This restaurant is closed.
Recession? You’d never know it if you judged by Illume (pronounced ill-LOOM, no accent on the e) and by the light but constant pedestrian traffic in its neighborhood. As for depression, it’s impossible at this cheerful bistro. The room’s center is a busy wraparound bar with pastel Day-Glo lighting and every stool occupied from early ’til late on an ordinary Thursday, which was when we were there. Bare floors, a wall-corner made from an old wooden beer or booze barrel, and unclothed tables with red napkins indicate the casual house spirit. Many of the tables, too, were filled with patrons in their 20s and early 30s, most a little arty, but not so out-front about it as the North Park crowd. Club music plays on the sound system, and with the exuberant conversations of the diners and drinkers, it’s a bit loud, like a lively but not yet raucous party.
The menu matches the relaxed ambience, offering medium-size “grazing” dishes proportioned for sharing among friends, with no firm line between appetizers and entrées. Figure two dishes per person, dessert optional. Our eight pre-dessert dishes (ranging from $8–$17) were perfectly sized for four sharers, with only a few bites left for this “old maid” to take home — not the usual waddle-out excess, but never too little either. (Figure $35–$60 a person, all told, including some modest wine. More, of course, with brazenly immodest wine, but there are only a few of those on the list.)
The menu is still changing (already gone, alas, is the goat cheese soufflé, which didn’t sell, while Italian-sausage–stuffed cannoli have been banished to the weekend late-night menu), and the kitchen is still finding out what its target population would like to eat. Celebrity chef Bradley Ogden (who originally shaped the flavors at Arterra and at Anthology) lives upstairs, in the apartment building atop the restaurant — as does his neighbor, Illume owner David Brienza, a general contractor making his first foray into the restaurant biz. Ogden served as the restaurant’s consultant, and the fare has his stamp of natural, seasonal, simple, and lightly seasoned dishes.
The food is largely transparent — you know just what you’re eating while you’re eating it. I’ve made no secret over the years that I respect Ogden’s skills but don’t really love his rather genteel culinary style; he seems the most purely heartland-American of the California-cuisine chefs, the least influenced by the rural French cuisine that originally inspired Alice Waters to pioneer the genre. (I prefer a more adventurous and indulgent take on natural flavors, e.g., locally, Jeff Jackson’s food at A.R. Valentien.) Keep this in mind when you weigh these opinions. If you love other local Ogden-influenced restaurants, push my star rating up by at least half a star.
For an example of simplicity, a roasted-beet salad with Bosc pear, blood orange–Port reduction, and goat cheese arrives looking like a diva on Oscar night, plated as a thick snow-white disk topped with sunny orange freckles of finely chopped golden beets and pears, sweetly dressed. (Oooh, it’s Nicole!) But that disk is apparently just goat cheese, straight-up. It’s good goat (probably Humboldt Fog), but I had to agree with my tablemates that, unmediated, the slightly gamey, lean cheese overmastered the beets and pears. My posse and I started remaking the dish in the kitchens of our minds: “If it were a goat-cheese mousse instead, thinned with some cream or crème fraîche.…” “Seasoned with something herb-y, like chives.…” “And lifted with a bit of gelatin, like a panna cotta.…” “…it would all taste better,” we concluded. (Honest, we do talk like this. People who are into cooking don’t stop cooking just because somebody else is in the kitchen. Alone in our own kitchens, we’re prone to muttered culinary soliloquies. Drives our mates, if we have them, totally bats.)
My friends loved the grilled-eggplant rolls filled with mildly herbed ricotta cheese and topped with marinara sauce. I merely liked them — they were agreeable but didn’t equal the swoony lushness of great eggplant rollatini, e.g., the versions at Firenze in Encinitas (where pine nuts enliven the stuffing) and at North Park’s Apertivo (where the roll includes Swiss chard and a topping of gooey mozzarella). The flavors and textures here seemed a bit minimalist, cleaving to the well-trodden middle road.
Our least favorite was a winter-squash soup topped with spiced pumpkin seeds and laced with crème fraîche. From the touch of sweetness, the soup tasted as if it might be made with apple cider, but aside from the lively spiced seeds, it lacked oomph. I looked around both our table and the neighbors’ for a salt shaker, and I’m usually a salt minimalist. “Where’s the pepper grinder?” asked Ben. To no avail. (When Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, initially she, too, refused to put salt and pepper on the tables, on grounds that the food was already perfectly seasoned. Within a few years, cute little dishes filled with sea salt appeared, as even cute little Alice came to realize that nobody’s perfect for all tastes.) “Needs cinnamon,” said Lynne. “Mace,” said Mark. “Warm curry spices — cardamom and coriander,” I said. With the pumpkin seeds consumed, the cooling soup congealed into ancient memories of Gerber’s baby food purées.
All of the above came from a menu section called “Earth,” located at the top of the page. Moving on to “Sea,” we chose the lively “crab and onion pancake, celery root–apple salad, Meyer lemon aioli,” to quote the menu details, a smart alternative to yet another boring ol’ crab cake. The thin, delicate pancakes were entrancing, though none of us could really taste the crabmeat. (Lump crab is a flavor that gets lost in a crowd as easily as a toddler at the mall.) I thought I tasted a hint of haunting celery root in, not just on, the crêpes. Turns out the shade of darkness came from shiitake mushrooms and the “rootiness” from a mixture of potatoes and three types of onions. The crisp raw salad on top and the daubs of brightly citric aioli were fine complements.