Cafe One Three feels like home for a San Francisco expat -- an eclectic, creative eatery that you might find in the Inner Sunset or Cole Valley, where good neighborhood restaurants are thick on the ground. Here, the restaurant's reputation is spreading far from its neighborhood: I heard about it from my friends Marty and Dave of San Carlos, who heard about it from their friends in O.B. Obviously San Diego is seriously hungry for sweet spots where you can get a fresh-tasting, interesting meal without straining your budget or searching your closet for suitable garb.
The location is on the former site of Indulgence, a low-carb bakery-restaurant on Park Boulevard, a half block north of Henry's. The decor has come a long way from dietetic utilitarian: It now sports vintage French ad posters and is partially carpeted, with an aura of chic urbanity garbed in black and white. If you value quiet, the stanchion-heated patio is the place to sit -- you can hear the tasty jazz from there, but not the clatter of the open kitchen.
My companions Marty and Dave, veteran eaters at this café, recommended the tortilla soup, and they were spot-on, because it's just about perfect, with a light but rich tomato-chicken broth of perfect spiciness (emphatic, not painful) garnished with chicken chunks, avocado, pasilla chiles, gooey melting Mexican cheese, and crisp tortilla strips. "Oooh, chef has a palate," I said.
The "savory tart du jour" that evening featured a creamy crab topping with more than a modicum of hot chile -- again, enough for liveliness, not pain. The pastry was flawless and buttery, the filling, a pleasure. But a hummus platter with "Moroccan chicken wings" was slightly disappointing because the wings didn't quite live up to their billing. You hear "Moroccan," you think "complex spicing." These wings were plain broiled drumettes. The hummus was muscular with dried chiles and ample cumin and came with toasted bread from the famed La Brea Bakery in L.A. The array was almost exciting -- if only the bird had something more exotic to contribute.
"Tuscan bread salad tower" also suffers from a slight misnomer. It sounds like a version of panzanella, Tuscany's brilliant mixture of day-old bread and raw salad veggies soaked in good balsamic vinaigrette, but it's not exactly that. It's a more ambitious and (to my taste) less delicious column of toasted bread pieces layered with creamy mozzarella fresca and diced fresh tomatoes, with a distinctly sugary dressing. If you don't like sweetened vinaigrettes, a better bet might be the rather pricey classic Caesar salad ($12 per person), assembled at the table, or the "small Caesar" with cilantro lime dressing. I've seen too many beet salads lately, but the rendition here sounds interesting as well, with pancetta and Pepato cheese rather than the usual chèvre.
Among the entrées, our favorite, weirdly enough, was a light, lean meat loaf made of veal, house-ground pork sausage, and turkey (no beef), which reminded me of a lower-fat take on a country-style French pâté. Well- seasoned and airy in texture, it was an unexpected pleasure -- nothing like Mom's -- garnished with garlic mash and a clean-tasting, mayo-free coleslaw dressed in vinaigrette and sweetened with fresh carrot slivers. It's a perfect coleslaw (and a perfect meat loaf) for a warm summer evening; neither weighs you down. And I can promise that if you have to doggy-bag some of the loaf, the leftovers get better overnight.
Grilled jumbo prawns swathed in molasses and roasted garlic were a trifle overcooked (by perhaps a half minute), lightly robed in the darkly sweet sauce. They rode atop a layer of creamy grits laced with Cheddar. I later asked the chef what, after all, is the difference between grits and polenta, and he kindly explained that polenta is yellow corn meal, whereas grits are made from hominy -- white corn that's been slaked with lime. (Every time I eat grits -- especially "cheese grits" -- I like them more and more.) An accompanying mélange of seasonal veggies included chunks of boiled eggplant apparently innocent of any oil, hence healthy. (I missed the oil that eggplant loves so much; without it, this vegetable is as virtuously boring as a Presbyterian church sermon.)
We enjoyed a roasted pork loin stuffed with a forcemeat of minced apricots, pistachios, and soy riso (tiny rice-shaped pasta, in this case made from soy flour), with a bright-tasting chipotle glaze spread onto the plate alongside. Normally, the dish comes either with the same garnishes as the meat loaf or with the veggie mélange of the shrimp, but that evening, the plate was heaped with fried disks of red yams that were fun when hot, no fun once cooled.
A potentially interesting entrée we didn't try (but were curious about) is the skin-on roasted chicken breast stuffed with spinach, chèvre, and Gruyère cheese. The details indicate that the chef understands chicken breast, which is too bland and prudish to be palatable when plain but comes alive like a good girl gone deliciously bad when seduced by a rich, gooey filling.
When Cafe One Three bought its space from Indulgence (after the death of one of the latter's owners), it inherited a serious baking armada, with which dessert chef Michael Lunsford now bakes the house pastries. A glassed-in case reveals the day's selection. Stuffed to the gills, my friends and I chose a single pastry to share, a small round of pineapple upside-down cake, about the diameter of a Hostess Sno-Ball but flatter. The cake was so buttery, we smiled at every bite and by the end felt surfeited. (The other choices that evening were sweeter, more elaborate cakes, which none of us could face right after the meal. There's also an international cheese plate listed among the appetizers, which would make a fine dessert if you still have some wine to finish off.)
Weekend brunchers will also find an interesting menu almost as extensive as the dinner offerings. The choices include an avant-garde Monte Cristo, machaca con huevos, oatmeal with coconut milk, biscuits with sage sausage gravy (made with house-made Yankee pork sausage!), and herbed potato pancakes with house-cured gravlax and caviar. The normal eggy brunch fare is also served. Lucky are the neighborhood folks who can waft in when they wake up on the weekend and order up their heart's desires.
[2009 Editor's Note: Café One Three has since closed.]