4996 W. Point Loma Boulevard, San Diego
This restaurant is closed.
Like most devotees of Thee Bungalow, I was saddened when long-time owner Ed Moore sold the restaurant to the famed Cohn Restaurant Group (of Island Prime, the Prado, Mr. Tiki Mai Tai Lounge, etc., etc.). Thee Bungalow was where I returned to celebrate birthdays and such when I was on my own tab and not the Reader's, because I knew the food would be good, the prices fair, and the atmosphere comfortable. For over 30 years, it's been a favorite "neighborhood restaurant," serving better than "neighborhood" food -- not a flashy destination to wow your snobbish aunt or to show off your new duds and cleavage on your way to a club -- just a cozy spot to break bread and sip wine with people whose company you cherish.
But Ed, who has done so much to make San Diego a better "food city," is entitled to kick back and relax a little. Knowing that the many regular patrons would be highly averse to change, the question about Thee Bungalow became: How much Moore would the Cohns stand for?
Quite a lot, it seems. When my partner and I arrived at 6:00 sharp on a weeknight, we were none too early to snag one of the last spaces in the parking lot. Waiting outside for our friends Lynne and Michelle, we watched the patrons filtering in. Clearly, the restaurant hasn't lost its local clientele.
The decor is much the same as ever, though there are new rugs and other small changes that only regulars would notice. Resembling a rural cottage, the premises consist of four small-to-medium dining rooms -- two in front, a narrow banquet room near the back, and a heated patio that's covered over in winter and used for parties and overflow crowds. The dining rooms are faux-rustic, with wooden walls, oil paintings of So-Cal scenery, and, in the larger of the front dining rooms, a fireplace and a peaked open-beam ceiling. Since the front-of-the-house staff are mainly new, the reception is not quite as warm and familial as it used to be, but it's still intelligent.
The menu and recipes cleave fairly faithfully to the founder's, and the kitchen staff are largely the same, under a new head chef. The community would never forgive the Cohns if the restaurant stopped serving roast duck or sweetbreads. Right now, the choices are a little steak-heavy and lack the game component (wild meats and birds) that Moore frequently featured in the fall, but chef Larry Abrams is hoping to add boar, and perhaps venison, once the hectic holiday season is over.
That evening, the kitchen had to cope with a giant party that settled in just as we arrived. Their 16 first courses had to be ready and served simultaneously, prepared along with our starters. I'm hoping that's the reason for an uneven performance on the appetizers.
One excellent choice is Abrams's own invention. The San Diego-Style Crab Cakes are nothing like other San Diego crab cakes -- they're better. "This isn't a cake," my partner observed, "it's more of a warm crab salad. You couldn't pick it up, it'd fall apart." Loose and creamy, with little filler and a light breadcrumb coating, the single generous oval was baked (not fried), then plated atop spicy jalapeño beurre blanc and red-pepper coulis. It was tasty, comforting -- and pretty, too. "I love the presentation," said Michelle, a design student. "The streaks of chartreuse and orange underneath are striking, and the microgreen frizzle on top looks like a miniature flower bed."
The Lynnester's road to foodiehood began with a childhood passion for Escargots Bourguignonne, the garlicky Burgundian baked snail dish. "It's one of the reasons I came tonight," she said. "So few restaurants here serve them." The menu says, "Ask for additional garlic if you wish." "We should have ordered the additional garlic," Lynne said sadly. Indeed, there was too little of the stinking rose for either authenticity or flavor. (Garlic-haters and those who fear bad breath should order something else, rather than force Yankee compromises on a Gallic classic.) Perhaps the demands of the crowd at the next table were the reason that the textures of our snails ranged from tender to rubbery to crispy critter.
A pâté sampler is an old Bungalow standby, but the specific pair of pâtés we sampled are the new chef's creations -- a foie gras and duck liver mousse, and a venison terrine, accompanied by the standard cornichons, baguette toast, and Dijon mustard. We all felt that, like the escargots, both spreads were too timidly seasoned. The baguette slices were jawbreakers.
A special that evening encompassed Foie Gras--Kobe Beef Sliders. These were not what any of us expected. "Where's the foie gras?" we wondered, encountering a pair of mini-hamburgers with no evidence of poultry liver. The burgerettes were charred black on the outside, rare and juicy on the inside, topped with applewood bacon and accompanied by excellent shoestring fries. There was something yummy on the buns that I couldn't identify. It turned out to be truffled Dijon aioli. The invisible foie gras? It had been cut into small cubes and mixed with the meat to melt in and furnish moisture and savor. The problem was, you couldn't guess any of these details -- all you could taste was burned beef and bacon. "I absolutely hate this!" declared Lynne, a veteran of the trendy gourmet-slider circuit. I liked the dish myself, once I sliced off the top-surface char. I'm not totally sold on the concept, but the major problem lay in careless cooking.
Entrées come with a choice of soup or salad. The soup of the evening was a purée of Anaheim chilies and roasted red bell peppers. The flavor was deep and interesting, but its intensity called for contrasting elements -- say, crisp croutons, and/or dots of crema mexicana around the perimeter. (We made croutons from the table bread.) It was a fine beginning of a soup. The salads are pleasant, the greens sparked by sweet, sun-dried tomatoes and candied pecans. The dressings -- whether blue cheese or vinaigrette -- are light.
"Do you eat sweetbreads?" I asked our friends before we ordered. I was ready but not willing to be dissuaded, since Thee Bungalow is one of few local restaurants to serve these morsels as a main dish. Neither had tasted them before. "I'm game," Lynne declared. "Just don't tell me what they are until later," said Michelle. They were the table's favorite entrée. Cut into small pieces, floured and sautéed in olive oil to crisp the surfaces, they were tender and, well, friendly. A classic lemon-butter and caper sauce served them well. So did a heap of superb home-style mashed potatoes, blessedly free of the alien "creative" ingredients (i.e., pesto, wasabi) and high-dosage egotism so many auteur chefs around town inflict on helpless spuds. They were just really good mashed potatoes, made with the regular dairy products that God and Grandma decreed.
Osso Bungalow is listed as a house specialty. It's not veal but braised lamb shank, with a rich red-wine/demi-glace gravy. It comes with mixed vegetables and the same mashed potatoes. After a taste, Lynn said, "The entrées here are much better than the appetizers."
The menu still offers Ed Moore's "famous roast duck" with a choice of four sauces (mostly sweet ones). We opted for Farmer Style Duck (a heritage recipe from the restaurant's original German owner), served on braised Savoy cabbage with applewood-smoked bacon, fresh shiitakes, and roasted baby red potatoes. The skin was splendidly crisp. As for the meat, I've never loved Ed's duck as much as Ed and his regulars do, considering it slightly overcooked. This duck may have been more overcooked than Ed's rendition -- the breast was dry and the leg even dryer. It benefited from a delicious demi-glace sauce, and we enjoyed the earthy garnishes.
Michelle, a native San Diegan, was the only fan of the pan-seared San Clemente sea bass, which the rest of us found parched -- although we loved the soulful, chewy lobster risotto that served as its bed and the slick of caramelized white-peach relish on top. "I've always had fish cooked this way," Michelle said. "Dead white. How do you like it?" We all (three passionate cooks) chorused about that moment when fish flesh turns flaky and pearly, no longer pink but still moist and tender. I recently read that Alain Ducasse, holder of the world's record number of Michelin stars, was overheard gently scolding the chef de cuisine at his New York restaurant for cooking fish a few seconds past that point. "It's not just a 'matter of taste,'" I said. "It's about honoring your ingredients. This isn't some rotting mutant from the mouth of the Ganges that needs cremation. It's good, fresh fish and deserves to be served at its best -- moist." When I asked the chef, he promised that I could get medium-rare fish if I specified doneness. "I've been trying to train the waiters to ask people how they want their fish, but they don't always remember," he said. "Thee Bungalow has always featured more meat than seafood, so I'm also slowly retraining cooks who've been here for 30, 35 years and who default to medium-ish. Just bear with us, we'll get there."
Dessert was a killer: a grand couple of Grand Marnier soufflés. (They come in pairs -- enough to feed four -- and must be ordered 20 minutes ahead.) Subtly orange-flavored air captured in puffed-up egg whites, they were ideal. The decaf wasn't. Now that a rich and famous restaurant company owns the premises, I'd like to suggest an investment in a few little French-press individual coffee makers and some serious French-roasted beans to provide a brew to complement the magnificence of the soufflés.
Other desserts, all house-made, include fruit sorbets, with the chef's Caribbean-style "pineapple water," profiteroles, almond financier, seasonal New Orleans--style bread pudding, and the restaurant's traditional chocolate mousse. There's also an ever-changing international four-cheese plate served with brioche and poached figs, a perfect ending or pre-sweet course for finishing off a fine red wine. The wine list, of course, is legendary. If you don't have $1200 for the Château Pétrus, I believe I spotted a Lafitte for under $300. There are plenty of exciting bottles in the $50 range and adventurous ones for under $40, particularly if you bypass California and France to explore the less-established wine regions in the back pages.
With any new restaurant or new management, there are issues needing improvement. Here, our server was one such. The lad was an irritating specimen of Waitronus sandiegicus, condescending and puppyish. Bad enough he asked the usual annoying "Is everything okay?" the moment our mouths were full, but worse, he insisted that we praise every dish, prodding, "Awesome, isn't it?"
A worse glitch arose from a specific restaurant policy, and from three patrons suffering a precipitous failure of "company manners." Normally, the chef tells me, large parties are seated in the private banquet room or on the covered patio -- unless they're hosted by long-time regulars, who may specify use of their favorite dining room. "It's usually the louder ones who want the main dining room," the chef said, which, with its vaulted roof, amplifies loud voices. And this party was loud, indeed, not only drowning out all other conversations but producing a painful clamor that included the thunderous pounding of fists for conversational emphasis. During our dessert, the three noisiest merry-makers (including the likely host of the group) left the table on a call of nature, and the sound level receded to a pleasant conviviality, as the 13 remaining celebrants chatted in normal tones. My message is liable to fall on deaf ears, but may I humbly beseech all kind strangers who read this that, when innocent bystanders in a restaurant must suffer your stentorian bloviations, could you try and KEEP IT DOWN? Save the volume for, say, Mr. Tiki Mai Tai Lounge, or some other rowdy watering hole. Thee Bungalow is way too sweet a spot for it.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Chef Larry Abrams, a native San Diegan, says of his Dominican-born mother, "My mom's cooking was my inspiration, 100 percent." He paused, obviously reflecting. "At 14, I asked my father for $20, and he said, 'Why don't you try working for it?' I said 'Okay' and started working as a dishwasher for Sammy's Woodfired Pizza. I worked at different restaurants around the city, and once I was old enough I worked full-time as a busser, waiter, bartender -- Chili's, Seau's, back to Ladeki. So when I went to college, I realized that I was wasting my time trying to be a doctor, like my father. I wasn't into that academic thing.
"Then I went on a trip all around Europe for eight months -- London, Paris, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Italy, Switzerland, Germany -- with a friend who was about to join the FBI and wanted to travel before he did. It was a 'get serious about life' trip. We bought our Eurail passes, went all over, and ate all over. I still didn't really know anything about cooking. I didn't even know how to cut with a knife. When I got back, my parents [at the urging of his aunt] signed me up for culinary school at the CIA in Hyde Park, New York."
While at culinary school, he'd take time off for more travel and to work in European restaurants, which he continues to do whenever possible. After graduating, he moved to New Orleans, met his wife there, and worked for five years at Nola's (one of Emeril Lagasse's restaurants), Commanders Palace, and the Windsor Court Hotel.
"But New Orleans is a tough city for an outside person to come in and make a name for himself. You really have to be connected to old families in the city. And I'd had my first child, and it seemed that it was time to come back to San Diego and share my expertise with the rest of the restaurateurs here. A lot of them haven't really ventured far out of San Diego and haven't gotten that worldly cuisine down. So I thought it would be good to share what I've learned in my travels around the world."
He worked at Fresh, at Sammy's as a corporate chef, at Paradise Point Resort, and at Oceanaire. "A year ago the news came to me that David Cohn would be purchasing Thee Bungalow, and he offered me the position of executive chef and general manager. And I said, 'What would be better than to put a 30-year-old in charge of a restaurant that has 36 years of history?' Ed wanted to only sell to someone who would keep the essentials of Thee Bungalow running the same way, and we all came to an agreement that we would maintain the staples that have kept Thee Bungalow alive all this time but with some wiggle room to do what I want to do with the menu.
"We're different here than most of the Cohn Group. The others are powerhouse restaurants, and they're geared toward a different clientele. I think that's why the Cohns bought this restaurant and brought me in, because I'm in tune with the local scene.... I pride myself on seasonality and freshness of ingredients -- not necessarily organic and local, but the freshest I can buy. I think the less handling of the food, the better it is. I try to keep it the simplest possible. The more you touch the food, the more you lose the characteristics of the ingredients you started with. The less you do on the plate, the more powerful it is."
As general manager, Abrams is in charge of the wine list, and he's expanded the offerings purchased from Ed by adding bottles from New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, and Argentina. Future plans include half-bottles and wine flights, as well as numerous promotions. "I'm trying to grab all generations here -- to indulge the older generation and the regulars we've had for 30 years and also capture younger diners.
"Thee Bungalow to me is like going to your grandmother's house. You walk in there and you feel comfortable. You ask for something, and you'll get it. That's the atmosphere we try to provide. You don't have to wear designer clothes, and there's no valet, so who cares what car you come in. That's a reason I took on the job. It's not like La Jolla or downtown, where everybody's gotta have a Ferrari, everybody's gotta be wearing a Gucci, everybody's gotta be buying $500 champagne. That's not dining, that's showing off. There are plenty of restaurants for showing off your money, but that's not us."