The restaurant reviewer for a rival publication just quit because, he wrote, he was getting too fat on the job. That can be a serious hazard for restaurant reviewers and for many frequent restaurantgoers -- but if all restaurants were like Talus Café, there'd be no problem. Chef-owner Richard Wood favors ultra-lean meats and mainly organic ingredients. His dishes aren't rich -- they just taste that way.
I was shocked, for instance, to learn that the creamy butternut-squash caramelized-pear soup du jour was not, after all, a guilty pleasure, but a guiltless indulgence. A soothing purée spiked with fresh-grated nutmeg, the underlay of sweet pear sets this potion apart from all the other butternut soups on local winter menus. At the end of a rough week, I felt as if I was sipping liquid consolation. But its opulent creaminess stems from a body of roasted squash purée thinned (not thickened) by nothing more sinful than nonfat milk. Had I known, I'd have lapped up the last drop, then licked my paw.
Calamari with spicy Italian sausage was another stealth lean dish. "I usually don't eat calamari," said my friend Scott. "Typically, it's too chewy. But this I like." The calamari were sautéed until tender and robed in a light-textured red pepper-and-tomato sauce. What made the dish was the slightly spicy sausage: We thought it was from Pete's Meats, it was so flavorful. Instead, it turned out to be a 96 percent fat-free product with a flavor like Pete's but a fat count more like Lean Cuisine.
A marinated, roasted eggplant terrine was another entrancing first course. Its shape was less terrine and more roulade (resembling a fancied-up "cheese log"), with sliced eggplant rolled around goat cheese, roasted red bell pepper slices, and pesto, drizzled with green-tinged extra-virgin olive oil, and accompanied with a slice of rosemary bread infused with garlic butter. This may not be a totally original concept, but it's wholly delicious.
Moroccans would count themselves lucky to taste the "Moroccan beef skewers," although they might be puzzled by the spicing done in their name. The tender broiled filet mignon kebabs sport a complex, salty-spicy marinade with non-ethnic touches of soy sauce and balsamic vinegar. They're plated on a salad of radicchio and baby greens, overlaid with roughly mashed butternut squash.
An appetizer that everyone craves in winter -- when we all long for summer produce -- is an organic heirloom tomato salad with buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, and aged balsamic reduction. Even in January, the three types of tomatoes from San Diego's miracle-rendering Specialty Produce Company -- probably greenhouse-grown south of Ensenada -- were reasonably ripe, even if not so sweet as they'd be come September.
As is all too common, entrées here aren't as rewarding as the starters. Nonetheless, the four of us enjoyed a "Thai style" salmon -- a tasty dish even if its Thai credentials are barely tenable. A beautifully cooked hunk of wild but mild Chinook is bathed in a creamy-textured red curry sauce that includes fresh, reduced coconut milk, orange juice, and white wine, with a hint of medium-hot chilies and a waft of black pepper. Nestled under the fish is a bed of jasmine rice suffused in more coconut milk -- tasting a lot sweeter than the usual Chao Koh canned brand from Thailand.
Louisiana-style meat loaf, the most popular entrée, according to the chef, does have truth behind its regional claim: The recipe comes from the chef's Louisiana-born grandmother. It's a dense, salty loaf studded with sweet red peppers, garlic, and pockets of soft-cooked grits. Made with ultra-lean ground beef and a touch of turkey, its texture is closer to hand-shredded meat than a typical mom-style hamburger loaf. It's splashed with applejack-brandy barbecue sauce, sweet and boozy, and comes with skin-on garlic-smashed red potatoes and a veggie medley of spinach, zucchini, and young carrots with their green tops on.
After reading the description on the menu, Scott was bent on ordering the chicken breast stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes and feta cheese. The bird may be organic and it boasts a pleasantly tangy stuffing -- plus three sauces (cream sauce, Kalamata tapenade, and basil pesto) -- but Scott and the rest of us were disappointed by the dry meat, produced when a nude, boneless breast is "crusted" under high heat to replace the crispness of the missing skin.
Gnocchi (Italian dumplings) are among the most difficult of dishes to pull off, and Talus doesn't. Its pumpkin gnocchi are weighty and gummy, bathed in an acrid tomato and white wine sage sauce that made the garnish of yellow summer squash slices taste like sour pickles.
Flavorful rosemary rolls and bread come from the tiny kitchen, but there's not much room to bake pastries, so most desserts are outsourced from the Living Room and St. Tropez. The server brings you a tempting-looking tray of the evening's sweets, but upon tasting, we found things to be less than meets the eye: A ricotta cheesecake was heavy and dry-textured; a fruit tart offered canned fruit atop a sludgy, shortening-flavored crust; and a molten chocolate cake had a dry texture for something dubbed "molten." This last does sport two scoops of fascinating pumpkin-ginger gelato.
Servers are pleasant and friendly but need more training: for instance, at the start of our meal we ordered a youngish red wine to go with our entrées (as well as a white for the appetizer course). I assumed the server would pop the cork on the red while we were eating the appetizers, to let it "breathe" and mellow, but she didn't do so until our entrées were on the table. The wine's flavor was just opening up as we finished our meal.
But Talus is overall a charming restaurant, a pleasant place for a classy but affordable meal. It's got the perfect formula for health-conscious Hillcrest, with good, comforting food that wrecks neither your budget nor your New Year's resolutions.
ABOUT THE CHEF-OWNER
"When I was studying in France in my early twenties," chef Richard Wood remembers, "I was with several friends and we ventured out into the Champagne region and ended up in this beautiful field with a decrepit abandoned house with a huge overgrown yard. We all commented on how beautiful the house must have been at one time. The name 'Talus' was on the two stone pillars that marked the property. When I saw this restaurant for the first time -- we are the only house-restaurant on University Avenue -- it brought me back to that spot. I realized then how lovely this house was and how much it needed some work and some care. And that's why I named the restaurant Talus.