Roseville (named for its first settler, Louis Rose, not a shrub) is a Point Loma neighborhood also called “the village.” It’s a bit out of the way but has such a distinctive character that going there feels like actual travel, a mini-vacation minutes from home. And now it has a serious restaurant of the same name to justify the trip — or as the Michelin Guide says, one that’s “worth a detour.”
Not far from Old Venice, Roseville’s site used to be a pizzeria, and before that it was — guess what? — a pizzeria. The renovated space is surprisingly large and airy, with well-spaced tables and booths, an antique copper ceiling, and a cool, woodsy, oddly rural elegance you might expect at an upscale resort in, say, Big Sur. It now plays host to a reunion of several staffers who were at Laurel in the period before Tracy Borkum bought that restaurant from Gary Parker and eventually replaced everybody. The owners are George and Wendy Riffle; George, a born charmer, ran the dining room at Laurel and, as a consultant, helped open Blanca and the Ivy. The chef is Amy DiBiase, who ran Laurel’s kitchen for a while and arrives at Roseville after a stint among the monkeys of Baleen. (Not live — just the decor theme there; Amy had a monkey embroidered on her chef’s jacket.) The pastry chef, Heather Fangon, is another Laurel alumna who worked alongside Amy on the sauté station there.
DiBiase’s maturing style involves evoking French classics but giving them fresh twists and surrounding them with spectacular seasonal produce. Take her asparagus salad. (You’ll be glad if you do.) It’s essentially the classic bistro salad of frisée, lardons and poached egg (and it does include a bit of frisée around the edges, along with watercress), but perfectly cooked asparagus dressed in truffled vinaigrette replaces most of the frizzy endive, and the crisp-cooked pancetta is even better than bacon. An exquisite poached egg, like a disc of golden sunshine, smiles on top of the greenery.
Herb-crusted albacore, in turn, is not your boring ubiquitous “seared ahi.” It’s transformed into a knockout (and normally I dislike albacore — too darn white for my taste). The thin seared edge is coated with dried herbes de Provence, strong on thyme, a nice change from standard black pepper with a sharpness of its own but also a deep, green dimension. On top of the near-raw, tender fish slices are salty, coarsely chopped Kalamata olives, while for contrast, the plate bears a thick slick of soothing, earthy shiitake cream. Combine a bite of fish with the olive tapenade and a dip into the silky sauce, and you’ve got a flavor/texture combination you’ve probably never experienced before. I found it spectacular.
Foie gras torchon (a round cooked by gently poaching in cheesecloth) is classic, but freshly paired with a slick of very sweet muscat cream sauce (sweeter than I liked, actually, but the Lynnester loved it) along with white peaches, and with hazelnut raisin toast if you want to spread your liver on it. (That reminds me to praise the delicious, crusty Italian-style table rolls from nearby Con Pane and the high-quality unsalted, spreadable butter.)
“What are gnudi?” Lynne asked as she read the menu. “They’re naked ravioli — the cheese filling without the pasta wrapping,” I said. “You’ll see. The g is silent, so they’re pronounced ‘nudie,’ like the old soft-core porn movies showing topless volleyball games.” They were cloaked in a marvelous fresh morel mushroom butter sauce alongside fresh peas with summer truffles. Although comparisons may be odious, I couldn’t stop myself from comparing them to the ethereal, float-away buffalo-milk ricotta gnudi that DiBiase’s onetime Laurel boss, Jason Shaeffer, made when he was at 1500 Ocean at the Hotel Del. These gnudi were pleasant but earthbound.
Our best entrée was a flawless duck-leg confit, with crunchy skin rising airily about the moist, succulent meat. “I’ve had so many awful confits in San Diego,” I mused aloud, “with flaccid, soggy skin, or else skin that’s burned and dried out over dry meat. But this — this — is true French-style confit. The crackly skin is the whole point of the dish. Almost like Peking duck.” It came swathed in a mixture of braised shelling beans, wonderfully intense rainbow chard, bits of applewood-smoked bacon (making the beans happy, and us too) and flavorful, greaseless duck jus. This was so good that when time came to pass the plate, Lynne had to tell her normally polite next-seat neighbor, “ Don’t bogart that duck, my friend.”
Braised Berkshire pork cheeks tasted oddly sexy, perhaps because of their deeply porky flavor and juiciness. Berkshire hogs are a heritage breed, slow growing, raised naturally and humanely as a premium meat and usually sent to piggy heaven at about 200 pounds, rather than the 300-plus pounds of commercial breeds. All these factors, plus the lushness of cheek-meat, could account for the appeal of the dish. But the meat was glazed rather too generously with orange-lavender honey, which is delicious stuff but a little overwhelming. This is a near-great entrée that needs better balance — I’d like less honey, more pig jus. Amy has heard other diners’ opinions and is still thinking about the best balance for the dish.
“What’s brandade?” asked Inta, a handsome, Nordic blonde (and fellow New York expat) joining the posse for the first time, as we were trying to decide on our entrées. “It’s salt cod that’s been soaked to rehydrate it, mixed with potato purée and milk or cream,” I said. “Let’s try it!” was the response. It came as a large, lightly breaded croquette supporting a slab of northern halibut, with whole-grain mustard crème fraîche and asparagus. Loved the croquette, but the halibut was overcooked to serious dryness. I didn’t think I’d have to specify, way out in untouristed Point Loma, that I like my fish “underdone” by Zonie standards. When I spoke with Amy later, she confessed to cooking it to the preference of all those retired Navy officers out there who demand their fish thoroughly dead. The default is “medium-well” (mine is opalescent medium-rare). If you want it done less, state your preference when you order it.
“What’s a papillote?” Sam asked. Alex, our paragon of a waitress, had arrived at our table, and she fielded the question, explaining that it’s a wrap of parchment paper. When you bake fish and vegetables inside it, the fish comes out moist and aromatic. The papillote du jour contained local rockfish and summer squash. Sam somehow mentally envisioned a pastry case instead of a paper wrap (no, hon, that’s a coulibiac) and wanted to try it. The dish disappointed us: Rockfish are on the bland side, and so are summer squashes. No big thrills there. (Best fish en papillote I’ve ever eaten was a hunk of Copper River salmon with fresh morel cream sauce — two vibrant flavors with cream to mediate between them.)
“What’s a tian?” asked Inta, looking at the list of side dishes. I was starting to feel like Yojimbo, the grumpy title samurai in Kurosawa’s film, with a gaggle of student wannabes asking him too many questions. “It’s named for the cooking vessel, an unlidded earthenware baking dish, and it consists of layers of sliced vegetables baked together.” The tian on the menu was of summer squash, a veg that we were already having with the fish, so we didn’t order it. Fries-freak Lynne wanted to try the side of pommes frites, of course, which turned out to be skinny, salty, and perfect. I wanted to try the mac ’n’ cheese, more formally called Orecchiette and Humboldt Fog Gratin. It was interesting — thick pasta and lean, tangy goat cheese. Sam, lactose-intolerant, particularly took to it. (Goat cheese has no lactose.)
Sorry to say, our party got the last bottle of a fabulous white wine (unless the restaurant can buy some more): Qupe’s “Bien Nacido” Cuvée chardonnay-viognier 2007. Big, chewy, slightly sweet with bright acidity, it was ideal for our first courses, easily able to handle the vinaigrette on the asparagus and a spectacular match for the salty-earthy albacore garnishes. For a second round, our waitress suggested the Saint-Bris sauvignon blanc from France. It, too, was full-bodied and rewarding, opening up to a generous, fruity, oakless finish. To go with the pork and duck entrées, we ordered a couple of glasses (neatly divided by our waitress) of the Magnet pinot noir, a thoroughly food-friendly bottling, firm and rich, again with up-front fruit. Of course, I hated to pass on the Batard Montrachet ($395) from the whites selection, and, alas, the 2000 Châteauneuf du Pape ($2950) is a three-liter bottle. That was more than we needed, so for that reason alone we didn’t order it. It’s a fine wine list — our delicious wines were all from its lowest-price end — and our waitress guided us expertly.
Having to try desserts after all this food was near tragic. We were full halfway through our entrées. Making matters worse, the espresso machine had just blown up in a fit of Italian pique, so my standard with-dessert drink was unavailable. The regular coffee was made from a good Italian dark roast and tasted fine, but George was so apologetic that he insisted on comping us to two extra desserts (groan!).
(Actually, we were pretty sure that we got “made” as a reviewing party, just by being so ultra foodie. We’d asked too many questions. Passed plates around too expertly, with the practiced choreography of a Marx Brothers skit. Kept a menu to consult as we ate, so we’d know what we were tasting. All these tactics add up to more fun in restaurant eating, and if you-all would adopt them, too, you’d enjoy your meals even more and also give me a little extra cover. You might even get comped for dessert sometime. Anyway, halfway through dinner, Lynne spotted the waitress talking to George behind a pillar, surreptitiously glancing at us. Didn’t really matter, though, because by then we were well into the meal; nothing about the cooking could be changed to impress us, service was already fine, and George had been hospitable from the very start — and cute from birth.)
Hazelnut brown butter cake (in French it’s called financier) comes with Bing cherries in red-wine sauce, topped with mascarpone gelato. “It’s the sleeper on our dessert menu,” George told us. It was our favorite. Light, nutty cake with a distinct butter undertone, loose chopped nuts all around, and accompaniments to sweeten it without weighing it down — pure, homey satisfaction.
“Chocolate and blackberries” consists of chocolate cake, chocolate mousse, and blackberry sorbet. It’s dark and, oh my, it’s chocolatey. The tart sorbet keeps it from edging past decadence. And bittersweet chocolate pot de crème is simply the French classic, the Gallic form of chocolate pudding, accompanied by a crackly little rectangular cookie of dark chocolate and nuts.
Lemon chiffon parfait tasted to Inta like “Key lime pie without the crust.” It was a rich but weightless whip of tangy cream with fresh citrus sections at the bottom, topped with raspberries and companioned by a tasty lavender shortbread cookie to bring it back to earth. (Can they make me up a bathtub full of this stuff to soak in?) The menu said the dessert included “citrus suprèmes.” “What are suprèmes?” asked Sam. “Baby love, oh baby love, I need you, oh, I need your love,” I sang out in a fake-soprano as acidic as the lemon. No more questions. And this time, I didn’t know the answer.
ABOUT THE CHEF
“I’ve always worked in restaurants,” says Amy DiBiase, who just turned 30. “I grew up in an Italian family, so food was always around. My grandfather owned a little clam shack in Maine, and my mom and my aunts were all general managers at restaurants. So I was a little restaurant rat…. I was in the back of the kitchen hanging out with my mom. I’d get stuck doing little jobs, like, I’d be over with the guys portioning meats or bagging things for them or doing silverware or helping my mom with her paperwork. It was a really good background in the reality of restaurant work.… A lot of people come out of culinary school, never working in a restaurant, and they’re just — sometimes they’ve spent all that money on school, and when they start working, they just can’t handle it.”
Right out of high school she attended Johnson and Wales Culinary School in Rhode Island. By the time she graduated, her parents were moving to North County, so she researched San Diego and at age 22 found a job as a line cook at Laurel under Jason Shaeffer (who had just replaced Boston-bound Douglas Organ, the original chef-owner). Eventually, she worked her way up to chef de cuisine, a job she’d held there for over a year when Tracy Borkum bought the restaurant and installed Fabrice Poigin as executive chef over the entire Borkum empire (which also includes Chive, Kensington Grill, and a catering company). A few months later, Amy was replaced. (A few months after that, Poigin resigned.)
“I’d been there four and a half years, so it was time to move on and learn something else, and I had an opportunity at Baleen as chef de cuisine under executive chef Brian Freerksen, who was a great mentor,” says Amy. “George Riffle here was a regular customer of Baleen, and he brought me in and introduced me to the general manager and the executive chef. We had a number of casual meetings and eventually a tasting. It was about a two-month process. They hired me to bring in a local chef, bring in some local business. I reformatted the menu while keeping their signature dishes — for a hotel restaurant they gave me a lot of creative freedom as soon as I earned their trust. I was such a shy person, even after all that time at Laurel I didn’t know the other chefs around town, but I starting doing a lot of charity events, things like that, to get local attention, and now I’m not shy anymore. Baleen gets a lot of attention in the national media, but they hadn’t done a lot locally. And since it’s a hotel restaurant, I learned the ‘numbers side’ of being a chef — how to run an efficient, profitable restaurant, accounting for the fluctuations in food costs and the labor costs. You don’t get to see that on a daily basis in an independent restaurant.
“This is my first executive-chef position, and it’s a whirlwind. You think that you’re prepared, and then you’re not. I thought I knew what was up with opening a restaurant from the bottom up. I think I did well with the hiring. I put in a little ad in craigslist and was really adamant about hiring people who were into food and wine and not [just] for a paycheck, and I have a great staff back there. We opened strong. A lot of people were surprised at how fast and how well we came together.” She still works on the line most nights, expediting and tasting plates before they go out. When necessary, she’ll fill in any position from garde-manger to line chef.
The final question: What are suprèmes? They’re the citrus fruit sections (navel orange, mandarin, ruby grapefruit, whatever) that lurk in the depths of the lemon parfait.
1125 Rosecrans Street (at Cañon), village of Point Loma, 619-450-6800, rosevillesd.com.
- HOURS: Seven days, 5:30 to about 9:30 p.m. weeknights and Sunday; to 10:30 p.m. weekends or when busy.
- PRICES: Appetizers, $11–$20; entrées, $19–$32; desserts, $8–$16.
- CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: California-French seasonal cuisine with fine ingredients. Well-chosen international wine list at wide price range ($29–$2950), 18 choices by the glass.
- PICK HITS: Asparagus salad, herb-crusted albacore, foie gras torchon, duck confit, pommes frites, hazelnut brown butter cake, lemon chiffon parfait. Chef’s picks: halibut with brandade, Monday-night special Meyer beefburgers (plus confit, lemon chiffon parfait).
- NEED TO KNOW: Hard-to-find, narrow restaurant entrance is between a large drugstore and Village Liquors (look for small dining patio). Parking (and actual front entrance) in back. Atmosphere elegant but comfortable; norm is dressy-casual to slightly dressy.