Sometimes change is good. Take Parallel 33. “It’s right in my neighborhood, but I haven’t eaten here in years,” said the Lynnester, buttering her baguette slice. “I ate here all the time when it first opened, but the menu never changed much, so I got bored.”
So, perhaps, did original chef-owner Amiko Gubbins. Researching the restaurant on the Web, I ran into a long-running Chowhound thread on “SD’s most overrated restaurants,” where a half-dozen bloggers over several years named Parallel 33. Amiko, after years of working on the cooking line and evidently tired of all her creations, finally ran away to cook for a rock star. (She’s now back in town working as chef liaison for Specialty Produce, which supplies fresh local farm goods and specialty items to most of San Diego’s top chefs.) She left her kitchen in the hands of chef Benjamin Moore. They are good hands. He has kept Amiko’s underlying concept but made the menu his own, and his food is mainly sound and satisfying.
Amiko’s mini-essay at the top of the menu explains the idea: “We wondered what unique qualities provided the Tigris-Euphrates Valley the honor as the birthplace of agriculture. Our discovery was that this noble valley shared its geographic orientation with San Diego! Naturally we followed the 33rd parallel around the globe to see what other interesting places might share our good fortune. Morocco, Lebanon, India, China, Japan and others — a swatch around the planet teeming with rich culinary…traditions.”
So the food is globally inspired, from the warmer reaches of the temperate zone (although some of the nations on the above list seem rather a stretch — surely only Japan’s southernmost islands and India’s northernmost areas could squeeze into this latitude). But unlike, say, Chow (Hillcrest’s transnational noodle emporium), the kitchen here doesn’t attempt to reproduce the classic dishes of any of the nationalities it touches upon. If not for the menu titles, you might not guess the food’s ethnic origins. These regions are more like exotic inspirations, the way the newfound enthusiasm for non-European art inspired the modernist painters and sculptors of early 20th-century France. Translated to visual terms, the food might resemble, say, a Matisse “Moorish” odalisque, a Modigliani pseudo-primitive stone caryatid, or Picasso’s evocation of African masks in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Yet most of the cooking furnishes sufficient pleasure in eating that its precise ethnic origins are beside the point. This is not gastroanthropology, it’s dinner.
The physical setting hasn’t changed much, although there have been improvements in noise management since I last ate here eight years ago. (I remember the din more than the dinner.) You can still peek into the kitchen window from the street and watch the multiethnic cooking line, all in blue baseball caps. The interior architecture is bare-floored and functional, but the decor has sweet touches: a Ganesh wall shrine near the front door (the Hindu elephant god, fostering new enterprises by removing all obstacles), a sensuous Shiva sculpture, bunches of dried flowers, and, in a fairly recent innovation, the ceiling of the main dining room whimsically splotched with soundproofing disks of various sizes. Most nights there’s a live DJ, and the music, the night we ate there, was a grown-up, tasteful mix (world music, Chicago blues, etc.), and as the restaurant filled and conversations got louder, the music blessedly was turned softer.
The Friday-night crowd was diverse — multiethnic, multigendered, multicostumed from jeans to date duds. It obviously included many regulars. Diners ranged from first-date couples to an extended family with kids, and even one baby. Don’t look for a kiddie menu; the families here seemed happy to have their offspring learn to eat like civilized people.
Reading the menu was an exercise in the suppression of gluttony. “Let’s have one of everything,” Cheryl chirped, voicing our universal sentiment. The staff, accustomed to “family style” eating groups, nicely staged our dinner, bringing it in groupings of dishes, like-with-like, giving us time enough to savor and taste everything before the next plates arrived.
The standout appetizer was aloo ki tikki, potato cakes on sliced mango with a side of dried pineapple and currant chutney dusted with cayenne. The tikki are slider-sized patties of pure-comfort mashed potato (with only the subtlest Indian spicing), fried crisp outside but soft inside, plated over mango slices sprinkled with chopped cilantro. The riotous chutney alongside, with chewy, tart dried fruits, is unlike anything you’re likely to find in India but captures the spirit. The combination of mild, tart-sweet, and hot floods the senses: It’s like jumping into a fast-flowing creek on a torpid day.
Another dip into vaguely Indian flavors is the masoor dal (pink lentil) soup, thick and soothing, topped with a swirl of coconut cream and a frizz of fried shallot slivers. I was again surprised by the subtle spicing, with neither the brassy dose of cumin nor the pronounced ground coriander typical of dal in both Tamil Nadu and in the East Indian cooking of the West Indies. Indian food usually displays an in-your-face complexity resembling the Hindu temples encrusted with hundreds of sculpted gods — or the streets of downtown Madras suddenly lined, at close of day, with hundreds of street-dwelling families coming “home” to camp on the sidewalk. India is a lot of a lot-ness, including the food. So this dal is much quieter and easier to handle than that. My friends dived into the porridge like a warm bath at end of day.
A fattoush salad wasn’t the Middle-Eastern version I expected (with oddly yummy slabs of soggy stale pita soaking up the dressing) but a leaner, cleaner, bracing mixture of small toasted croutons of naan (Indian flatbread) with romaine, tomatoes, cukes, carrots, and a dusting of sumac (a deliciously tart red Middle Eastern spice).
Naan also replaced pita in the starring role of a Mediterranean flatbread plate. It’s similar to pita but softer, gentler, slightly sweeter — a civilized, urbane upgrade of an ascetic desert bread. The dips are a fine, tangy tapenade, an ordinary hummus, and a too-ingratiating sweet mango sauce.
Our least favorite starter offered pot stickers filled with dry, lean chicken breast. “Would pork be better?” Sam asked. “Absolutely,” I said. “We’re missing the fat — eating virtue instead of flavor.” I’ve sampled some great minced-chicken dim sum in Chinese restaurants, especially in Hong Kong — but there the chefs usually substitute good “velveting” goo (e.g., silky, starchy slurries of cornstarch, taro flour or rice flour) for the missing pig fat.
There’s no let-down on the entrées. They are as full of life and creativity as the appetizers — not always perfect, but generally enjoyable.
Pan-seared sea scallops come with green lentils dotted with lardons of bacon, along with red squash, baby spinach leaves, and a maple-braised pearl onion and chanterelle compote. The delicate chanterelles are quite lost in this busy array, their flavor overpowered by even a touch of maple syrup. (They’d be better cooked simply and served on the side — and may be, by the time you read this.) The big three flavors are the perfect scallops, the smoky bacon, and the extraordinary caramelized pearl onions, so soft, sweet, and juicy, I mistook them for plumped-up dried fruit. All the rest plays backup, and the mélange is pleasing if a little incoherent. Don’t ask its country of origin — Morocco meets Maine?
Goan shrimp curry only goes Goan in its use of fresh tomatoes. As with the aloo tikki and the dal, the Indian flavors are mere glimpses — but this is a simple, tasty dish of shrimp and tomatoes, with fragrant coconut basmati rice and a topping of crisp fried shallots. It, too, is easy eating compared to its inspirations.
Pomegranate-glazed duck breast is tender and tangy. (I preferred it to Jade Theater’s too-sweet, too-tough rendering of the same idea.) It comes with glorious garnishes: kabocha squash purée, spinach for dark-green contrast, sautéed red onion, and looking for all the world like quartered potatoes, wedges of roasted Anjou pear. Although there are four types of sweetness assembled here, they’re all distinct from each other, and none is excessive or arbitrary.
Asian-cured short ribs were rather disappointing. They’re cured before cooking by a two-day dry marinade of coriander, Vietnamese cinnamon, star anise, orange, brown sugar, and salt, then braised in water and coated in a sweet soy glaze. They come with ginger-parsnip purée and thin wafers of crisped plantains. Thumbs up for everything except the meat, which was tender but lacking the great “meaty” flavor (umami) of this cut at its best, slapped around a little too harshly with salt and earthiness.
A friend with a superb palate who scouted this restaurant earlier went all swoony for the Alaskan halibut entrée. My group didn’t order it (I can’t imagine swooning for halibut), but if you like mild fish, keep it in mind. (She recommended against the appetizer “crispy” calamari, reporting that it’s not crispy.) The chef’s special favorite is salmon with Asian noodles in a Thai-inspired coconut broth. When I was there, the menu said it was Atlantic salmon, so I didn’t really consider ordering it. (Atlantic farmed salmon is so mushy, it feels untrustworthy — as if it’s looking forward to decaying.) The fish the chef is currently using is from Sitka, Alaska, pen-raised offshore in Washington State. That’s about the only Pacific salmon anyone’s likely to get this year; at least the cold waters up there should keep the flesh firm.
The new chef doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth, so I find his desserts highly appealing. Parallel 33’s most famous dessert (stemming from Amiko’s reign) is a plate of date madeleines — dainty cakelets, dense but not oversweet (and much improved over the leaden version I tasted eight years ago). Even better is the spectacular date b’stilla, a far-fetched improvisation on the great Moroccan appetizer pie of filo with a minced squab filling. Here, instead, is the mouthfeel of a rich Middle-Eastern pastry — minus the Moorish overload of honey or sugar syrup. The dense, moist cake of fruits and nuts (dates, pears, pecans) secretly seasoned with turmeric and paprika, is mainly sweetened with the natural sugar of the dates, plus powdered sugar on the filo crust. The chef told me, “You can’t really call it low-cal or low-carb,” but I suspect these are “good carbs.”
Often weary of the parade of ambitious new restaurants where the food may be interesting but only rarely quite right, I felt surprisingly grateful to relax into a tasty, imaginative dinner and the modest, unfailing good service that we experienced at Parallel 33. It probably was never as revolutionary as it might once have seemed, but a new chef makes it fresh again. Bring on that faux-Indian lentil soup, and I’ll dive back into it and soak my cares away.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Coronado-born Benjamin Moore was Amiko Gubbins’s handpicked successor to fill her tiny (and huge) shoes at Parallel 33. “I’d worked with her pretty intensely for about two years as her apprentice, about four years ago,” he says. “I moved up to Los Angeles to work in different places there and spread myself out, to learn as many facets of the restaurant industry as I could. I was able to work in a lot of different restaurants doing a lot of different things, from purchasing to sous-chef to butchering.
“I went to culinary school for a year at Cordon Bleu while I was still working in Los Angeles. It was a great experience, but I’d tell any young cook to get some restaurant experience before they go to culinary school. You get so much more out of it when you already have experience and know what you’re doing. You’ve got to make the best of the time, and at that level of money — $40,000 for tuition — you need to know what you’re getting into, the daily grind of working in a restaurant. The smallest and most fun part of my job is when I get to create something. The rest of the time, I have so much else on my mind.
“About a year and a half ago Amiko approached me and said she was going to move on — she’d been working night after night on the line all those years and wanted to retire — and would I be interested in coming down here and taking over? I jumped at the chance. It was a great honor to succeed her and to work with Robert again [owner Robert Butterfield] at a great restaurant that I’d worked at [previously] and put a lot of time into. I thought this would be a good situation to learn more — as a young chef, that’s what I’m interested in, to learn, learn, learn.”
Moore grew up in a large family that enjoyed eating together. He learned to cook alongside his mom, but his first restaurant job as a dishwasher was a total turnoff. “But then I got a job as a prep cook at the Chart House. And it’s hard to say — but just being in the kitchen every day is what brings me back.”
The only “parallel 33” countries that Moore has visited have been China, for a short time, and Thailand (not officially on the menu) for a longer and (of course) enchanting spell. (He’s eaten in Indian restaurants in L.A.) “The most pertinent thing about our food is the culture of the food — understanding why things are done a certain way… Seeing in Thailand how much they honor the food — that’s something that Amiko really instilled in me, to respect the food. That’s one of the main things I try to encompass in the cooking here.
“And again, making it be from San Diego as well. I try to stay away from the [genuinely] authentic — I use authentic ingredients, but I don’t want to make a dish verbatim. Above all, I try to have fun with it. The good thing about this restaurant is there’s endless regions to cook from, so…I can use ingredients that other chefs can’t use, because I can mix Moroccan with Chinese, and even New Orleans. It’s a huge challenge, a struggle, but it keeps me on my toes. I’ll be honest — a lot of stuff has not worked out, but it’s been fun trying.”
Owner Robert Butterfield has given him pretty much free rein to change the menu (but still maintain enough of the regulars’ favorites to keep them happy). “I’ve wanted to change things, I’ve wanted to make this my own food,” he says. “I wanted people to come in here and say there is somebody different back there, not somebody just trying to recreate what this place has been doing. And there’s nothing more rewarding about this job than cooking something that I love and having guests tell me, ‘This is great.’ ”
(Very Good to Excellent)
741 West Washington Street, Mission Hills, 619-260-0033, parallel33sd.com.
HOURS: Monday–Thursday 5:30–10:00 p.m., Friday–Saturday to 11:00 p.m.
PRICES: Starters, $8–$12.75; entrées, $20–$32; desserts about $8.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Globally inspired cuisine touched by the flavors of the world’s warm-temperate zone, including north Africa, the Middle East, India, China, Southeast Asia, Southern California. Interesting international wine list, enough by the glass, with sharply escalating prices but a sufficient number of affordable bottles. Full bar with fun cocktails.
PICK HITS: Aloo ki tikki potato cakes; masoor dal soup; scallops with lentils; Goan shrimp; pomegranate duck breast; date b’stilla, date madeleines. Chef favorite: salmon “Thom Gai.”
NEED TO KNOW: Small restaurant, reservations nearly always necessary. A bit loud when full. Informal atmosphere. Four vegan appetizers, one vegan entrée. New happy hour appetizer menu 5:30–7:00 p.m. nightly. Next-door Blue Lotus Lounge bookable for parties.