Walter Mencken 11 a.m., Jan. 31
What's the best thing I ate this week? Read on and find out. Hint: it's the fries.
Occasionally, I am educated by a sandwich board sitting out on a sidewalk. Not by the interwebs, nor by or my personal network of people, but by something as simple as a sign slapped out in front of a building. That’s how I came by Imig’s in the Lafayette Hotel (2223 El Cajon Boulevard, 619-780-0358). I could easily have rolled right past the building if not for the sandwich board. There I was, thinking that the Red Fox Room was the only restaurant at the hotel! Shucks.
I’ve never actually been inside the hotel, since the pool doesn’t appeal to me, so the sign drew me into the lobby and, sure enough, there was Imig’s, unobtrusively taking up the eastern side of the lobby with an awkward arrangement of doors and walls that make it hard to tell what’s restaurant and what isn’t. The effect is charmingly old-school, as though things were laid out with an eye towards antiquated design principles.
Despite the abundance of staff and the minimal customers, getting served at Imig’s proved a little difficult. I had the curious experience of feeling watched...but not always attended to. The staff seemed confused, as though their roles were unclear, and the manager/owner loafed around the bar with a disgruntled attitude that didn’t inspire confidence. It took a while for my “Scandinavian summer” cocktail to get made, but the mixture of aquavit, honey, grapefruit, and bitters proved to be a potent concoction that wanted tempering, which the melting ice provided as the drink warmed up.
When I did end up looking at an order of eggplant fries ($5), served with meyer lemon honey for dipping, I grew suspicious. My initial guess was that the breaded strips of aubergine would have soaked up fry oil. Staggeringly incorrect. Each “fry” was crispy, airy stick filled with creamy, perfect eggplant. The sharp, sweet honey was ideal. This will sound crazy, but I associated the taste of the eggplant fries with Burker King’s french toast sticks. The crisp exteriors that gave way to a steamy, slightly sweet interior and the fine coat of oil left on the fingers afterwards, just enough to be indulgent without verging into grossness. I loved the eggplant fries.
An order of braised pork and bacon hash ($9) was acceptable, but certainly not exceptional. The bits of pork were too chewy, as though boiled instead of braised, and the hash itself wasn’t cohesive enough for my liking. Still, the arbol chili salsa had a lot of spice (to my liking, but probably too much for some) and the poached egg wasn’t overcooked. Serving the whole concoction on top of a piece of grilled flatbread was unexpected, but the ersatz english muffin proved serviceable.
The menu disclaimed that the “small plates” were designed for sharing, but I found a starter and a main dish was enough food. I wanted to try the “ruffage salad” ($9) with grilled fennel and asparagus, or perhaps the shrimp and goat cheese chile relleno ($10), but there was space.
I did opt for dessert, an excellent baked Alaska ($6) that hinted at talented hands in the kitchen. The artful dish used only a thin layer of meringue to cover the ice cream, rather than the great puffy pillows to which I’m accustomed. I suspect a blowtorch was used rather than an oven, because the meringue was dense and marshmallowy, whereas it usually puffs up more when the dessert is dumped into a ragingly hot oven. I am a fan of the “Norwegian omelet,” and Imig’s was a good version.
I can say that everyone should go try Imig’s eggplant fries, as they are damn near perfect. I surmise that there is a degree of talent at work in the kitchen and dishes of similar quality will walk out of there with some regularity. For now, Imig’s is open for dinner from 5-close and I think exploring the menu with moderate expectations would prove worthwhile.