So we're now on day 42 of the kitchen remodel. That's 42 days of eating out in San Diego's east county. Ed may refer to Hotel Circle as one of Dante's circles of H*ll, but I'm here to tell you East County is not far behind. First of all, eating out for 42 straight days presents it's own set of problems. So does eating east of the I-15. There are tons of chains, and tons of uninspired cooking. I've learned that sometimes beggars can't be choosers and uninspired isn't as bad as it may seem on the surface, especially when nothing is open or you're too tired to drive too far afield. Eating out for 42 straight days takes has been work, it takes, time, energy and imagination to keep it fresh, and I don't mean the food.
Last Sunday we had breakfast at Cafe One-Three up on Park between Henry's and El Cajon Blvd. That doesn't exactly qualify as the East County but desperation drove us West. The back of the receipt was stamped with a notice that we could get 50% off food (not beverages) if we came back for dinner the following Sunday, which was yesterday. It's a nifty little promo to get customers back in the door. And, since my mother is the Queen of Coupons, there was no way we were going to pass up that deal.
Somehow "Soup of the Moment" sounds rather contrived to me, why not just call it what it is, soup of the day. Melon soup with cilantro and sour cream sounded good but the Tart du Jour sounded better, Apricot and Brie. The operative word here is sounded, because I found the tart to be something of a disappointment. The plate presentation was quite nice with the tart resting on a bed of mesclun greens that had been dressed with just a little too much of a mayo based dressing. The brie and the apricots had been completely blended so that neither had any identity left, and baked in a flakey crust, but the flavors didn't quite meld. My mother loved the dish, I didn't. It did pair well with the salad, and that starter would actually be enough for a light lunch or dinner. But for some reason, it just struck all the wrong notes with me.
My mom had the meatloaf which came atop some really tasty garlic mashed potatoes as well as some impossibly thin red onions that had been flash fried until they reached the shatter point. This dish worked in spades. I should also mention that the meatloaf also makes an appearance in a delicious scramble on the Sunday Brunch menu.
I had the flat iron steak medium rare. I had no quibbles with the steak, it was medium rare, tender, and flavorful. It was served with a lovely Dijon mustard and tarragon sauce. I was less enamored of the humongous heap of ultra-thin shoestring potatoes. Frankly, after a few bites they tasted too much like the Durkee's canned shoestring potatoes. Look, I know I love potatoes but I don't need a portion big enough to feed the entire restaurant...with leftovers. Somewhere under that ill-advised haystack of spuds was some squeaky, chewy green that I think was kale. Bitter greens are not my thing, so it was probably just as well I couldn't locate them due to the potato barrier. The bits I did taste were okay, matched well with the beef, but didn't turn my crank.
For dessert we had chocolate-raspberry creme brulee with lots of fresh berries. Loved it, though I wish they would have used a darker, richer chocolate.
Don't get me wrong, even though I had some issues with dinner last night, I really, really like Cafe One-Three. It has shown improvement and growth over the last 3 months and the bulk of the food is great. Gone are those dreadful cakey-pies and service has improved dramatically. Cafe One-Three is absolutely everything a small, neighborhood indy restaurant should be -- a warm, inviting, friendly place to have a drink, a desert, or a meal and know that the food is going to be satisfying without being fussy or over-wrought.
Tonight we hit up The Fish Merchant on Navajo Rd. between Jackson and Golfcrest Drs. Other than Trattoria Antica, this is the best restaurant within a 5 mile radius of the house. This is an easy place to dismiss and drive by but it is easily one of the best, if not the best, fish house in the East County. There is nothing fancy about it, but it has a comfortable nautical theme and no pretentions. Dinners start with a choice of soup - Manhattan or New England Clam Chowders - or salad, which is a pile of crisp chopped romaine, a slice of tomato and cucumber, an olive or two and a mass of grated carrots, all on an old-fashioned fish shaped glass plate.
I can honestly say that I have never had a bad piece of fish here, nor a bad or ill-conceived preparation. Tonight I decided to try the Pan Seared Ahi. I would never have believed it, but I was served some of the best sashimi grade tuna I've ever had outside a Japanese restaurant. The tuna was crusted with black and white sesame seeds and flashed seared so that 98% of it was still raw. A plate with 3 little ramekins of pickled ginger, soy sauce and wasabi was served along with a set of chopsticks. The tuna was as soft and smooth as butter, delicate and meaty at the same time. I had 10, that's right 10 nice size slices of tuna on my plate. I'd guess that was at least a 10-12 oz portion of fabulous Ahi tuna. The tuna was accompanied by the ubiquitous broccoli, carrot, zucchini, onion and mushroom melange of vegetables and the starch choices were baked or french fried potatoes or rice pilaf. I happen to like the rice pilaf at the Fish Merchant because it has mushrooms and bacon in it. That's what I chose but, let's face it, that's not exactly the best companion with nearly raw tuna. Oh well, decent salad and lots of tuna and I was a pretty happy camper tonight.
My mother has a penchant for coupons and other than the aforementioned one for Cafe One-Three she also had one for Baker's Square last week. For $7.99 you could get a 5 oz. steak, soup or salad, potato, vegetable and a piece of pie. That's a lot of food for not a lot of money and I think just about everyone in the Baker's Square on Balitmore Dr. at Fletcher Parkway was using that coupon. I should have known better than to get my hopes up after eating a respectable tomato-basil soup. I order my steak medium rare, it arrived well done, very well done. I sent it back and the 2nd steak was medium and not a bad piece of meat. Can't say much for the rest of what was on the plate though. The baked potato, which was twice as big as the steak, was cooked but still hard in the center, much like a potato that's been microwaved. There is really only one reason to go to Baker's Square and it's not for the food, it's for the pie. If you can't bake a pie or don't want to spend big bucks with a famous name bakery, Baker's Square pies are good, way better than Marie Calendar. I had a very satisfying French Apple Pie and the Coupon Queen was happy with Chocolate Cream.
After 42 days we've been served a good deal of food, some of it exceptionally good, some of it merely good, some okay, but none of it truly bad. We've had wonderful chicken schwarma and gyros sandwiches at Vine Ripe Cafe; love, love, love the flat bread they use for it. We've had outstanding pancakes at Original Pancake House and Perry's. Wonderful, smoky beef with a smoke ring and savory beans from West Coast BBQ. We've eaten spicy Thai on a sidewalk in a parking lot on Mission Gorge Rd., as well as a sophisticated chicken picatta a few more miles down Mission Gorge. The 2 most disappointing meals we've had came at 2 local chains, Anthony's and The Brig.
The counter tops were installed today but we've got at least 2 more weeks before we're back in business in our own kitchen. It can't come soon enough...