what any of us expected. "Where's the foie gras?" we wondered, encountering a pair of mini-hamburgers with no evidence of poultry liver. The burgerettes were charred black on the outside, rare and juicy on the inside, topped with applewood bacon and accompanied by excellent shoestring fries. There was something yummy on the buns that I couldn't identify. It turned out to be truffled Dijon aioli. The invisible foie gras? It had been cut into small cubes and mixed with the meat to melt in and furnish moisture and savor. The problem was, you couldn't guess any of these details -- all you could taste was burned beef and bacon. "I absolutely hate this!" declared Lynne, a veteran of the trendy gourmet-slider circuit. I liked the dish myself, once I sliced off the top-surface char. I'm not totally sold on the concept, but the major problem lay in careless cooking.
Entrées come with a choice of soup or salad. The soup of the evening was a purée of Anaheim chilies and roasted red bell peppers. The flavor was deep and interesting, but its intensity called for contrasting elements -- say, crisp croutons, and/or dots of crema mexicana around the perimeter. (We made croutons from the table bread.) It was a fine beginning of a soup. The salads are pleasant, the greens sparked by sweet, sun-dried tomatoes and candied pecans. The dressings -- whether blue cheese or vinaigrette -- are light.