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When the new Gio took over the space of the old Village Garden, the charming neighborhood of La Mesa Village acquired something like a “downtown-y” restaurant, a sophisticated but family-friendly indoor-outdoor bistro and wine bar. Posse stalwarts Marty and Dave live just a few miles north, and I hoped this might be a new, food-serious neighborhood haunt for them.

The tree-lined eponymous outdoor patio of Village Garden remains, still seating over 250 diners arranged around a “wall of water” fountain and tables shaded by umbrellas, tempting for hot inland brunches and sizzling summer twilights. But Sam and I arrived on a blustery spring night, and we found our friends seated beside a glassed-in faux fireplace (gas and faux-wood) in a cozy roofed patio, doubly warmed by heat stanchions.

I settled into a black metal chair that looked embracingly open-armed. But those arms curved sharply inward at seat-level, and I discovered what Marty had already learned: The chairs may fit hip young sylphs, but for an old hippie gone hippy, they’re iron maidens out of Vincent Price’s castle basement. There are seat-cushions on the fireplace ledge to kidnap at will, but the problem isn’t texture but shape, a war of cheap-chic geometry against human anatomy. Similarly, as of this writing, viewing the complete dinner menu is impossible on the website, where flashy e-glitz overmasters usability.

We began with a round of wines by the glass — Gio’s forte. The array is interesting and priced for mercy (typically $7.50 for a good pour, or $5 for a half-size “taste”). A sprightly White Knight Viognier won the heart of this princess, and Dave’s soft Sonoma Merlot was a velvet cloak for the tongue. Sam ordered a South African Ken Forester Chenin Blanc, which seemed austere for that grape (much dryer than previous samples of this bottling). When I looked over the final bill, it turned out they’d instead poured the same vineyard’s Chardonnay. Marty’s obscure-label kiwi Sauvignon Blanc was neither here nor there, but the big fun was exchanging tastes.

Our selection of tapas was all over the map, geographically and in quality. Shrimp-and-scallop ceviche, with plentiful chopped avocado, was unique and surprising. It was emphatically spicy (more than expected in this context) but also sweeter than a typical rendition. It came with a heap of multicolored corn chips, Kemo Sabe–style.

A trio of fresh sautéed chopped mushrooms (oysters, baby ’bellas, shiitakes) was also surprisingly sweet, in a buttery sauce that tasted as if it might include a Marsala dessert-wine deglaze. The ramekin of mushrooms was surrounded by a stockade of “roasted rubbed-garlic crostini” in which none of us could discern any garlic; rubbing is evidently not enough. But they were pleasant neutral crunchies to balance the rich, soft fungi.

A quartet of lobster spring rolls were nearly excellent, but finally not. The pastry shells were thin and crisp, filled with substantial small chunks of fresh local lobster, asparagus, carrots, bean sprouts, and baby spinach. What was missing? How about Asian condiments to bring these ingredients together? There was a standard sweet-tangy dip sauce, but the filling maintained strict diplomatic neutrality — where were the seasonings? Asian cuisines require a special repertory of herbs, spices, and condiments, requiring research and tasting (finger to jar to mouth, then spoon to jar to pan) to learn how best to use them. Not even a veteran cook (amateur or pro) can pick this up overnight. Gio’s website names chef Manny Chavez but includes no professional bio. If (as I suspect) he may have cooked for Village Garden (and the menu does include numerous carryovers), then he’s steeped in Italian flavors and faces a challenge to incorporate Asian flavors into the bill of fare.

Another blandness problem beset “lollipop lamb,” three marinated New Zealand baby rib chops plated over demi-glace. The meat was tender and juicy and tasted like good lamb — no more, no less. The sauce was so laid back it was more a smooth texture than a flavor, lacking even sufficient salt. The table shaker helped a bit, but lamb is such a friend to herbs that leaving it plain seems a waste of opportunity — especially when planters all around the restaurant are filled with fresh rosemary, lamb’s garden girlfriend.

A buffalo-milk mozzarella caprese salad had passable tomato slices (given the season) layered with mild sliced cheese and basil leaves over a tasty balsamic glaze — but the cheese was too cold from the fridge to relax into the lushness it develops at room temperature.

First entrée to land in front of me was brined grilled pork rack chop — a 12-ounce behemoth. While ordering, we’d been specific as to doneness, our quartet chorusing “rosy,” “medium-rare,” and “take it off the heat at 130 degrees and let it rest a bit.” We figured we’d made ourselves clear. From the first touch of knife to the surface, I knew we were doomed along with our pork, requests ignored, the chop murdered most foully: there was no “give,” only the rigidity of overcooking. Such a waste of good piggie! (I ate a few bites from the doggie bag at home and discovered flavorful meat lost to mishandling. If we’re gonna be carnie-omnivores like Ma Nature made us, the least we can do is treat our prey with respect in the cooking.) Like the tapas, the pork and its slick of natural gravy were underseasoned, with no particular flavor except overcooked hog and a touch of salt from the brine.

Alongside was an odd polenta. The menu said it came with mushrooms and bacon and tomato, but what wasn’t clear was that these ingredients would be mixed into the cornmeal mush rather than crowning it. It no longer seemed like polenta but a fragmented starch mix holding the garnishes — not bad, but less than hoped for, if you love polenta for its own sake. For veggies, the chef’s sweet tooth (evidenced in the ceviche and the mushroom tapa) reappeared in young carrots sweetened beyond their natural sweetness, balanced against pretty emerald spears of ungarnished Broccolini.

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Ponzi May 5, 2009 @ 11:03 a.m.

There are nearby places with much better food; Brigantine, Casa de Pico, Anthony's, Claim Jumper, Outback Steakhouse, Antica Trattoria, Centifonti's, Little Roma Italian Cucina, Hooleys Irish Pub & Grill, Tiramisu Trattoria and more.

Village Garden used to be a staple, especially for breakfast.

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MtNebo April 29, 2009 @ 7:32 p.m.

Great read Naomi. Any observations on what it will take for La Mesa's Village to find it's long lost heart & soul? I attended a redevelopment workshop last week to ponder this question. Unfortunately, the consultant hired by the city was more into conducting a survey on hardscape questions. Not a single question surfaced on business or social factors, and the Village Merchants seem to be in need of divine guidance on refinding their soul.

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