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