Sometimes change is good. Take Parallel 33. “It’s right in my neighborhood, but I haven’t eaten here in years,” said the Lynnester, buttering her baguette slice. “I ate here all the time when it first opened, but the menu never changed much, so I got bored.”
So, perhaps, did original chef-owner Amiko Gubbins. Researching the restaurant on the Web, I ran into a long-running Chowhound thread on “SD’s most overrated restaurants,” where a half-dozen bloggers over several years named Parallel 33. Amiko, after years of working on the cooking line and evidently tired of all her creations, finally ran away to cook for a rock star. (She’s now back in town working as chef liaison for Specialty Produce, which supplies fresh local farm goods and specialty items to most of San Diego’s top chefs.) She left her kitchen in the hands of chef Benjamin Moore. They are good hands. He has kept Amiko’s underlying concept but made the menu his own, and his food is mainly sound and satisfying.
Amiko’s mini-essay at the top of the menu explains the idea: “We wondered what unique qualities provided the Tigris-Euphrates Valley the honor as the birthplace of agriculture. Our discovery was that this noble valley shared its geographic orientation with San Diego! Naturally we followed the 33rd parallel around the globe to see what other interesting places might share our good fortune. Morocco, Lebanon, India, China, Japan and others — a swatch around the planet teeming with rich culinary…traditions.”
So the food is globally inspired, from the warmer reaches of the temperate zone (although some of the nations on the above list seem rather a stretch — surely only Japan’s southernmost islands and India’s northernmost areas could squeeze into this latitude). But unlike, say, Chow (Hillcrest’s transnational noodle emporium), the kitchen here doesn’t attempt to reproduce the classic dishes of any of the nationalities it touches upon. If not for the menu titles, you might not guess the food’s ethnic origins. These regions are more like exotic inspirations, the way the newfound enthusiasm for non-European art inspired the modernist painters and sculptors of early 20th-century France. Translated to visual terms, the food might resemble, say, a Matisse “Moorish” odalisque, a Modigliani pseudo-primitive stone caryatid, or Picasso’s evocation of African masks in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Yet most of the cooking furnishes sufficient pleasure in eating that its precise ethnic origins are beside the point. This is not gastroanthropology, it’s dinner.
The physical setting hasn’t changed much, although there have been improvements in noise management since I last ate here eight years ago. (I remember the din more than the dinner.) You can still peek into the kitchen window from the street and watch the multiethnic cooking line, all in blue baseball caps. The interior architecture is bare-floored and functional, but the decor has sweet touches: a Ganesh wall shrine near the front door (the Hindu elephant god, fostering new enterprises by removing all obstacles), a sensuous Shiva sculpture, bunches of dried flowers, and, in a fairly recent innovation, the ceiling of the main dining room whimsically splotched with soundproofing disks of various sizes. Most nights there’s a live DJ, and the music, the night we ate there, was a grown-up, tasteful mix (world music, Chicago blues, etc.), and as the restaurant filled and conversations got louder, the music blessedly was turned softer.
The Friday-night crowd was diverse — multiethnic, multigendered, multicostumed from jeans to date duds. It obviously included many regulars. Diners ranged from first-date couples to an extended family with kids, and even one baby. Don’t look for a kiddie menu; the families here seemed happy to have their offspring learn to eat like civilized people.
Reading the menu was an exercise in the suppression of gluttony. “Let’s have one of everything,” Cheryl chirped, voicing our universal sentiment. The staff, accustomed to “family style” eating groups, nicely staged our dinner, bringing it in groupings of dishes, like-with-like, giving us time enough to savor and taste everything before the next plates arrived.
The standout appetizer was aloo ki tikki, potato cakes on sliced mango with a side of dried pineapple and currant chutney dusted with cayenne. The tikki are slider-sized patties of pure-comfort mashed potato (with only the subtlest Indian spicing), fried crisp outside but soft inside, plated over mango slices sprinkled with chopped cilantro. The riotous chutney alongside, with chewy, tart dried fruits, is unlike anything you’re likely to find in India but captures the spirit. The combination of mild, tart-sweet, and hot floods the senses: It’s like jumping into a fast-flowing creek on a torpid day.
Another dip into vaguely Indian flavors is the masoor dal (pink lentil) soup, thick and soothing, topped with a swirl of coconut cream and a frizz of fried shallot slivers. I was again surprised by the subtle spicing, with neither the brassy dose of cumin nor the pronounced ground coriander typical of dal in both Tamil Nadu and in the East Indian cooking of the West Indies. Indian food usually displays an in-your-face complexity resembling the Hindu temples encrusted with hundreds of sculpted gods — or the streets of downtown Madras suddenly lined, at close of day, with hundreds of street-dwelling families coming “home” to camp on the sidewalk. India is a lot of a lot-ness, including the food. So this dal is much quieter and easier to handle than that. My friends dived into the porridge like a warm bath at end of day.
A fattoush salad wasn’t the Middle-Eastern version I expected (with oddly yummy slabs of soggy stale pita soaking up the dressing) but a leaner, cleaner, bracing mixture of small toasted croutons of naan (Indian flatbread) with romaine, tomatoes, cukes, carrots, and a dusting of sumac (a deliciously tart red Middle Eastern spice).
Naan also replaced pita in the starring role of a Mediterranean flatbread plate. It’s similar to pita but softer, gentler, slightly sweeter — a civilized, urbane upgrade of an ascetic desert bread. The dips are a fine, tangy tapenade, an ordinary hummus, and a too-ingratiating sweet mango sauce.