The Better Half is a restaurant after my own heart, and the hearts of all adventurous foodies. Almost everybody I know (including the pickiest, crankiest, “allergic to everything” gourmet princess in all my acquaintance) has embraced it as their new favorite — and those who haven’t live out in La Mesa. The motto of world-traveled chef John Robert Kennedy is clearly “Don’t bore, explore!” He most recently cooked at Cafe One Three, but past credits include stints working under four of cuisine’s 800-pound gorillas — Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Gary Danko, and Charlie Trotter. And you know those guys don’t hire just any old schnook!
I’m not crazy in love with every single dish here. In fact, I have some reservations about several them. But frankly, I’d rather be quibbling with chef Kennedy’s least perfect creations than gobbling the flawless, clichéd “Cal cuisine” palate-pleasers of less passionate chefs.
Even the owner has heavy foodie cred: Zubin Desai, an east Indian ex-Manhattanite, was most recently manager-sommelier at Solana Beach’s awesome Blanca. He named the Better Half for the worldwide wine list — all in half bottles, which are perfect for singletons, couples, and groups eager to tinker up their own flights. Prices range from dead cheap to aristocratic, but most are affordable, and some (particularly the French bottlings) are bargains, considering quality versus price. And if you want to bring your own prized bottle to match with a good dinner, corkage is just $5 — or free, if you share a little with the staff. (Nearly all the servers are trained sommeliers, i.e., genuine wine enthusiasts. They’ve also tried all the food, so they can provide intelligent explanations.) A similar sense of generosity, and of high ethics, seems to pervade every aspect of this restaurant’s operations. Look at the boilerplate and notice the amazingly reasonable prices for food with top-notch ingredients and labor-intensive preparation. Each dinner even begins with a charming little amuse-bouche. How these people make a profit is beyond me.
The restaurant occupies the space that was formerly Talus Café, slantingly across the street from Chilango’s. (Yes — rejoice! Chilango’s has reopened, right where it used to be! I really wanted to get that in early here!) One plate-glass front window affords a full view of the immaculate kitchen, including a front-window corner filled with varied Bread & Cie loaves — and while you’re gaping at the cooks, they’re likely to grin right back at you. (They actually look happy at their work.) The interior is oddly bifurcated, with the reception desk and kitchen to the left of the entry on a small open courtyard with pots of herbs (I spotted lemongrass, fennel, and a young bay tree). The dining room is in a separate structure, up two shallow stairs and through a door on the right, with sparkling little lights (romantic but exceedingly dim) and tables topped with tan butcher paper over tablecloths. Near the front is a fireplace filled with empty wine bottles and two tall candles in glasses. Music plays softly, if at all, but one table of loudmouths or squealers anywhere in the room can be excessively audible — not a din, just an affront to the sweet ambience.
Posse stalwart the Lynnester, always the first to try a new restaurant, has gone berserk for the Better Half, eating there about once a week since the opening two months ago. Her delightful mom, Mary Anne, is spending the winter here, escaping the frosts of northern Michigan, and she and long, tall Ben-the-stew, fresh off the plane from Bangkok, joined us for a meal. A few nights later I returned with another friend to try more of the menu. I want to go back again tomorrow.
“The ‘tarte du jour’ is always great,” Lynne counseled as we scrutinized the menu, “and so is the ‘always-changing soup.’ ” One night’s tart, with a light, buttery pastry crust, had a savory filling based on English Wensleydale cheese. Another evening’s soup du jour was a potato bisque so comforting I wanted to take a bath in it. “Yesterday, I served my grandmother’s garlic mashed potatoes,” the chef was telling another table. “Today, I turned them into a soup. I was brought up not to waste good food.”
Seared “Uncured Bacon” belly offers long-braised, tender pork belly, lightly crisped by a final sear, mingling with a warm salad of baby greens in aged sherry vinaigrette, just right for balancing the lush, fatty meat with a sharp complement.
Kennedy is one of the few local chefs whose charcuterie platter is entirely housemade, an ever-changing array. (We just missed a pastrami.) It always includes a wonderful “signature” country-style pâté bound in grape leaves marinated in upscale gin. One night there was a duck terrine and turkey sausages, the next time a goose ballotine and Thai-style lamb sausages. Unfortunately (to my taste), the chef’s charcuterie palate runs lean — the duck and goose creations and both types of sausage were on the dry side, probably from lack of fat, and actually needed the coarse-grain housemade mustard that I applied to them for moisture. The plate includes a cornucopia of garnishes — chopped black figs, smoky-tasting fried caper berries (a new and fabulous flavor to us all), cornichons, chopped walnuts, mixed olives, and baguette slices. By the way, it’s sized to feed two easily — a whole French picnic lacking only les fourmis (ants).
The salmon gravlax is house cured, too. It comes with light, spongy buckwheat crepes on which you can lay the salmon (like blini), or else you can roll them up into Baltic mini “burrito-vskis,” with garnishes of dill-mustard sauce, crème frâiche, capers, and pickled caper berries.
Between the appetizers and entrées there’s an amusing inter-course, harking back to the sorbet course of those gluttonous grand dinners of the Golden Age. It consists of miniature ice cream cones topped with the day’s fruit sorbet, a charming palate cleanser.
Lynne’s favorites are the Kurobuta pork scallopini, Cabernet-braised short rib, and braised oxtails. (She said she wasn’t crazy for the duo of duck or the deep-fried frog legs — “the batter wipes out all the frog flavor.”)