2600 Calhoun Street, Old Town
I deliberately ignored the most recent previous incarnation of Old Town State Historic Park and everything in it. Oh, I did succumb to curiosity at one point, enough to have a margarita and a few bites at a Mexican restaurant, but I couldn’t bring myself to write about it. Everything was awful, especially the deep gloom at this once-festive end of the park. I’d had no love for the Casa de Turismo style of Mexican restaurants of the long-standing earlier regime, when this end of the park was an ongoing fiesta with running hot and cold mariachis playing to the big, happy crowds, but at least the atmosphere in those days was fun, the margaritas big, cold, and tasty.
Now everything at Old Town has changed again. A Chula Vista restaurateur/entrepreneur is running the park’s concession area. Better yet, the former Casa de Bandini has been remodeled within an inch of its life, restoring the stately old hotel that once occupied the spot. (Yes, you can actually stay there — wouldn’t that be fun?) People who knew it as Casa de Bandini can scarcely believe it’s the same place.
Best of all, at the Cosmopolitan Restaurant, which dominates the lower floor of the building, the chef is Amy DiBiase, whose work I enjoyed greatly at the late Roseville in Point Loma and at Laurel before that. Hire a good chef and good food is bound to follow.
It was a rare hot evening when my party and I arrived. We merely peeked at the inside dining room: old Spanish Inquisition–style decor (but well lighted), with tall leather chairs for the inquisitors/diners. But the patio, with its potted citrus and olive trees, flowering planters and central fire-pit, was the place for us to soak up the last of the day’s sunshine, shaded by a slotted overhang. We chose a red-tableclothed six-top for the four of us (regular posse members Lynne, Ben, and Mark) so that we, our purses, and our food could spread out comfortably.
Scattered around us, especially at the four-tops closest to the central fire-pit on the patio, were vacationers in their national costume of pastel shorts and light shirts. (No white lace dresses to match the hotel decor, alas.) On the lower level of the patio, a small band, with violin as lead instrument, played the decorous but lively music you might have heard in the hotel parlor in the 19th Century, ranging from “Für Elise” to “Oh, Susannah!” and “Erie Canal” and, to my happy amazement, the old British music-hall song “Champagne Ivy” (memorably sung by Miriam Hopkins as the doomed Cockney B-girl opposite Fredric March as Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 masterpiece). Who knew that anybody still knew that tune?
We were already happy on that breezy patio. Delicious small rolls from Con Pane Bakery and spreadable butter increased our happiness, as did the bar list of largely forgotten old-time cocktails. I lasered in on a Ramos Fizz, one of my favorite cocktails (which until now, nobody local seemed to know how to make). Reputedly invented in New Orleans and here renamed Rum Raymos, with a switch from gin to rum as the central booze, it’s made with whipped egg whites, vanilla liqueur, soda, lime juice, and orange-flower water. Creamy on top, sweet and tangy, it deserves a revival. “Wow, this tastes like a liquid key-lime tart,” said Mark. At my urging, Lynne ordered the Lady Seeley’s Violette Fizz, which was a pretty red color but sour, not fizzy, and minus the creamy topping. (The guys ordered boring guy-drinks, worse luck to them.)
The appetizer list is longer than the choice of entrées, and we liked them better too. If I were here on my own dime, I’d consider a grazing meal of starters only, not just for economy’s sake but for maximal pleasure. But be aware that this is a seasonally determined menu, and some of our favorites may vanish as autumn comes on.
A white corn soup, both satisfying and intriguing, showcases three incarnations of corn. It’s a thick corn purée garnished with crisp tortilla strips, kernels of corn relish, and a pale green, slightly spicy translucent glaze of chile poblano cream atop the liquid. “I love the way the tortilla strips show off another form of corn in here,” said Ben.
Heirloom tomato salad is a cross between a caprese and a panzanella. It includes hunks of great, gooey burrata mozzarella and crisp bread croutons, with pickled red-onion strips; firm, pebbly-skinned cucumber slices; and a mint and pistou (basil and olive oil) dressing. The red and yellow tomato pieces, at the peak of ripeness, were intensely sweet — “but there’s not enough of them,” said Lynne. “And the croutons are too hard,” said Mark, “so they don’t really mix with the rest of the salad.” I couldn’t agree more. I love panzanella (Italian bread salad) best in the folk version, made with torn-up day-old Italian bread slices that absorb the dressing and go a little soggy.
“This just needs a little caviar on top,” said Ben with a devilish grin, tasting the house-cured salmon plated with a “tart” of heaped-up sliced potatoes. Poblano rajas (thin sautéed chili strips) lent a touch of spiciness atop the fish, while a tangle of watercress leaves and stems added a sharp green touch. Sitting shyly around the edges were a few small sections of fresh mandarin orange. A wonderful, slightly tart citrus crema sat alongside to spoon on at will. Many local kitchens have been making house-cured salmon, but this proved one of the best versions I’ve tasted, as bold and full-flavored as great sashimi. Yes, it might deserve a bit of caviar, but it doesn’t strictly need it.
Confit of suckling pig is served on a rectangular wooden board: a heap of shredded, succulent piglet-meat sits next to an ooze of warm, buttery, soft polenta, with a separate heap of arugula and fresh Mission figs (four figs to our plate, and I’d bet our terrific waiter made sure we wouldn’t be shorted). The combination is a delight, even as the polenta cools to a soft-textured solid.
Our waiter, Roger, was obviously a veteran of the profession, with an interesting, weathered face and room-lighting smile. We hated passing up his recommendations for the watermelon salad, the charred Romaine Caesar, the steamed mussels and clams. Put those in the “good bets” section. He offered his expertise in helping us choose wines to suit our food, and I probably disappointed him because my heart and budget were already set on a White Knight Viognier ($28), which was very Viognier with big, fruity flavors. There were plenty of other good under-$40 alternatives, even among the reds (e.g., a Yalumba Australian Shiraz for $30).
The scallops with fennel entrée listed on the website has unfortunately vanished, leaving shrimp fajitas (I wish I’d noticed that they were shrimp, not meat) and a selection of the whitest, leanest sorts of finfish, albacore, swordfish, and halibut. I hate cooked albacore — I like it as sushi, but cooked, it’s just tunafish — and Lynne hates swordfish, so, we dutifully tried the olive-oil–poached halibut, a thick hunk that was nicely cooked, set atop the slimmest asparagus and what the menu calls “wild mushroom fondue,” meaning a thin broth that was based on mushrooms somewhere in its early history. On top of the fish was a fluffy heap of green-onion pesto. “Not bad for halibut,” I said. Nobody else at my table was even that enthusiastic.
The happy surprise was the carne asada with nopales (only $12), a huge slab of good beef, about half an inch thick, grilled a bit pink in the center. “I thought carne asada was always thin and sliced and well done to the max,” said Mark. Indeed, that’s the taco-ready version at most local Mexican restaurants. (Local meat-jobbers catering to Mexican restaurants and neighborhoods sell it sliced thin and pre-marinated, and very cheap.) This was more like what you’d get at the great Baja steakhouses such as El Nido and La Espadaña, where the dish is given due respect. On the side was a pile of sliced, sautéed nopalitos, the peeled, de-spined pads of the opuntia cactus, with a taste as deep green as their color and a slightly slippery texture, like a polite version of okra. In the center was an ear of charred sweet white corn (also available as an appetizer) and half a charred white onion. A few corn tortillas and a vibrant, semi-hot roasted tomato salsa also come alongside, if you want to make your own tacos.
Temecula Lavender Honey and Kumquat Glazed Pork Cheeks was my first entrée choice upon reading the menu, but I liked it less on the fork. The sweet tastes of the honey and kumquats were so subtle, I’m not sure I’d have detected their presence if the menu hadn’t mentioned them. Mainly, though, the meat seemed so dense and heavy on a hot night that I wished I could tear it into shreds and turn it into tacos with tomatoes, avocados, and cotija cheese to lighten it up. (The portion was large enough to make tacos for a whole family.)
The eight-ounce USDA Prime naturally raised Meyer Ranch top sirloin steak was a different meaty story. Ben got it first. “Like butter,” he said, and he was right. It came ideally cooked to my order of “very rare,” meaning, rich red with a well-charred exterior. A delicious red-wine sauce moistened it and brought out the natural flavors. It was a well-nigh perfect steak (for $19), and the eight-ounce size was perfect, too — plenty for all four of us sharing dinner, plus a bit left over, rather than caveman-steakhouse size. (If that’s what you want, there’s also a 14-ounce Meyer Prime rib-eye for $29.) Ben passed around the cone of slim herbed fries to make sure we each got to taste a few before they cooled. On the side is a tasty little salad of cherry tomatoes and greenery with exquisite Point Reyes Blue Cheese.
Our charmer of a waiter not only magicked us into eating dessert, he seduced us into ordering churros. “They’re the best I’ve ever tasted,” he said, eyes agleam. My friends were skeptical — they’ve all had bad ones at chain Mexican restaurants. Well, the waiter was right. These are the best I’ve ever tasted, too, even topping the previous champions at El Vitral. Heavily dusted with cinnamon, they’re crisp outside, airy throughout, and moist at the center with a narrow ribbon that seems to be some sort of sugary custard. If that weren’t enough, they came with a dip of liquid Mexican-style chocolate sauce spiked with cinnamon and the gentlest touch of chipotle chilis, a tiny nip and not a whack. The sauce alone could be a dessert. We also tried a mousse-like butterscotch pot-au-crème, mild, fluffy, and sort of pallid. There’s no espresso, but I thoroughly enjoyed the bold French-roast coffee, which set off the sweets so well.
Tasty food, pleasant surroundings, amusing music, great service, and you can even wear what you want — that adds up to a terrific new restaurant way too good to waste on tourists alone. And the bottom line is merciful, with appetizers averaging about $10, entrées about $17. All in all, a fine value for the price.
While Lynne and Ben went off to retrieve their respective cars, Mark and I (who’d taken the easy way out via the Fiesta de Reyes parking lot) stopped to admire a little garden of corn, tomatoes, and herbs next to Fiesta. A balding, bespectacled passerby asked if we’d just been to Cosmopolitan and how we liked it. Taking him for a prospective customer, we gave him an enthusiastic review. Grinning broadly, he disclosed that he’s the owner. I thanked him for reviving the Ramos Fizz, saying, “I used to love them but haven’t had one in so many years!” “You’re from San Francisco, you drank them in the Haight-Ashbury, didn’t you?” he said. “You know her!” said Mark. “That’s the last time and place they were popular,” the owner laughed. “They were never popular in San Diego.” ■
Cosmopolitan Restaurant and Hotel
★★★½ (Very Good to Excellent)
Old Town State Historic Park, 2600 Calhoun Street, 619-297-1874; oldtowncosmopolitan.com (website menu semi-obsolete)
HOURS: Lunch, 11:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m.; dinner, 5:00–9:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers, $3–$15; mains, $10–$29 (most in upper teens); desserts, $7.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: “Old San Diego cuisine?” More like seasonal California/Mediterranean-meets-gourmet-Mexican, with local produce and well-raised meats. Great old-timey, near-forgotten cocktails, plus varied international wine list, mainly under $50, plenty by the glass.
PICK HITS: Rum Raymos cocktail; white corn soup; heirloom tomato salad; house-cured salmon on potato tart; confit of suckling pig with polenta; carne asada with corn and nopales; Meyer Ranch Prime top sirloin. Good bets: charred Romaine salad (Caesar variation); watermelon salad with goat cheese; steamed mussels and clams; Meyer Ranch Prime rib-eye.
NEED TO KNOW: Informal (Yumans in shorts). Parking a pain during tourist season. No veg entrées but good appetizer grazing for lacto-vegetarians (and carnivores too). Long walk through park from public lot. Best access for mobility-challenged: Start from small parking lot for Fiesta de Reyes at Juan and Calhoun Streets, go a quarter-block uphill on wide dirt path to side entrance, with ramp access to lower patio and then to main patio/restaurant-level.