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First, it should be noted that this is not a proper review. Gingham just opened this week, and the pieces are still being set in place; it wouldn't be fair to level our critical six-shooters in its direction just yet. But The Wife and Cherie and Sophia and I stopped in last night for a lil' peekaloo at Chef-Impresario Brian Malarkey's East County eatery in La Mesa.

As we strolled up to the door, I took a gander through the window at the bar:

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Back when this was Gio, and before that, when it was the La Mesa Village Garden Restaurant & Bakery, this was kind of an awkward area - disconnected from the main body of the restaurant, more of a pass-through to the patio than anything else. Making it into its own space - a bar, albeit a bar with plenty of tables for dining - was a smart move.

Once inside, we took note of the loud and the crowd - buzz in La Mesa! Imagine! - put in our names, and had a seat in the jumbled lounge just inside the door:

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Yes, that's a fanciful photo of an equestrian cow. Yes, those are cowhide cubes. Rusticated whimsy is in full effect here.

We waited about five minutes before something opened up. The tables on the main level are raised and rough-hewn, with steel stools that are not uncomfortable but still gently encourage turnover - appropriate for a restaurant built around a menu where everything is under $20.

"When I heard the name 'Gingham,' I was thinking something more country and with softer edges," said Sophia.

"It's urban cowboy," replied Cherie, and boy howdy, did she mean it. Gingham is, apparently, an irony-free zone.

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Urban. Cowboy.

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Urban. Cowboy.

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Urban cowboy!

Upstairs, however, you can find more traditional (and polished) seating:

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Yeah, I'm thinking they'll probably want to hire me to do publicity photos...

Once at our table, we met our waitress, Annie, whose service was maybe our favorite part of the evening.

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Annie, on left.

We asked about cocktails, and she told us, "Not yet" - apparently, the restaurant is still in the process of upgrading its liquor license from beer & wine only. She did let us know that when we came back after the liquor license was in place, we would be wise to try the buttered popcorn margaritas, made with "freshly infused" tequila.

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The bar in the dining area, its glowing shelves just waiting to be stocked with tequila, freshly infused and otherwise.

So we asked after the house red. "It's really good. Would you like a taste?" A good sign - a house red that warrants a taste beforehand! She returned a minute later, crestfallen. "I'm terribly sorry. We're out of the house red."

"Have you seen the Cheese Shop sketch?" I asked. "'Do you, in fact, have anything to drink at all?' 'No.'"

She rolled with the joke, and offered a taste of the Noceto Sangiovese instead. "It's only a dollar more." (Here, she may have meant "A dollar more per glass." The house red was $24 a bottle; the Noceto, $30. But it was good.) We started in asking about the menu, which is geared more toward the evocative than the descriptive. She welcomed the questions. "The menu is designed to encourage conversation," she said. "I've been studying it for four days, so it's good to be able to get it all out of my head." Eventually, we settled on three items from the Bites side of the page: Bacon 'n Eggs (pork belly on toast draped with an egg and sauced up with a just-spicy Hollandaise), Salmon Chips (house-made potato chips sprinkled with chunks of smoked salmon, capers, and aioli, and the Venison Carpaccio, served with greens, slivers of hard cheese, and white beans. (No, I didn't notice the name of the cheese. Told you this wasn't a review.) We would have ordered the fried chicken - The Wife likes to see how it compares to Strouds back in Kansas City - but wouldn't you know it, they were out. Annie assured her that the pork belly was a fine choice.

"I want to ask about that," said The Wife. "Can you tell me a little bit about the pig? Does he run free? Does he have friends?"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2LBICPEK6w

I don't know if Annie's seen Portlandia, but again, she rolled with it. "He has friends."

"What was his name?" I asked.

"He had a name," she answered, "but he only told it to his friends." Well played.

How was everything? Pretty good! When my Salmon Chips arrived, The Wife said, "You just got served tuna casserole, only with salmon. You've got your fish, your potato chips, and your mayonnaise..."

"It is not mayonnaise! It's aioli! Totally different!" Nobody listened. They did, however, agree that the whole thing was a bit too salty, even allowing for the brine on the capers. And the white beans with the venison were a touch firmer than we liked. But the potato chips were really fine, and there weren't nothin' wrong with the pork belly - easily good enough to bring us back when the dust has settled for a more thorough investigation. Maybe then we'll have room for the American Pie dessert - which is, in fact, apple pie with cheese. Told you this was an irony-free zone.

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