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Recession? You’d never know it if you judged by Illume (pronounced ill-LOOM, no accent on the e) and by the light but constant pedestrian traffic in its neighborhood. As for depression, it’s impossible at this cheerful bistro. The room’s center is a busy wraparound bar with pastel Day-Glo lighting and every stool occupied from early ’til late on an ordinary Thursday, which was when we were there. Bare floors, a wall-corner made from an old wooden beer or booze barrel, and unclothed tables with red napkins indicate the casual house spirit. Many of the tables, too, were filled with patrons in their 20s and early 30s, most a little arty, but not so out-front about it as the North Park crowd. Club music plays on the sound system, and with the exuberant conversations of the diners and drinkers, it’s a bit loud, like a lively but not yet raucous party.

The menu matches the relaxed ambience, offering medium-size “grazing” dishes proportioned for sharing among friends, with no firm line between appetizers and entrées. Figure two dishes per person, dessert optional. Our eight pre-dessert dishes (ranging from $8–$17) were perfectly sized for four sharers, with only a few bites left for this “old maid” to take home — not the usual waddle-out excess, but never too little either. (Figure $35–$60 a person, all told, including some modest wine. More, of course, with brazenly immodest wine, but there are only a few of those on the list.)

The menu is still changing (already gone, alas, is the goat cheese soufflé, which didn’t sell, while Italian-sausage–stuffed cannoli have been banished to the weekend late-night menu), and the kitchen is still finding out what its target population would like to eat. Celebrity chef Bradley Ogden (who originally shaped the flavors at Arterra and at Anthology) lives upstairs, in the apartment building atop the restaurant — as does his neighbor, Illume owner David Brienza, a general contractor making his first foray into the restaurant biz. Ogden served as the restaurant’s consultant, and the fare has his stamp of natural, seasonal, simple, and lightly seasoned dishes.

The food is largely transparent — you know just what you’re eating while you’re eating it. I’ve made no secret over the years that I respect Ogden’s skills but don’t really love his rather genteel culinary style; he seems the most purely heartland-American of the California-cuisine chefs, the least influenced by the rural French cuisine that originally inspired Alice Waters to pioneer the genre. (I prefer a more adventurous and indulgent take on natural flavors, e.g., locally, Jeff Jackson’s food at A.R. Valentien.) Keep this in mind when you weigh these opinions. If you love other local Ogden-influenced restaurants, push my star rating up by at least half a star.

For an example of simplicity, a roasted-beet salad with Bosc pear, blood orange–Port reduction, and goat cheese arrives looking like a diva on Oscar night, plated as a thick snow-white disk topped with sunny orange freckles of finely chopped golden beets and pears, sweetly dressed. (Oooh, it’s Nicole!) But that disk is apparently just goat cheese, straight-up. It’s good goat (probably Humboldt Fog), but I had to agree with my tablemates that, unmediated, the slightly gamey, lean cheese overmastered the beets and pears. My posse and I started remaking the dish in the kitchens of our minds: “If it were a goat-cheese mousse instead, thinned with some cream or crème fraîche.…” “Seasoned with something herb-y, like chives.…” “And lifted with a bit of gelatin, like a panna cotta.…” “…it would all taste better,” we concluded. (Honest, we do talk like this. People who are into cooking don’t stop cooking just because somebody else is in the kitchen. Alone in our own kitchens, we’re prone to muttered culinary soliloquies. Drives our mates, if we have them, totally bats.)

My friends loved the grilled-eggplant rolls filled with mildly herbed ricotta cheese and topped with marinara sauce. I merely liked them — they were agreeable but didn’t equal the swoony lushness of great eggplant rollatini, e.g., the versions at Firenze in Encinitas (where pine nuts enliven the stuffing) and at North Park’s Apertivo (where the roll includes Swiss chard and a topping of gooey mozzarella). The flavors and textures here seemed a bit minimalist, cleaving to the well-trodden middle road.

Our least favorite was a winter-squash soup topped with spiced pumpkin seeds and laced with crème fraîche. From the touch of sweetness, the soup tasted as if it might be made with apple cider, but aside from the lively spiced seeds, it lacked oomph. I looked around both our table and the neighbors’ for a salt shaker, and I’m usually a salt minimalist. “Where’s the pepper grinder?” asked Ben. To no avail. (When Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, initially she, too, refused to put salt and pepper on the tables, on grounds that the food was already perfectly seasoned. Within a few years, cute little dishes filled with sea salt appeared, as even cute little Alice came to realize that nobody’s perfect for all tastes.) “Needs cinnamon,” said Lynne. “Mace,” said Mark. “Warm curry spices — cardamom and coriander,” I said. With the pumpkin seeds consumed, the cooling soup congealed into ancient memories of Gerber’s baby food purées.

All of the above came from a menu section called “Earth,” located at the top of the page. Moving on to “Sea,” we chose the lively “crab and onion pancake, celery root–apple salad, Meyer lemon aioli,” to quote the menu details, a smart alternative to yet another boring ol’ crab cake. The thin, delicate pancakes were entrancing, though none of us could really taste the crabmeat. (Lump crab is a flavor that gets lost in a crowd as easily as a toddler at the mall.) I thought I tasted a hint of haunting celery root in, not just on, the crêpes. Turns out the shade of darkness came from shiitake mushrooms and the “rootiness” from a mixture of potatoes and three types of onions. The crisp raw salad on top and the daubs of brightly citric aioli were fine complements.

Our more substantial dishes began, from the third menu section titled “Range,” with a spectacular little thin-crusted pizza topped with lean Spanish chorizo slices, bites of yummy house-made Italian sweet sausage, a thin wash of salsa pomodori, and a bountiful pillow of burrata (“buttery”) mozzarella, cheese so young the insides aren’t yet set, exploding in the mouth into soft creaminess. You gotta have it if you love melted cheese — makes ya moan and groan.

Orange-glazed duck breast, although amiable, is hardly an original flavor combination, but the duck is tender, and it comes with a wild-mushroom pudding that’s airy but earthy — essentially a baked mushroom mousse. The posse fell madly in love with it. Once again, my palate was amused but not overcome. “What’s wrong with it?” asked Ben, indignant. “I’m from San Francisco,” I said. Regional gastro-snobbery raises its ugly head again! “Chef Roland Passot at La Folie was doing this better 20 years ago,” I said. “Spoiled, spoiled!” Mark scolded. “Yes, I have been. Passot used intense, European-type wild mushrooms — cèpes, chanterelles, maybe even morels, with much darker, wilder, more intense flavors. This one is great for the price, but it’s…born to be mild.”

We went back to the “Sea” again for Arctic char with lemon butter, a nice tender hunka fish (its flavor resembles a gentler salmon), but it didn’t quite get along with its garnishes of cannellini beans and Italian kale. Maybe the Arctic and the Mediterranean don’t mix that well — an assertive warm-water species (sardines, mackerel, yellowfin, or even branzino, Mediterranean sea bass) might fit better. It’s a near miss, every individual element in the dish delicious separately, but we decided they shouldn’t even date, much less marry.

An Italo-Cuban paella was fun. Instead of rice, its starch was fregula (“freckles”), a circular wheat pasta resembling large-bore Israeli couscous, with what the chef describes as “a nutty, toasty flavor.” The mix included baby octopus (tiny enough to pass for baby squid rings), black mussels, Spanish chorizo, and peas, with a base of sofrito, a Cuban/Puerto Rican/minced-veggie seasoning mixture that serves as the flavor base of Spanish-Caribbean casseroles — an island version of French mirepoix, or the New Orleans “Holy Trinity.” Chef Matt Richman picked up on this mixture when he was working in Miami a few years ago. (And yes, paella is legit with pasta instead of rice, given a firm, wheaty pasta. It’s a common variation in Catalan cuisine.)

“Don’t call me Scarface — my name is Mascarpone,” I murmured over the dessert choices (called “Heaven”), finding a mascarpone cheesecake with macerated strawberries and dulce de leche sauce that I knew I couldn’t resist. It proved lush but not oversweet, all in balance, but also less exciting than I’d hoped (again, that elusive “oomph” factor was missing — in this case, probably not enough fruity acidity to contrast with the dairy richness). Baked Julian apple pudding was homey comfort food, almost aggressively bland, mushy and baby-foodish again. Happily, it came with powerful cinnamon ice cream, of the sort that is often paired with tarte tatin but will freely bestow its muscular grace on lesser desserts.

There’s no espresso. The French-press coffee was dreadful (bitter and sour). Don’t know whether the fault lay with the beans or the measurement. It was cheap ($3.50 for a pot to serve four), but I’d rather a happy ending at a slightly higher price. Attention must be paid, because rarely is coffee this awful at a decent restaurant.

Although Brad Ogden made his name in the Bay Area, he has San Diego tastes down pat. Most people here love his clean, gentle palate. And Illume’s chef, Matt Richman, who is turning out flawlessly executed dishes in his style, probably doesn’t need to pay much attention to my quibbles (except about the coffee). The restaurant looks like a survivor — right location, right menu, right vibes for its demographic, already popular. Definitely the right food for post-Thanksgiving, when you may crave something lighter than those weighty festal leftovers. And it’s a great place to hang out with your homies and taste lots of pretty-good goodies. Most of the food doesn’t thrill me, but it will please anybody, and it might thrill you.

ABOUT THE CHEF
Chef Matt Richman is a local who wandered afield and came home again. After graduating from La Jolla Country Day School, he got a totally irrelevant university degree in New Mexico, while realizing his real passions lay in the kitchen. “I came from a cooking family — not professionally, but Mom and Dad always cooked. I was always fascinated by flavor combinations. Going to Chino Farms when I was younger was always really a treat.” He graduated from the CCA in San Francisco in 2001. While still in school there, he worked at the fabled Fifth Floor under the wildly talented (but erratic) George Morrone and after graduation worked at Kokkari Estiatorio, arguably America’s best Greek restaurant. “I would have loved to stay, but it was the dot-com era, and I couldn’t afford to live up there.”

Returning south, he worked at Pacifica Del Mar for almost five years. “Chris Idso, the chef there, really taught me a lot — both foodwise and back-of-the-house issues. And then I moved to Miami for a little bit and worked with some great chefs, great restaurants. They had completely different produce and proteins there. A little of that style definitely comes through in the foods I cook here, like the paella with Cuban sofrito, or the plantain chips on the ahi tartare. Then I came back and worked for a little [short-lived] French place in La Jolla called My Place.

“My consulting chef here was Bradley Ogden. He was living upstairs in the same building as the restaurant, and he got together with Illume’s owner, David Brienza, who was also living in the building and wanted to get into the restaurant business. Bradley hired me on. I subscribe to his theory of using the best ingredients possible and not really complicating the things and keeping it simple and let the natural flavors of the ingredients do their own thing. I don’t believe in overburdening foods with marinades or exotic spices. I like using different colors, so the food looks good on the plate. I think we’re involved in a renaissance of going back to simpler-style foods. I focus on the Mediterranean — French-, Greek-, and Italian-style flavors. I live a block away, and I knew I wanted to liven up the neighborhood with a good restaurant. I understand the San Diego scene, and I definitely want to be a torchbearer for where it’s going.”

Illume Bistro
***
(Good to Very Good)
675 West Beech Street (between Kettner Boulevard and India Street), 619-550-5600, illumebistro.com
HOURS: Daily 4:00 p.m.–1:00 a.m.
PRICES: Soups and salads, $7–$11; substantial appetizers, $12–$16; entrées, $12–$21; desserts, $6–$7; cheese plate, $15.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: California grazing cuisine with a Mediterranean accent, featuring natural, sustainable, seasonal products in medium-size portions. Smart international (heavily Italian) wine list, mostly under $50, with a dozen choices by the glass.
PICK HITS: Grilled-eggplant rolls; crab and onion pancake; small pizza with chorizo, Italian sausage, and burrata; duck breast with mushroom pudding; mascarpone cheesecake.
NEED TO KNOW: Ample street parking, plus two pay lots on the block. Lively bar scene, loud but not painful. Casual. Reserve, restaurant often full.

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