Our more substantial dishes began, from the third menu section titled “Range,” with a spectacular little thin-crusted pizza topped with lean Spanish chorizo slices, bites of yummy house-made Italian sweet sausage, a thin wash of salsa pomodori, and a bountiful pillow of burrata (“buttery”) mozzarella, cheese so young the insides aren’t yet set, exploding in the mouth into soft creaminess. You gotta have it if you love melted cheese — makes ya moan and groan.
Orange-glazed duck breast, although amiable, is hardly an original flavor combination, but the duck is tender, and it comes with a wild-mushroom pudding that’s airy but earthy — essentially a baked mushroom mousse. The posse fell madly in love with it. Once again, my palate was amused but not overcome. “What’s wrong with it?” asked Ben, indignant. “I’m from San Francisco,” I said. Regional gastro-snobbery raises its ugly head again! “Chef Roland Passot at La Folie was doing this better 20 years ago,” I said. “Spoiled, spoiled!” Mark scolded. “Yes, I have been. Passot used intense, European-type wild mushrooms — cèpes, chanterelles, maybe even morels, with much darker, wilder, more intense flavors. This one is great for the price, but it’s…born to be mild.”
We went back to the “Sea” again for Arctic char with lemon butter, a nice tender hunka fish (its flavor resembles a gentler salmon), but it didn’t quite get along with its garnishes of cannellini beans and Italian kale. Maybe the Arctic and the Mediterranean don’t mix that well — an assertive warm-water species (sardines, mackerel, yellowfin, or even branzino, Mediterranean sea bass) might fit better. It’s a near miss, every individual element in the dish delicious separately, but we decided they shouldn’t even date, much less marry.
An Italo-Cuban paella was fun. Instead of rice, its starch was fregula (“freckles”), a circular wheat pasta resembling large-bore Israeli couscous, with what the chef describes as “a nutty, toasty flavor.” The mix included baby octopus (tiny enough to pass for baby squid rings), black mussels, Spanish chorizo, and peas, with a base of sofrito, a Cuban/Puerto Rican/minced-veggie seasoning mixture that serves as the flavor base of Spanish-Caribbean casseroles — an island version of French mirepoix, or the New Orleans “Holy Trinity.” Chef Matt Richman picked up on this mixture when he was working in Miami a few years ago. (And yes, paella is legit with pasta instead of rice, given a firm, wheaty pasta. It’s a common variation in Catalan cuisine.)
“Don’t call me Scarface — my name is Mascarpone,” I murmured over the dessert choices (called “Heaven”), finding a mascarpone cheesecake with macerated strawberries and dulce de leche sauce that I knew I couldn’t resist. It proved lush but not oversweet, all in balance, but also less exciting than I’d hoped (again, that elusive “oomph” factor was missing — in this case, probably not enough fruity acidity to contrast with the dairy richness). Baked Julian apple pudding was homey comfort food, almost aggressively bland, mushy and baby-foodish again. Happily, it came with powerful cinnamon ice cream, of the sort that is often paired with tarte tatin but will freely bestow its muscular grace on lesser desserts.
There’s no espresso. The French-press coffee was dreadful (bitter and sour). Don’t know whether the fault lay with the beans or the measurement. It was cheap ($3.50 for a pot to serve four), but I’d rather a happy ending at a slightly higher price. Attention must be paid, because rarely is coffee this awful at a decent restaurant.
Although Brad Ogden made his name in the Bay Area, he has San Diego tastes down pat. Most people here love his clean, gentle palate. And Illume’s chef, Matt Richman, who is turning out flawlessly executed dishes in his style, probably doesn’t need to pay much attention to my quibbles (except about the coffee). The restaurant looks like a survivor — right location, right menu, right vibes for its demographic, already popular. Definitely the right food for post-Thanksgiving, when you may crave something lighter than those weighty festal leftovers. And it’s a great place to hang out with your homies and taste lots of pretty-good goodies. Most of the food doesn’t thrill me, but it will please anybody, and it might thrill you.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Chef Matt Richman is a local who wandered afield and came home again. After graduating from La Jolla Country Day School, he got a totally irrelevant university degree in New Mexico, while realizing his real passions lay in the kitchen. “I came from a cooking family — not professionally, but Mom and Dad always cooked. I was always fascinated by flavor combinations. Going to Chino Farms when I was younger was always really a treat.” He graduated from the CCA in San Francisco in 2001. While still in school there, he worked at the fabled Fifth Floor under the wildly talented (but erratic) George Morrone and after graduation worked at Kokkari Estiatorio, arguably America’s best Greek restaurant. “I would have loved to stay, but it was the dot-com era, and I couldn’t afford to live up there.”
Returning south, he worked at Pacifica Del Mar for almost five years. “Chris Idso, the chef there, really taught me a lot — both foodwise and back-of-the-house issues. And then I moved to Miami for a little bit and worked with some great chefs, great restaurants. They had completely different produce and proteins there. A little of that style definitely comes through in the foods I cook here, like the paella with Cuban sofrito, or the plantain chips on the ahi tartare. Then I came back and worked for a little [short-lived] French place in La Jolla called My Place.
“My consulting chef here was Bradley Ogden. He was living upstairs in the same building as the restaurant, and he got together with Illume’s owner, David Brienza, who was also living in the building and wanted to get into the restaurant business. Bradley hired me on. I subscribe to his theory of using the best ingredients possible and not really complicating the things and keeping it simple and let the natural flavors of the ingredients do their own thing. I don’t believe in overburdening foods with marinades or exotic spices. I like using different colors, so the food looks good on the plate. I think we’re involved in a renaissance of going back to simpler-style foods. I focus on the Mediterranean — French-, Greek-, and Italian-style flavors. I live a block away, and I knew I wanted to liven up the neighborhood with a good restaurant. I understand the San Diego scene, and I definitely want to be a torchbearer for where it’s going.”