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Average Easy Comforts of La Playa Bistro

It's "nice," if you get my meaning: a Norman Rockwell picture of Sunday dinner after church.
It's "nice," if you get my meaning: a Norman Rockwell picture of Sunday dinner after church.
Place

Seaside Pho & Grill

1005 Rosecrans Street #101, San Diego

La Playa is a sweet little neighborhood spot that its neighborhood obviously embraces — it was packed on a Thursday night. The Lynnester (slim, chic, and currently very blond) arrived early and seemed to be making a conquest at the bar when Dave, Sam, and I arrived and spirited her away to a table. Some tables offer banquettes; ours was a regular four-top with reasonably comfortable leather-padded chairs.

A food publicist who usually has a good palate had emailed me when La Playa opened last summer, saying that I’d “love it.” Well, the secret is: never trust a food publicist.

The house breads are from the great Bread & Cie, but you get them only if you order a dish that includes them — no table bread here. Servers are, however, quick and energetic. At first glance the menu looked interesting, until I realized how many dishes are clichés. On my menu printout from the website, I scribbled “boring!” next to all three salads. (You got yer pear-Gorgonzola-walnut, yer chipotle chicken Caesar, yer beet and nut-crusted goat cheese. Yawn.) There are a couple of mildly interesting flatbreads and a soup du jour. (Split pea that night — no way. Even if it’s good, it’s bound to be bad.) Appetizers include the inevitable fried calamari (somewhat tempting due to the Chinese five-spice blend for seasoning and a pineapple dipping sauce), charcuterie not made in-house, unspecified cheeses, hummus, garlic-asiago fries. Wake me when it’s over.

There are a few friskier choices. These include stuffed piquillo peppers — mild, lightly smoked bottled red peppers from Spain (a staple of tapas bars, typically paired with anchovies) stuffed with chorizo and goat cheese, with sides of avocado slices, organic greens, and roasted red-pepper sauce. The pair of peppers were lightly battered, the stuffing savory. And who can resist bacon-wrapped dates (with an imperceptible feta stuffing)? The bacon was wonderfully fatty and smoky.

With crab cakes we returned to normal SD food, but we were curious about them since, locally, minuscule differences from one restaurant to another seem to mark a “signature” appetizer. These were your average heavily breaded San Diego crab cakes, all crab flavor submerged.

For our fourth appetizer, Dave pleaded for the (inexpensive) mac ’n’ cheese entrée. I was certainly not averse to a few bites of my favorite high-carb taboo food. Here, it’s penne, cooked very soft with an unidentified “trio of cheeses” and a topping of garlic-bread crumbs. From the prevalence of asiago on the menu, we can assume it was one of the trio, but the dominant cheese seemed to be pizza-parlor mozzarella, the kind that forms long, spidery strings when you lift your fork. (Why doesn’t any restaurant use sharp cheddar anymore in this dish? Not soothing enough?)

“The theme of this restaurant,” said Dave, “seems to be blandness.” He was dead-on, and the pattern continued through the entrées.

Of course, chicken pot pie is supposed to be bland. The plentiful Shelton Farms probably organic chicken under puff pastry includes dark meat along with white, baby carrots, celery, and cippolini onions. It’s “nice,” if you get my meaning: a Norman Rockwell picture of Sunday dinner after church somewhere in the Midwest. But at least it isn’t all scant breast-meat and starchy sauce-thickener like the ready-to-nuke version from Vons’ deli case or the appalling frozen versions my cooking-averse mama “made” for me and which I adored.

The jambalaya is a near-tragic joke, if your mouth is set for genuine jambalaya when you see it on the menu. They ought to rename it — call it perloo*, maybe, like the rice-and-seafood entrée of the mid-South’s low country, because few Californians have developed any expectations of specific flavors from that. Yes, I ordered jambalaya as a provocation — and it proved laughable, because the rice was sugar-sweetened (!), perhaps to buy off the little spots of pepper-heat among the outlandish ingredients: fish, New Zealand mussels, scallops, crab claws, okra (okra? hey, that’s for gumbo!), plus the normal shrimps, sausage, peppers, and newfangled smoked tomato sauce. I’m trying to fight my own Cajun-Creole, oh-so-PC purist urges here and let a thousand jambalayas bloom — but the sugar defeats my best ecumenical intentions. Southern Louisiana is a little patch of the Third World on U.S. territory, so what we have here is an unwittingly colonialist chef stealing and trashing an ethnic masterpiece.

The bartender told Lynne his favorite entrée is the braised lamb shank meat with pappardelle with a host of mushrooms and vegetables, but for our table the specials sounded more interesting. Duck breast in red-wine sauce reached Dave first. “It’s room temperature, obviously cooked well ahead,” he said. It was okay, but uninspiring, and not nearly worth its $28 price tag. It’s a “move on, folks, nothing happening here” dish — no catastrophe or spectacle to gawk at, just routine cooking.

The fish du jour was grouper, a delicious Gulf Coast species, cooked tenderly — but a half an hour later, I couldn’t remember a thing about the dish beyond an image of pristine baby carrots. The aspect of La Playa I like best is the ample, tasty fresh vegetables served with nearly everything. (My doggie bags typically include huge slabs of leftover animal protein, hardly any remaining veggies. This proportion is much closer to real nutrition.)

Other potential entrée choices include grilled Duroc pork tenderloin with cabbage and apple compote and, ugh, yet another garlic mash; petite filet mignon; a rib-eye stir-fry with glass noodles and veggies, and braised short ribs (yawn mightily) over barley stew, which a Yelp post said was undercooked both in meat and in barley. There are several burgers, including a lamb burger with Gorgonzola butter on a Bread & Cie brioche roll that sounds good, plus New Zealand mussels, linguini with smoked tomato cream sauce, cod fish ’n’ chips, and a vegan “autumn harvest” of zucchini rolled around eggplant caviar with lentils and curried squash.

Our Rosenblum Viognier from Alameda was pleasant but too sweet. For an entrée red we chose a screw-top André Brunel Côte du Rhône, an easygoing food wine, just right for a neighborhood restaurant.

The dessert list held several temptations, especially the tart of pears topped with cardamom glaze on puff pastry, with almond-paste, vanilla gelato, et al. Many words describe a simple rush of pure pleasure: pears, cardamom, and almonds equals Romeo, Juliet, and Friar Tuck. A float of Maui coconut Porter with vanilla gelato — well, serious beer-bibbers and bibulous Friar Tuck may get off on it. Yelpers like the cheesecake, bread pudding, and affogato (espresso topped with gelato), but our disappointing espressos were too bitter and lacked crema on top.

Easy to see why locals flock to a comfortable, nice-looking, mainly value-priced neighborhood joint offering friendly service and the comfort foods folks crave in tough times. But the late Roseville was so much better, and it didn’t get this degree of neighborhood support. Yeah, the food is good; if no more than good, ample, comforting, and nutritious, but lacking even a hint of inspiration. Would I come back? Not likely. I’d rather try and whip up something more interesting at home.

*Perloo, purlow, or various other spellings, is a regional-dialect variation on “paella” or “pilaf.” It typically includes rice and aromatics, such as chopped onions sautéed in oil and then cooked in chicken or seafood stock, usually with shrimp, sometimes with chicken. Native to the coastal low country of Georgia and the Carolinas, it’s also found as far west as the Ozarks.

La Playa Bistro

★★ (Good)

1005 Rosecrans Street (between Talbot and Upshur), Point Loma, 619-546-9500; laplayabistro.com

HOURS: Monday–Friday 4:00–10:00 p.m., Saturday 8:00 a.m.–10:30 p.m.; Sunday 8:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers, soup, flatbreads, salads, $5–$12; entrées, $10–$28; desserts, $3–$8.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: American seasonal comfort foods made with virtuous ingredients. Well-chosen, affordable international wine list, most bottles under $40, plus higher reserve list; lots by the glass, plus craft beers, wine- and sake-based cocktails.
PICK HITS: Piquillo relleno; bacon-wrapped dates, pear tart. Possible good bets: lamb burger on Bread & Cie brioche bun; lamb shank meat with pappardelle; mussels; cheesecake; bread pudding.
NEED TO KNOW: Small room, reserve to avoid long wait. Informal; moderate noise. Small parking lot in back, easy street parking. One vegan, gluten-free entrée, several lacto-veg choices.

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It's "nice," if you get my meaning: a Norman Rockwell picture of Sunday dinner after church.
It's "nice," if you get my meaning: a Norman Rockwell picture of Sunday dinner after church.
Place

Seaside Pho & Grill

1005 Rosecrans Street #101, San Diego

La Playa is a sweet little neighborhood spot that its neighborhood obviously embraces — it was packed on a Thursday night. The Lynnester (slim, chic, and currently very blond) arrived early and seemed to be making a conquest at the bar when Dave, Sam, and I arrived and spirited her away to a table. Some tables offer banquettes; ours was a regular four-top with reasonably comfortable leather-padded chairs.

A food publicist who usually has a good palate had emailed me when La Playa opened last summer, saying that I’d “love it.” Well, the secret is: never trust a food publicist.

The house breads are from the great Bread & Cie, but you get them only if you order a dish that includes them — no table bread here. Servers are, however, quick and energetic. At first glance the menu looked interesting, until I realized how many dishes are clichés. On my menu printout from the website, I scribbled “boring!” next to all three salads. (You got yer pear-Gorgonzola-walnut, yer chipotle chicken Caesar, yer beet and nut-crusted goat cheese. Yawn.) There are a couple of mildly interesting flatbreads and a soup du jour. (Split pea that night — no way. Even if it’s good, it’s bound to be bad.) Appetizers include the inevitable fried calamari (somewhat tempting due to the Chinese five-spice blend for seasoning and a pineapple dipping sauce), charcuterie not made in-house, unspecified cheeses, hummus, garlic-asiago fries. Wake me when it’s over.

There are a few friskier choices. These include stuffed piquillo peppers — mild, lightly smoked bottled red peppers from Spain (a staple of tapas bars, typically paired with anchovies) stuffed with chorizo and goat cheese, with sides of avocado slices, organic greens, and roasted red-pepper sauce. The pair of peppers were lightly battered, the stuffing savory. And who can resist bacon-wrapped dates (with an imperceptible feta stuffing)? The bacon was wonderfully fatty and smoky.

With crab cakes we returned to normal SD food, but we were curious about them since, locally, minuscule differences from one restaurant to another seem to mark a “signature” appetizer. These were your average heavily breaded San Diego crab cakes, all crab flavor submerged.

For our fourth appetizer, Dave pleaded for the (inexpensive) mac ’n’ cheese entrée. I was certainly not averse to a few bites of my favorite high-carb taboo food. Here, it’s penne, cooked very soft with an unidentified “trio of cheeses” and a topping of garlic-bread crumbs. From the prevalence of asiago on the menu, we can assume it was one of the trio, but the dominant cheese seemed to be pizza-parlor mozzarella, the kind that forms long, spidery strings when you lift your fork. (Why doesn’t any restaurant use sharp cheddar anymore in this dish? Not soothing enough?)

“The theme of this restaurant,” said Dave, “seems to be blandness.” He was dead-on, and the pattern continued through the entrées.

Of course, chicken pot pie is supposed to be bland. The plentiful Shelton Farms probably organic chicken under puff pastry includes dark meat along with white, baby carrots, celery, and cippolini onions. It’s “nice,” if you get my meaning: a Norman Rockwell picture of Sunday dinner after church somewhere in the Midwest. But at least it isn’t all scant breast-meat and starchy sauce-thickener like the ready-to-nuke version from Vons’ deli case or the appalling frozen versions my cooking-averse mama “made” for me and which I adored.

The jambalaya is a near-tragic joke, if your mouth is set for genuine jambalaya when you see it on the menu. They ought to rename it — call it perloo*, maybe, like the rice-and-seafood entrée of the mid-South’s low country, because few Californians have developed any expectations of specific flavors from that. Yes, I ordered jambalaya as a provocation — and it proved laughable, because the rice was sugar-sweetened (!), perhaps to buy off the little spots of pepper-heat among the outlandish ingredients: fish, New Zealand mussels, scallops, crab claws, okra (okra? hey, that’s for gumbo!), plus the normal shrimps, sausage, peppers, and newfangled smoked tomato sauce. I’m trying to fight my own Cajun-Creole, oh-so-PC purist urges here and let a thousand jambalayas bloom — but the sugar defeats my best ecumenical intentions. Southern Louisiana is a little patch of the Third World on U.S. territory, so what we have here is an unwittingly colonialist chef stealing and trashing an ethnic masterpiece.

The bartender told Lynne his favorite entrée is the braised lamb shank meat with pappardelle with a host of mushrooms and vegetables, but for our table the specials sounded more interesting. Duck breast in red-wine sauce reached Dave first. “It’s room temperature, obviously cooked well ahead,” he said. It was okay, but uninspiring, and not nearly worth its $28 price tag. It’s a “move on, folks, nothing happening here” dish — no catastrophe or spectacle to gawk at, just routine cooking.

The fish du jour was grouper, a delicious Gulf Coast species, cooked tenderly — but a half an hour later, I couldn’t remember a thing about the dish beyond an image of pristine baby carrots. The aspect of La Playa I like best is the ample, tasty fresh vegetables served with nearly everything. (My doggie bags typically include huge slabs of leftover animal protein, hardly any remaining veggies. This proportion is much closer to real nutrition.)

Other potential entrée choices include grilled Duroc pork tenderloin with cabbage and apple compote and, ugh, yet another garlic mash; petite filet mignon; a rib-eye stir-fry with glass noodles and veggies, and braised short ribs (yawn mightily) over barley stew, which a Yelp post said was undercooked both in meat and in barley. There are several burgers, including a lamb burger with Gorgonzola butter on a Bread & Cie brioche roll that sounds good, plus New Zealand mussels, linguini with smoked tomato cream sauce, cod fish ’n’ chips, and a vegan “autumn harvest” of zucchini rolled around eggplant caviar with lentils and curried squash.

Our Rosenblum Viognier from Alameda was pleasant but too sweet. For an entrée red we chose a screw-top André Brunel Côte du Rhône, an easygoing food wine, just right for a neighborhood restaurant.

The dessert list held several temptations, especially the tart of pears topped with cardamom glaze on puff pastry, with almond-paste, vanilla gelato, et al. Many words describe a simple rush of pure pleasure: pears, cardamom, and almonds equals Romeo, Juliet, and Friar Tuck. A float of Maui coconut Porter with vanilla gelato — well, serious beer-bibbers and bibulous Friar Tuck may get off on it. Yelpers like the cheesecake, bread pudding, and affogato (espresso topped with gelato), but our disappointing espressos were too bitter and lacked crema on top.

Easy to see why locals flock to a comfortable, nice-looking, mainly value-priced neighborhood joint offering friendly service and the comfort foods folks crave in tough times. But the late Roseville was so much better, and it didn’t get this degree of neighborhood support. Yeah, the food is good; if no more than good, ample, comforting, and nutritious, but lacking even a hint of inspiration. Would I come back? Not likely. I’d rather try and whip up something more interesting at home.

*Perloo, purlow, or various other spellings, is a regional-dialect variation on “paella” or “pilaf.” It typically includes rice and aromatics, such as chopped onions sautéed in oil and then cooked in chicken or seafood stock, usually with shrimp, sometimes with chicken. Native to the coastal low country of Georgia and the Carolinas, it’s also found as far west as the Ozarks.

La Playa Bistro

★★ (Good)

1005 Rosecrans Street (between Talbot and Upshur), Point Loma, 619-546-9500; laplayabistro.com

HOURS: Monday–Friday 4:00–10:00 p.m., Saturday 8:00 a.m.–10:30 p.m.; Sunday 8:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers, soup, flatbreads, salads, $5–$12; entrées, $10–$28; desserts, $3–$8.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: American seasonal comfort foods made with virtuous ingredients. Well-chosen, affordable international wine list, most bottles under $40, plus higher reserve list; lots by the glass, plus craft beers, wine- and sake-based cocktails.
PICK HITS: Piquillo relleno; bacon-wrapped dates, pear tart. Possible good bets: lamb burger on Bread & Cie brioche bun; lamb shank meat with pappardelle; mussels; cheesecake; bread pudding.
NEED TO KNOW: Small room, reserve to avoid long wait. Informal; moderate noise. Small parking lot in back, easy street parking. One vegan, gluten-free entrée, several lacto-veg choices.

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Comments
9

Naomi:

I have been to La Playa bistro many times and a bit taken back from your unusually harsh review.

I am a fan of jambalaya and have enjoyed their version a couple of times. It is not your traditional version, no, but quite good none-the-less. It's very tasty and generous on the ingredients. I like the angle they take on it.

The lamb burger, which you mentioned, is a fav of mine and done nicely. You didn't try the mussels and they are quite good as well.

Not sure what you are expecting from mac & cheese, but if someone desires mac & cheese, theirs is rather tasty.

The fish special changes daily I think and although I have not had the grouper, I almost always jump on it if it is salmon.

I think the beef with glass noodles could be a signature dish, it's that good - and it's a very generous portion.

As for dessert, the pear tart you mention is my go-to fav w/a glass if their tawny port they offer. Far from BLAND. Also they have a crazy adult version of an ice-cream float made with a unique Maui Coconut porter that shouldn't be missed.

B-fasts are REALLY good and you should return to try that on the weekend sometime. I tend to go for the crab benedict.

I think they serve local MOTO coffee. Not being a hard core coffee drinker, I do have to say I really like the MOTO.

They also do special dinner events on occasion and I have truly enjoyed the Thanksgiving offering they had. One of the best meals I have had at a restaurant in years was their 1st wine pairing dinner and I even went vegetarian instead of their meat "omnivore" choice - very creative and excellent pairing choices.

No menu is perfect, but I think your review does a disservice to the community in the regard that La Playa Bistro has many redeeming qualities and very good food.

When you're in a better mood, why don't you go back and try some of the other dishes? You might find a way to smile!

most sincerely, Dave

Jan. 25, 2011

Naomi,

I agree with the comment written previously to mine. I have a wide variety of food preferences - everywhere from Pomegranate to Ritual Tavern to Muzita to Q'ero. When I read this review, my knee jerk reaction was that the review was far from fair. I have been to wine tasting dinners and every day dinners at La Playa and the food is far from unmemorable. Mind you, the place must take in to consideration the community around it. You do mention this in one of your closing paragraphs but no where is that truly reflected in the review.

Reflected in the review instead is a generally biased attitude. Within the first few paragraphs, you state, "Split pea that night — no way. Even if it’s good, it’s bound to be bad." The inability to elaborate or articulate why their version may fail displays to me as a reader that you are not a source of balanced criticism. I am not asking you to provide me with a "happy sandwich" critique. What I do expect is an educated and fair review and not a childish comment that all split pea soup is "bound to be bad."

All in all, your opinion seems rather unfair and uneducated. Did you speak with the chef? Did you ask questions? Did you inquire what the ingredients were in some of dishes? (I assure you some of your guesses were incorrect.) If you cannot say yes to all of these questions, this critique is not a critique but an everyday biased opinion. And you know what they say about opinions.....

VC

Jan. 25, 2011

Not sure who this "Naomi" person is, but I would like to strongly disagree with her 'average' review of this new great local place. I've been living in Point Loma for over a year, and am thrilled that this great place opened up. I've had just about everything on the menu, and am very pleased with the quality of food. I had a lamb burger for the first time there, and it was incredible! On top of that, happy hour is always fun with super cool locals. Lastly, the people who work there are super friendly and fun to be around. I love this new place and will definetely be frequently visiting.

Jan. 26, 2011

I have yet to go to La Playa Bistro, but I know lots of people around here love it and given the dearth of decent restaurants in our area (Roseville sadly had not just the death knell of poor location, but the additional burden of being a high-end establishment coming on the heels of economic crisis), appreciate another new addition to our culinary landscape, not to mention our visual landscape. Rosecrans is not necessarily known for its architecture, so when someone comes in and spruces up one of the aging facades, it just ices the cake. My husband read this review and afterward said "wow, way to get personal. Isn't her job to review the FOOD? And don't you have to actually EAT it first?". I doubt the locals will take this review seriously anyhow. Naomi pooh-poohed the Red Sails as well, and as far as I can tell, they are still doing just fine.

Jan. 26, 2011

Naomi,

Not sure where your taste buds have disappeared to, or why you would want to write such a negative review about a great new restaurant that, as you mentioned, was packed when you visited. If it was that bad, and it isn't, then I would think the tables should have been empty.

I guess everyone who was there the night you visited had a completely different opinion to yours. I have eaten there several times, have always found the food to be just delicious, it's a BISTRO, not a gourmet high end restaurant, and it's cosy, inviting and well worth you taking a second visit. Oh and by the way, they serve bread and water on request, a great idea as I can imagine a lot of bread gets thrown away at other venues, and Bread and Cie bread is definitely worth asking for, there's no charge or did you not read the menu clearly?

Jane

Jan. 26, 2011

I appreciate the civil, reasoned tone of most of these criticisms. So much nicer than the furious hysteria I've often encountered after a two-star review, when the owners' friends and relatives all chime in, often in all-capital letters.

I do want to mention that I've also received three direct emails from disappointed Point Loma hard-core foodies who tried this bistro agree and with my assessment, and won't go back there again.

To clarify my wisecrack about split pea soup: On a relatively warm night, I really don't want to face something that potentially dense and heavy. It's a soup I only love when I'm shivering. Montreal in late fall: that's the place for this soup, often made escellently (I believe they call it soupe les habitantes.) And I vaguely remember a good version with chopped andouille in New Orleans in winter (when it's wet and quite cold.) It was just an unfortunate choice for the chef to make during a winter heat spell here.

A few more brief points: "who's this Naomi person?" Food critic for the Reader for over 10 years; before that, author of 4 published cookbooks and food critic for several Bay Area publications. Welcome to the Reader, at long last. And not to get defensive or anything (who, moi?), scarcely uneducated (except about things like nuclear physics and higher math), least of all about food. (Let me pat myself on the back for a sec: how many food critics can you think of who know the difference between jambalaya and perloo? How many have even heard of perloo?) Finally, the only place in the review where I guessed at ingredients had to do with the specific (bland) cheeses in the mac'n'cheese. And if you tell me there was no sugar (or other very sweet substance like Splenda or agave syrups) in the jambalaya, well, I won't believe you.

Jan. 28, 2011

I have to disagree, what I wouldn't do for some really good furious hysteria right about now. I prefer mine lightly sautéed in garlic butter with a generous touch of chipotle-mango to one side for dipping.

Jan. 28, 2011

I'll say what everyone else was probably thinking. This review is garbage. I have no idea why the article starts with the "Lynnster" about to make a conquest at the bar. Nor do I understand the barely restrained contempt that runs the length of the review.

Jan. 31, 2011

I've eaten at La Playa 5-6 times and will admit that I've always had a pleasant experience--the company of good friends, friendly staff, and in my opinion, decent to good, but certainly not great food. Like Old Venice, and similar in a number of ways, La Playa is walking distance from the location where I take a class. With the dearth of choices in Pt. Loma, I'm a repeat customer. If The Pearl were in walking distance, that would be my first choice. I wish the numerous affluent Pt. Loma residents had supported Roseville (for not so affluent, it wasn't that pricey and it was worth going to share a dish or two). Even though its food was at a different price point, there was a superiority of ingredients (and wine selection), creativity and execution. For those of you who didn't make it there, they had my favorite duck confit in SD. I don't always agree with Ms. Wise's reviews, but to me, it's obvious that she possesses a great deal of experience, knowledge and insight, and I usually learn something about food preparation and history from almost every one of her reviews, to the point I think I have a greater appreciation of food as a result. Check out some of the restaurants included in Ms. Wise's Best Bites of the Year and objectively evaluate if La Playa's dishes are as good as those she mentions in that article. That said, everyone is entitled to like what you like. I'm a Windy City transplant and have cravings for unhealthy Chicago hot dogs, Italian beef and even White Castle. I also have had the pleasure of dining at Charlie Trotter and have eaten 2 of my all time favorite meals in my life at Schwa, where I experienced glorious artistic creations, and then got to consume them. To me, there's a vast chasm between great food and restaurants I've experienced and what some believe to be great food/restaurant at La Playa.

Feb. 5, 2011

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