Pomegranate gets everything right

University Heights Russian restaurant has great food and sets the gold standard for warm and friendly service.

Pomegranate Russian Georgian Restaurant’s long history has been spotted with ups, downs, rave reviews, and weird moves. There was the time the restaurant (2312 El Cajon Blvd, 619-298-4007) stopped taking credit cards, favoring an ATM in the dining room to encourage cash only purchases. And then there was Petrushka next door, which eventually merged with Pomegranate and became one restaurant. There have been staff changes aplenty. I hope I’m not getting the details too confused, as it’s been a long and winding road. These days, the slimmed-down menu still offers hearty meats and stews, all described with breathless prose and all delicious.

I’ve eaten about half the menu after many visits to the restaurant and never been let down. The salad dishes do right by vegetarians, offering them greater substance than just a bunch of leafy greens. Try the “vesna” salad--shredded apples and carrots flecked with fresh herbs--or just get the beets. Either way, it’s a meal in itself.

Even the main dishes, which seem pricey for humble fare, have amazed me with simplicity and deep, rich flavors: kabobs of chicken and lamb served with rice and chilled salads. Seasoned patties of “meatloaf” sitting atop a potato puree. The bizarre but delicious “Georgian eagle,” half a stewed chicken smothered in herbs. Everything has been excellent, even if basic. I am reminded, over and over again, that the world’s simplest dishes--from sushi to a good ratatouille to Pomegranate’s stroganoff--can be so great in their austerity.

Pomegranate’s atmosphere and style of service elevate the restaurant. It’s far from the perfection of fine dining, but I’m hard pressed to think of a place where I’ve been treated with more courtesy. The vibe can be manic at times. Cheerful eastern europeans bounce around the dining room, serving large parties with exaggerated flair. I’ve always felt a sense of warmth and welcome inside the dining room. Small wonder that the walls are covered in the scrawlings of happy customers from far and wide.

Once, when I walked into the restaurant, I got one of the best greetings of my life.

“Sit down,” I heard. “We will feed you!”

That was it. Come on in. Get fed. Get happy. And as I sat there, listening to a pair of talented girls play duets on the piano, I did just that.

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