Cafe One Three feels like home for a San Francisco expat -- an eclectic, creative eatery that you might find in the Inner Sunset or Cole Valley, where good neighborhood restaurants are thick on the ground. Here, the restaurant's reputation is spreading far from its neighborhood: I heard about it from my friends Marty and Dave of San Carlos, who heard about it from their friends in O.B. Obviously San Diego is seriously hungry for sweet spots where you can get a fresh-tasting, interesting meal without straining your budget or searching your closet for suitable garb.
The location is on the former site of Indulgence, a low-carb bakery-restaurant on Park Boulevard, a half block north of Henry's. The decor has come a long way from dietetic utilitarian: It now sports vintage French ad posters and is partially carpeted, with an aura of chic urbanity garbed in black and white. If you value quiet, the stanchion-heated patio is the place to sit -- you can hear the tasty jazz from there, but not the clatter of the open kitchen.
My companions Marty and Dave, veteran eaters at this café, recommended the tortilla soup, and they were spot-on, because it's just about perfect, with a light but rich tomato-chicken broth of perfect spiciness (emphatic, not painful) garnished with chicken chunks, avocado, pasilla chiles, gooey melting Mexican cheese, and crisp tortilla strips. "Oooh, chef has a palate," I said.
The "savory tart du jour" that evening featured a creamy crab topping with more than a modicum of hot chile -- again, enough for liveliness, not pain. The pastry was flawless and buttery, the filling, a pleasure. But a hummus platter with "Moroccan chicken wings" was slightly disappointing because the wings didn't quite live up to their billing. You hear "Moroccan," you think "complex spicing." These wings were plain broiled drumettes. The hummus was muscular with dried chiles and ample cumin and came with toasted bread from the famed La Brea Bakery in L.A. The array was almost exciting -- if only the bird had something more exotic to contribute.
"Tuscan bread salad tower" also suffers from a slight misnomer. It sounds like a version of panzanella, Tuscany's brilliant mixture of day-old bread and raw salad veggies soaked in good balsamic vinaigrette, but it's not exactly that. It's a more ambitious and (to my taste) less delicious column of toasted bread pieces layered with creamy mozzarella fresca and diced fresh tomatoes, with a distinctly sugary dressing. If you don't like sweetened vinaigrettes, a better bet might be the rather pricey classic Caesar salad ($12 per person), assembled at the table, or the "small Caesar" with cilantro lime dressing. I've seen too many beet salads lately, but the rendition here sounds interesting as well, with pancetta and Pepato cheese rather than the usual chèvre.
Among the entrées, our favorite, weirdly enough, was a light, lean meat loaf made of veal, house-ground pork sausage, and turkey (no beef), which reminded me of a lower-fat take on a country-style French pâté. Well- seasoned and airy in texture, it was an unexpected pleasure -- nothing like Mom's -- garnished with garlic mash and a clean-tasting, mayo-free coleslaw dressed in vinaigrette and sweetened with fresh carrot slivers. It's a perfect coleslaw (and a perfect meat loaf) for a warm summer evening; neither weighs you down. And I can promise that if you have to doggy-bag some of the loaf, the leftovers get better overnight.
Grilled jumbo prawns swathed in molasses and roasted garlic were a trifle overcooked (by perhaps a half minute), lightly robed in the darkly sweet sauce. They rode atop a layer of creamy grits laced with Cheddar. I later asked the chef what, after all, is the difference between grits and polenta, and he kindly explained that polenta is yellow corn meal, whereas grits are made from hominy -- white corn that's been slaked with lime. (Every time I eat grits -- especially "cheese grits" -- I like them more and more.) An accompanying mélange of seasonal veggies included chunks of boiled eggplant apparently innocent of any oil, hence healthy. (I missed the oil that eggplant loves so much; without it, this vegetable is as virtuously boring as a Presbyterian church sermon.)
We enjoyed a roasted pork loin stuffed with a forcemeat of minced apricots, pistachios, and soy riso (tiny rice-shaped pasta, in this case made from soy flour), with a bright-tasting chipotle glaze spread onto the plate alongside. Normally, the dish comes either with the same garnishes as the meat loaf or with the veggie mélange of the shrimp, but that evening, the plate was heaped with fried disks of red yams that were fun when hot, no fun once cooled.
A potentially interesting entrée we didn't try (but were curious about) is the skin-on roasted chicken breast stuffed with spinach, chèvre, and Gruyère cheese. The details indicate that the chef understands chicken breast, which is too bland and prudish to be palatable when plain but comes alive like a good girl gone deliciously bad when seduced by a rich, gooey filling.
When Cafe One Three bought its space from Indulgence (after the death of one of the latter's owners), it inherited a serious baking armada, with which dessert chef Michael Lunsford now bakes the house pastries. A glassed-in case reveals the day's selection. Stuffed to the gills, my friends and I chose a single pastry to share, a small round of pineapple upside-down cake, about the diameter of a Hostess Sno-Ball but flatter. The cake was so buttery, we smiled at every bite and by the end felt surfeited. (The other choices that evening were sweeter, more elaborate cakes, which none of us could face right after the meal. There's also an international cheese plate listed among the appetizers, which would make a fine dessert if you still have some wine to finish off.)
Weekend brunchers will also find an interesting menu almost as extensive as the dinner offerings. The choices include an avant-garde Monte Cristo, machaca con huevos, oatmeal with coconut milk, biscuits with sage sausage gravy (made with house-made Yankee pork sausage!), and herbed potato pancakes with house-cured gravlax and caviar. The normal eggy brunch fare is also served. Lucky are the neighborhood folks who can waft in when they wake up on the weekend and order up their heart's desires.
I found Cafe One Three thoroughly likable -- to line up the adjectives, it's enjoyable, unpretentious, affordable, and creative enough to keep you coming back for more. This is the neighborhood bistro that every neighborhood needs, and it's a mark of San Diego's culinary backwardness that every neighborhood doesn't have its own version.
ABOUT THE OWNERS AND THE CHEF
Jason Dean and Carlos Legasty are the owners of Cafe One Three. Jason, the more actively involved owner, grew up in Jackson, Tennessee. "I've been in the restaurant industry over half my life now, and I wanted a place where the experience and the food ran hand in hand. It's a neighborhood bistro. I love going to places like that myself, and I really felt that this neighborhood, specifically, could use what I was trying to create.
"I started my first restaurant job when I was 15, as a busboy at a French-style epicurean restaurant in Tennessee, cummerbund and black tie, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. That job turned into other restaurant jobs over the years, from busboy to server to bartender to trainer to manager. I moved to San Diego in 1996. I needed more sunshine, and I met someone from San Diego in a restaurant in Monterey where I was working, and he encouraged me to come down here and check it out. I worked at the Prado Restaurant in Balboa Park for five years and was assistant manager. It was the most challenging and 'funnest' job I have ever had in my life. But it was time for me to spread my own wings and fly. The Prado's owners, David and Leslie Cohn, have been incredibly supportive.
"This being my first venture, I didn't want to bite off more than I could chew. I wanted a neighborhood restaurant. I knew the previous owners of Indulgence -- Tom and Fritz were friends of mine -- but Fritz was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer early last year. They had three years left on their lease, and I had already quit my job and was actively looking for a restaurant. So that's how it fell into our laps. So we opened for business December 29 of last year. We've gotten a lot of word-of-mouth. I rely on doing what I do best -- feeding people and giving people a good time. The reason I built this was for the community, and not just the surrounding neighborhood but for people who love food and wine and the experience.
"The name, Cafe One Three, is synonymous with my lucky number, 13. The digits in the address add up to 13. The numbers of my home address add up to 13, too, and we started the escrow process on the 13th of May. And we have 13 tables. But I didn't want to call it '13' because some people are superstitious about that number and might be turned off."
Realizing that he had a full job handling the business side of the café, Jason hired chef John Kennedy. Born in Long Beach, California, Kennedy has weighty credentials for a bistro chef. (A hilarious malapropism in the G&L Times review referred to it as his professional "pedicure" rather than "pedigree" -- QED, Kennedy has the prettiest toenails of any chef in town.) "I was a ranger in the U.S. Army, and I'd always enjoyed cooking, and when I got out of the Army and became a civilian, I looked at my prospects and what I enjoyed doing -- and believe it or not, a kitchen is the closest to a regimented system outside of the military. They don't call it a 'kitchen brigade' for nothing.
"I got my degree in culinary arts from the California Academy of Culinary Arts in San Francisco, with my veteran's benefits paying for a great deal of it, and I've worked with some really fabulous chefs, including Thomas Keller at French Laundry, Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, Gary Danko. I was with the Hyatt for about six years, first at the Grand Champion in Palm Desert, and then two years at the Manchester here." Unfortunately, his position at the Manchester was in the banquet department -- a stultifying rut for any creative chef who wants to have fun exploring fresh flavor combinations. "One day, I went home and responded to a posting on craigslist, and 15 minutes later, Jason Dean called me to schedule an appointment.
"Everything I do, I like to throw my own gist into it. People throw around the word 'fusion,' but I do like to bring in different ingredients from different areas and blend them in. Like in the vegetarian paella, there's an Indian-based five-spice blend in the ratatouille that goes on top of it. I like complex flavors, explosions in the mouth." I asked him if he'd traveled. "Oh, yes, dear, when I was in the military I went to 36 countries. That's probably another reason I got into cooking -- I so enjoyed traveling and the different cuisines. The cuisines that inspired me most were India, Thailand, and Korea. In India there are 120 different spices not used within the Western kitchen, and I have a number of them in my kitchen here. I like to throw those little nuances into my food. But I try to tailor to my clientele. I'm not one of those chefs that wants to train people how to eat. I'd rather give them food they can enjoy, with a little twist. I see the restaurant as an eclectic comfort-food café. It was Jason Dean's concept when I came on board, and I try to uphold that."
NOTE: Restaurant RIPs -- just as bad money drives out good, ordinary food drives out exceptional food. So we bid a fond and heartbroken farewell to Asia Vous, a superb "fusion cuisine" restaurant hampered by its location in far-off Fluoristan -- I mean, Escondido. Riko and Kim Bartolome and family are moving to Maui. We wish them the best of luck and will miss Riko's brilliant cooking and Kim's gracious greetings. Also a slow fade for Cendio, a Latin-Caribbean restaurant that opened last winter in La Jolla with cuisine by a distinguished Irish chef. In spring, it garnered some strong positive reviews (G&L Times, et al). A couple of weeks ago, I went, I ate -- too late. The food was too sketchy to have justified those glowing reports, so a tablemate asked if the chef was still there. No, she'd departed four months ago, and the restaurant has been sold to the Vigilucci empire of North County Italian restaurants and steakhouses. Adios Cendio as well, and buon giorno Vigilucci's Steak and Seafood. (Nothing against Vigilucci's, but Cendio's menu offered more creative, entertaining cuisine -- while it had a chef to pull it off.) And by now you probably know that Chilango's, one of the few local restaurants to offer true Mexico City cuisine (not border fare), has presto-change-o become yet another Hillcrest sushi bar. There are no plans to reopen in another location. My best guess is that Ortega's, opening across the street, ate up all that block's clientele for Mexican food. Ortega's is good and it's fun, but Chilango's was terrific and will be missed.
[2009 Editor's Note: Café One Three has since closed.]