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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.
But "Farm" also furnished several of the evening's most riveting dishes, including two vastly different interpretations of foie gras. A tender "medallion" (a small, thin rectangle) came with diced chardonnay-braised pineapple and pine-nut brittle. The latter turned the dish into an edible (and delicious) hint of a culinary joke. The brittle made me think that this could be the foie gras recipe that Daisy Mae would cook for Li'l Abner after a vacation in Europe. (Before your time? Substitute Dolly Parton.) Tasting this, Jim made his evening's second surprise confession: He's never liked foie gras very much, but this one he loved -- mainly because the cut was thinner than usual.
Even better -- extraordinarily better -- was the smash hit of the evening and one of the best dishes I've tasted this or any other year. A foie gras crème brûlée ("25 percent foie gras, 75 percent cream," said the waiter), lightly sugared and seared on top, arrived in a ramekin as an ethereal custard to be spooned over thin, toasted slices of Bread & Cie's sumptuous anise-fig bread. Maybe some N.Y. or L.A. chef has come up with a similar idea, but it took genius to match it so ideally to create this heavenly manna. "Whew, this restaurant doesn't bite!" Jim burst out enthusiastically.
We tried two wholly satisfying red meat dishes. Savory, well-seasoned lamb meatballs came in a smoky, spicy tomato sauce that we all applauded, with firm grilled polenta and sprigs of wild arugula on the side. (What's the difference between wild and tame arugula? The "wild" version, arugula selvaggio, has smaller leaves and a stronger flavor -- and, take it from a gardener, its seeds are harder to germinate.) "Steak frite" offered a small flatiron steak marinated in red wine and cut into slices, arriving with garlic fries and a mini-cup of béarnaise sauce. The steak, rare as ordered, looked and cut like tenderloin, rather than the somewhat tougher flatiron, but had the latter's beefy flavor. The sauce, more acidic than usual, tasted as if it were made with white wine vinegar (a perfectly normal alternative to dry white wine). Tasting it straight, I wasn't mad for it, but when eaten with the steak, the fries, and the few tiny slices of yellow summer squash, it was just fine. The frites were perfect -- thin, crisp, and golden-brown.
We enjoyed all three of the desserts we ordered -- berry sabayon with vanilla ice cream, cream cheese bread pudding, and strawberry cobbler. The standout was the airy sabayon (an egg-yolk custard whipped into a frenzy, created by frenzied whipping -- or, in modern times, by a restaurant-supply foamer machine), with the mysterious but classic flavor undertone of a touch of Marsala.
If you're wondering how big a bite Bite will take out of your wallet, our indulgent feast -- 13 dishes for four people, with two rounds of drinks -- came to just $50 a head. After my July survey of "view" restaurants farther north, the price seems like a "best buy," and you can probably get away with less. So sit down and have a bite!
ABOUT THE CHEF
If you'd like to know Chris Walsh's life story, you'll find it on Bite's website. Since I interviewed him not too long ago for a review of Confidential, I had only a few fresh questions to bring things up to date. First was about the slight change in the direction of the food at Bite.
"When I was developing a menu for here," Walsh said, "and thinking about what I wanted to do next, I really wanted to continue with the 'small plates' concept, but I also was thinking about how at both Cafe W and Confidential we had a lot of Asian- and Latin-influenced dishes. And those are hard to pair with wines. You can only offer so many gewürztraminers and those lighter, fruitier styles of wine. At Confidential we had a full liquor license, and that was really the emphasis, while I knew that here, I would only have wines available. And also, my career started in Italian restaurants and with French cuisine, and I was thinking about getting back to that, because those cuisines are so wine-friendly. Legally, I can do the same dishes here that I did downtown, but I wanted to differentiate this restaurant from Confidential, because for me there's no point in doing two menus that are the same. My original concept for Bite was more of a wine bar with good food. We evolved into something different from that -- but there's a lot of wine bars in the area, yet none of them have really good food. So Bite developed from that philosophy of food and wine, where you'd try different glasses of wine to go with different dishes.
"We really wanted to create a fun atmosphere. I didn't want us to be stuffy or over-the-top like some of the downtown places that are all about grandeur. I wanted a place where I could reach out to the clientele I'd developed as far back as California Cuisine, and then again at W. But also have it be stylish enough to attract the twentysomethings, thinking about my future and cultivating future diners, because we hope to be in this location for quite a time. We see people in here who were clients at Cafe W, and it's really great because they always want to talk to me and tell me how glad they are that I'm back. I definitely like being up here again, close to home. It's so much more local and 'neighborhoody' here. I love that. Although I'm working much harder than I want to...
"We have a tighter crew, but we have more flexibility. Once a week, I can do new menu items, and that makes it fun for me and for my crew. I put on four new dishes this week. You get bored if you cook the same thing all the time.
"I'm still involved in Confidential, too. I left my sous-chef down there, and I talk with him on the phone once or twice a week, give him any help he needs. The menu there is still about 90 percent of what it was four months ago when I left."