Our waiter, Roger, was obviously a veteran of the profession, with an interesting, weathered face and room-lighting smile. We hated passing up his recommendations for the watermelon salad, the charred Romaine Caesar, the steamed mussels and clams. Put those in the “good bets” section. He offered his expertise in helping us choose wines to suit our food, and I probably disappointed him because my heart and budget were already set on a White Knight Viognier ($28), which was very Viognier with big, fruity flavors. There were plenty of other good under-$40 alternatives, even among the reds (e.g., a Yalumba Australian Shiraz for $30).
The scallops with fennel entrée listed on the website has unfortunately vanished, leaving shrimp fajitas (I wish I’d noticed that they were shrimp, not meat) and a selection of the whitest, leanest sorts of finfish, albacore, swordfish, and halibut. I hate cooked albacore — I like it as sushi, but cooked, it’s just tunafish — and Lynne hates swordfish, so, we dutifully tried the olive-oil–poached halibut, a thick hunk that was nicely cooked, set atop the slimmest asparagus and what the menu calls “wild mushroom fondue,” meaning a thin broth that was based on mushrooms somewhere in its early history. On top of the fish was a fluffy heap of green-onion pesto. “Not bad for halibut,” I said. Nobody else at my table was even that enthusiastic.
The happy surprise was the carne asada with nopales (only $12), a huge slab of good beef, about half an inch thick, grilled a bit pink in the center. “I thought carne asada was always thin and sliced and well done to the max,” said Mark. Indeed, that’s the taco-ready version at most local Mexican restaurants. (Local meat-jobbers catering to Mexican restaurants and neighborhoods sell it sliced thin and pre-marinated, and very cheap.) This was more like what you’d get at the great Baja steakhouses such as El Nido and La Espadaña, where the dish is given due respect. On the side was a pile of sliced, sautéed nopalitos, the peeled, de-spined pads of the opuntia cactus, with a taste as deep green as their color and a slightly slippery texture, like a polite version of okra. In the center was an ear of charred sweet white corn (also available as an appetizer) and half a charred white onion. A few corn tortillas and a vibrant, semi-hot roasted tomato salsa also come alongside, if you want to make your own tacos.
Temecula Lavender Honey and Kumquat Glazed Pork Cheeks was my first entrée choice upon reading the menu, but I liked it less on the fork. The sweet tastes of the honey and kumquats were so subtle, I’m not sure I’d have detected their presence if the menu hadn’t mentioned them. Mainly, though, the meat seemed so dense and heavy on a hot night that I wished I could tear it into shreds and turn it into tacos with tomatoes, avocados, and cotija cheese to lighten it up. (The portion was large enough to make tacos for a whole family.)
The eight-ounce USDA Prime naturally raised Meyer Ranch top sirloin steak was a different meaty story. Ben got it first. “Like butter,” he said, and he was right. It came ideally cooked to my order of “very rare,” meaning, rich red with a well-charred exterior. A delicious red-wine sauce moistened it and brought out the natural flavors. It was a well-nigh perfect steak (for $19), and the eight-ounce size was perfect, too — plenty for all four of us sharing dinner, plus a bit left over, rather than caveman-steakhouse size. (If that’s what you want, there’s also a 14-ounce Meyer Prime rib-eye for $29.) Ben passed around the cone of slim herbed fries to make sure we each got to taste a few before they cooled. On the side is a tasty little salad of cherry tomatoes and greenery with exquisite Point Reyes Blue Cheese.
Our charmer of a waiter not only magicked us into eating dessert, he seduced us into ordering churros. “They’re the best I’ve ever tasted,” he said, eyes agleam. My friends were skeptical — they’ve all had bad ones at chain Mexican restaurants. Well, the waiter was right. These are the best I’ve ever tasted, too, even topping the previous champions at El Vitral. Heavily dusted with cinnamon, they’re crisp outside, airy throughout, and moist at the center with a narrow ribbon that seems to be some sort of sugary custard. If that weren’t enough, they came with a dip of liquid Mexican-style chocolate sauce spiked with cinnamon and the gentlest touch of chipotle chilis, a tiny nip and not a whack. The sauce alone could be a dessert. We also tried a mousse-like butterscotch pot-au-crème, mild, fluffy, and sort of pallid. There’s no espresso, but I thoroughly enjoyed the bold French-roast coffee, which set off the sweets so well.
Tasty food, pleasant surroundings, amusing music, great service, and you can even wear what you want — that adds up to a terrific new restaurant way too good to waste on tourists alone. And the bottom line is merciful, with appetizers averaging about $10, entrées about $17. All in all, a fine value for the price.
While Lynne and Ben went off to retrieve their respective cars, Mark and I (who’d taken the easy way out via the Fiesta de Reyes parking lot) stopped to admire a little garden of corn, tomatoes, and herbs next to Fiesta. A balding, bespectacled passerby asked if we’d just been to Cosmopolitan and how we liked it. Taking him for a prospective customer, we gave him an enthusiastic review. Grinning broadly, he disclosed that he’s the owner. I thanked him for reviving the Ramos Fizz, saying, “I used to love them but haven’t had one in so many years!” “You’re from San Francisco, you drank them in the Haight-Ashbury, didn’t you?” he said. “You know her!” said Mark. “That’s the last time and place they were popular,” the owner laughed. “They were never popular in San Diego.” ■