2600 Calhoun Street, Old Town
I deliberately ignored the most recent previous incarnation of Old Town State Historic Park and everything in it. Oh, I did succumb to curiosity at one point, enough to have a margarita and a few bites at a Mexican restaurant, but I couldn’t bring myself to write about it. Everything was awful, especially the deep gloom at this once-festive end of the park. I’d had no love for the Casa de Turismo style of Mexican restaurants of the long-standing earlier regime, when this end of the park was an ongoing fiesta with running hot and cold mariachis playing to the big, happy crowds, but at least the atmosphere in those days was fun, the margaritas big, cold, and tasty.
Now everything at Old Town has changed again. A Chula Vista restaurateur/entrepreneur is running the park’s concession area. Better yet, the former Casa de Bandini has been remodeled within an inch of its life, restoring the stately old hotel that once occupied the spot. (Yes, you can actually stay there — wouldn’t that be fun?) People who knew it as Casa de Bandini can scarcely believe it’s the same place.
Best of all, at the Cosmopolitan Restaurant, which dominates the lower floor of the building, the chef is Amy DiBiase, whose work I enjoyed greatly at the late Roseville in Point Loma and at Laurel before that. Hire a good chef and good food is bound to follow.
It was a rare hot evening when my party and I arrived. We merely peeked at the inside dining room: old Spanish Inquisition–style decor (but well lighted), with tall leather chairs for the inquisitors/diners. But the patio, with its potted citrus and olive trees, flowering planters and central fire-pit, was the place for us to soak up the last of the day’s sunshine, shaded by a slotted overhang. We chose a red-tableclothed six-top for the four of us (regular posse members Lynne, Ben, and Mark) so that we, our purses, and our food could spread out comfortably.
Scattered around us, especially at the four-tops closest to the central fire-pit on the patio, were vacationers in their national costume of pastel shorts and light shirts. (No white lace dresses to match the hotel decor, alas.) On the lower level of the patio, a small band, with violin as lead instrument, played the decorous but lively music you might have heard in the hotel parlor in the 19th Century, ranging from “Für Elise” to “Oh, Susannah!” and “Erie Canal” and, to my happy amazement, the old British music-hall song “Champagne Ivy” (memorably sung by Miriam Hopkins as the doomed Cockney B-girl opposite Fredric March as Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 masterpiece). Who knew that anybody still knew that tune?
We were already happy on that breezy patio. Delicious small rolls from Con Pane Bakery and spreadable butter increased our happiness, as did the bar list of largely forgotten old-time cocktails. I lasered in on a Ramos Fizz, one of my favorite cocktails (which until now, nobody local seemed to know how to make). Reputedly invented in New Orleans and here renamed Rum Raymos, with a switch from gin to rum as the central booze, it’s made with whipped egg whites, vanilla liqueur, soda, lime juice, and orange-flower water. Creamy on top, sweet and tangy, it deserves a revival. “Wow, this tastes like a liquid key-lime tart,” said Mark. At my urging, Lynne ordered the Lady Seeley’s Violette Fizz, which was a pretty red color but sour, not fizzy, and minus the creamy topping. (The guys ordered boring guy-drinks, worse luck to them.)
The appetizer list is longer than the choice of entrées, and we liked them better too. If I were here on my own dime, I’d consider a grazing meal of starters only, not just for economy’s sake but for maximal pleasure. But be aware that this is a seasonally determined menu, and some of our favorites may vanish as autumn comes on.
A white corn soup, both satisfying and intriguing, showcases three incarnations of corn. It’s a thick corn purée garnished with crisp tortilla strips, kernels of corn relish, and a pale green, slightly spicy translucent glaze of chile poblano cream atop the liquid. “I love the way the tortilla strips show off another form of corn in here,” said Ben.
Heirloom tomato salad is a cross between a caprese and a panzanella. It includes hunks of great, gooey burrata mozzarella and crisp bread croutons, with pickled red-onion strips; firm, pebbly-skinned cucumber slices; and a mint and pistou (basil and olive oil) dressing. The red and yellow tomato pieces, at the peak of ripeness, were intensely sweet — “but there’s not enough of them,” said Lynne. “And the croutons are too hard,” said Mark, “so they don’t really mix with the rest of the salad.” I couldn’t agree more. I love panzanella (Italian bread salad) best in the folk version, made with torn-up day-old Italian bread slices that absorb the dressing and go a little soggy.
“This just needs a little caviar on top,” said Ben with a devilish grin, tasting the house-cured salmon plated with a “tart” of heaped-up sliced potatoes. Poblano rajas (thin sautéed chili strips) lent a touch of spiciness atop the fish, while a tangle of watercress leaves and stems added a sharp green touch. Sitting shyly around the edges were a few small sections of fresh mandarin orange. A wonderful, slightly tart citrus crema sat alongside to spoon on at will. Many local kitchens have been making house-cured salmon, but this proved one of the best versions I’ve tasted, as bold and full-flavored as great sashimi. Yes, it might deserve a bit of caviar, but it doesn’t strictly need it.
Confit of suckling pig is served on a rectangular wooden board: a heap of shredded, succulent piglet-meat sits next to an ooze of warm, buttery, soft polenta, with a separate heap of arugula and fresh Mission figs (four figs to our plate, and I’d bet our terrific waiter made sure we wouldn’t be shorted). The combination is a delight, even as the polenta cools to a soft-textured solid.