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Chef Chris Walsh must be the culinary patron saint of Hillcrest. After a long stint at California Cuisine and a shorter one nearby at his own Cafe W (which burned down), he left the 'hood to accept a Gaslamp gig, opening the glitzy Confidential. It swiftly attracted a young, clubby crowd, drawn more by the decor and cocktails than by the devilishly cunning cuisine. It was scarcely a secret that Walsh longed (and planned) to return to his old stomping grounds and open his own place again. Now, he's back in the not-so-mean Hillcrest streets with his new bistro, Bite, specializing once more in creative tapas, accompanied by wines of the world and artisanal cocktails made from sake or bubbly mixed with housemade syrups.

The setting is closer to Cafe W than to Confidential -- bright and utilitarian, with no carpet, no tablecloths (just round black rubber mats slightly larger than the plates) and not much froufrou except in the whimsically decorated restrooms. Sounds bounce on the hard surfaces, but you get used to the noise -- it's a less serious din than that at many restaurants, and the softly playing music on the sound system is tasty. (In fact, for a change, I wished I could hear it more clearly.) Seating is at tables or leatherette booths (which, unlike Cafe W's anorexic pews, are wide enough to hold four regular-size humans). Patrons of Cafe W and Confidential will recognize Sam, the charming, tattooed maître d' who moved to Bite along with the chef and is a partner in the new restaurant. (I'd bet anything he hated Confi. Not his type of crowd.) Service is first rate -- friendly and smart. Our waiter knew the menu thoroughly and was alert enough to tell us that the poached oysters come in threes and to ask if we wanted a fourth for our quartet. Of course we did. After we tasted them, we wanted about 40 more.

Walsh's stint at Confidential improved the consistency of his cooking. In the Gaslamp, with big-money backing, he finally had the luxury of expanding his kitchen crew to the size needed to produce a long, labor-intensive menu of tiny tastes. At Bite, the menu isn't quite as long (nor the staff as large, although it's a bit larger than the Cafe W crew). Nor is the menu as venturesome -- the food is simpler, earthier, and tips Mediterranean rather than global -- but here, too, every dish we tasted was expertly executed. I didn't adore them all (merely most), but the cooking was flawless.

We arrived on a weeknight during "happy hour," when bubbly Prosecco cocktails with house-made syrups go for only $4. Each of us tried a different one and shared sips. The Kir Royale (raspberry syrup), the Peach Bellini (peach sorbet), and the Passionfruit were all good, but the most divine elixir was the Rose -- made with a fragrant syrup of rosewater and a touch of sugar to sweeten it, the liquid topped with a real miniature rose.

The menu is divided into "Field" (vegetable and cheese dishes), "Ocean" (seafood), "Farm" (meats), and "Sweets." There are delicious dishes in each category.

From "Field," we began with a dish the Lynnester had enjoyed at an earlier visit: Japanese eggplant, sliced partway through and fanned out, grilled charry at the edges. It came with "carpaccio," velvety, thin coins of soft-cooked golden beets, and in the center, a pouf of spicy Boursin cheese to apply at will. All three elements loved each other, a happy ménage à trois. Another trio of tastes appeared in a caramelized onion tart over a puff pastry crust, the tangle of onions topped with a heap of minced niçoise olives. The pastry was perfect, but here the flavors never mingled quite satisfactorily. In fact, the tart fell apart as I ate my quarter of it. The olives slipped away, then the onions slowly slid off. In the end, the various elements segregated themselves on the plate, like cliques in a high school cafeteria.

From "Ocean" we fished up that masterpiece of oysters poached on the half-shell with truffle-chive butter. "Usually," Jim confessed, "I don't really like oysters, but these are amazing." As an oyster-lover, I was shocked, shocked -- and then even more shocked at the sheer sensuality of this rendition. The bivalve meats were plump, warm, and swollen, with a subtle and savory butter cloak. "These are about the sexiest oysters I've ever eaten," I mused. "Really aphrodisiac. A dozen of these and I'd go nympho."

Small, crispy potato pancakes, better even than your grandma's, were topped with smoked trout and dill crème fraîche, with fresh apricot chutney on the side. They'd be lovable even without the chutney, but the tangy fruit sauce put the dish over the top.

By now, I'd finished the rose-scented cocktail and ordered a glass perfect for "grazing" cuisine: Vouvray, a dry Chenin Blanc from the Loire region of France, typically considered a carefree "vin du piqnique." That is, it's smooth, light, food-friendly, and neither expensive nor pretentious. You'll find it listed under the "Other Whites" section of the wine list. (That "Other" category on any local wine list is usually a good place to hunt for unusual treats at relative bargain prices, since most Californians cleave to familiar varietals and growing areas.) Lynne tried a Soave. "The Vouvray is much more 'sua-vay,'" said Jim, comparing sips.

Lynne had previously sampled the "deconstructed Niçoise" (tuna salad) and recommended against ordering it, but we hit another "Ocean" clunker in fritters of bay scallops and white corn with passionfruit vinaigrette. "I don't taste any scallop at all," said Mark, first to embark. "And the corn seems lost, too." The rest of us agreed. The batter and the sour vinaigrette wiped out any other flavors.

The sole other flop came from the "Farm" -- crispy veal sweetbreads (the thymus or pancreas) wrapped in pancetta with red-orange jam. At Confidential, Walsh served a similar dish, in miniature (but with candied quince and an invaluable Banyuls red-wine reduction), and somehow it was brilliant there but oddly boring here. This time the batter-fried morsels were anonymous-tasting -- just some porous, neutral protein.


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