Happiness is an ice-cold strawberry Bellini at Bite, made with the first berries of spring, and a $20 four-course dinner from a chef who can really cook.
Bite is one of several good restaurants now offering deep discounts. The big deal is the Tuesday–Thursday night prix fixe: chef Chris Walsh offers four courses (which includes an “amuse”) for $20.08, plus happy-hour drink discounts if you get there early enough.
Samurai Jim was the very first customer to sample this year’s strawberry Bellini: champagne (maybe Prosecco — whatever, it’s dry and bubbly) with strawberry sorbet and a fresh floating strawberry. Jim had been thinking about ordering the wintertime Pear Bellini when our excellent waiter Dustin enticed him: “The strawberry sorbet just came in.” I was blissing out on Bite’s signature champagne cocktail with fragrant rose-petal syrup, one of my all-time Arabian Nights fantasy favorites, but when Jim gave me a sip of his Bellini, pink and sparkly as a princess costume, I burbled, “OMG, it tastes like…Fairyland in a glass.” During happy hour (5:00–7:00 p.m. nightly), all magic potions, including wines, beers, and champagne-reveries by the glass, cost just $4.50 each. If you sit in the bar or lounge, a menu of nine light snacks (truffled popcorn and such) runs $2–$4 per nibble.
While waiting at length for Michelle to find a parking space somewhere in the general neighborhood of Hillcrest, Jim and I ordered tapas from the regular menu to sustain us. A mustardy deviled egg, halved to serve two ($3), was topped with salmon caviar and a blobette of salsa made from banana peppers. It was perfect. A lush pair of Medjool dates ($4.50), stuffed with Gorgonzola and wrapped with bacon, supplemented the egg, completing the breakfast I’d skipped that day. “Can I get Chris Walsh as my personal breakfast chef?” I asked the air, then ordered my own strawberry Bellini. Jim’s round two of champagne with elderflower proved nearly as good as the rose-petal version.
Michelle finally struggled in, and we moved on to happy-hour wines for the serious, food part of dinner. The best of our choices by the glass was a Cono Sur Viognier from Chile — a big, plain, juicy quaff, food-friendly.
Most of the $20 prix-fixe menu is drawn from the regular array of avant-garde bits and bites, starting with a first-course “amuse,” followed by your choice of one of six appetizers, seven entrée options, and five dessert possibilities. (If you want to order individual tapas from the regular menu instead, sorry to say the two world-beaters are both gone for the recession: no more foie gras crème brûlée, nor truffled poached oysters.)
Our amuse course consisted of a slice each of subtle, satisfying French bread crostini topped with Gorgonzola, a roasted grape, and mysterious herbs and/or spices. We followed with a shared bowl of lobster bisque with vanilla bean Chantilly. Instead of heavy cream stirred into the soup, it was topped with a foam of vanilla whipped cream, providing an insouciant touch of both dairy and the sweetness you expect from a bisque. The lobster flavor is also light, offering just enough shellfish essence for satisfaction. (If it were expensive, I might cavil at the thinness — but it’s not.)
A puff-pastry caramelized-onion tart with black olives consists of airy rectangles of pastry with colloidal poufs of caramelized onion and a salad on the side. It’s far from chef André Soltner’s legendary, labor-intensive onion tart at Manhattan’s Lutèce. Given a choice, I’d go with the Lutèce rendition, but remember that Bite’s is part of a $20 meal. (Soltner’s version was probably $20 for this appetizer alone 30-some years ago.) A spinach and Belgian endive salad with Gorgonzola, pears, French walnuts, and balsamic was well choreographed: The endive, crisp and pleasantly bitter, was chopped into small pieces so as not to overwhelm the sweet young spinach leaves. The whole composition was beautifully proportional — that’s what good chefs know how to do.
Our most tentative entrée choice proved the best: Parmesan-crusted salmon with green-olive mashed potatoes and red-pepper vinaigrette. For this price, the salmon had to be Atlantic farm-raised, and tasted so. The outer edges were slightly overcooked, but the center was moist and flaky, and the fillet was coated with crisp, lightly cheesed bread crumbs. The green-olive mash? “I’m not tasting it, are you?” I said to my friends. “No,” said Michelle, “but I like it. Some nice herbs in there.” It was odd and interesting, and long, pretty carrot pieces lent a touch of sweetness.
The carrots recurred on a plate of herb-crusted pork tenderloin, cooked five minutes or five degrees too much. Its dried-fruit sherry gastrique hinted at maple syrup. If you’ve grown up with cheap pancake syrups, your palate’s been conditioned to caramelized sugar (or its precursor in the process, molasses) substituting for the precious tree-sap. Pleasing sauce, anyway.
Coming off another bad, mad, hectic day and seeking total indulgence, I chose pizza bianco (sic) with arugula, dried pears, béchamel sauce, and crispy shallots. I craved gooey and creamy, and it wasn’t. The pears’ sweetness was dominant and soon palled. On the regular menu, this pizza includes Gorgonzola, and that funky richness would balance out the fruit and offer lasting fascination. We’d have been better off ordering the lamb meatballs in spicy, smoky tomato sauce, which I remember enjoying as a tapa at an earlier visit.
My favorite dessert was the airy citrus trifle — lemon cake, blood-orange syrup, tangerines, vanilla custard, and more whipped cream than necessary, a fitting finish if you’re wondering where you dropped your other glass slipper after downing all those strawberry Bellinis. The Granny Smith apple and cranberry custard was pure comfort. A chocolate cake with vanilla gelato and caramel sauce seemed a trifle dry and overbaked despite the lavish garnishes. For caffeine, there’s no espresso, but the French-press coffee is decent, although I wish they’d lavish a half teaspoon more coffee grounds into the hopper. But, hey, it’s a $20 multicourse meal! And not your “All Go Hungry Hash House” Depression dinner (as the old song goes), “where the carrots have red hair,” but a real meal and a good meal that’s priced cheaply without tasting cheap. It ain’t Blanca or A.R. Valentien (see below), but I’d do it again anytime.
Bite, 1417 University Avenue, Hillcrest, 619-299-2483, bitesd.com.
Some of these deals are time-limited, so after April 30, when you call to reserve, check to make sure they’re still available. In order of price, low to higher:
Jsix: Monday Night Meatballs, served over a huge bowl of pasta, for just $12, including a glass of wine — try and beat that deal! Better yet, inventive chef Christian Graves isn’t just grinding out beef balls — they could be made of short ribs, duck, or even shrimp. Hotel Solamar, 616 J Street, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-531-8744, jsixsandiego.com.
Laurel: Mad Monday, offering a burger, fries, and a beer for $14.95. On Tuesdays, tapas are discounted. Wednesdays, wine bottles are half off; Thursdays, it’s “buy one entrée, get one free,” if you share some good news with your server. 505 Laurel Street, Banker’s Hill, 619-239-2222, sdurbankitchen.com.
Mr. Tiki Mai Tai Lounge: Mondays, all-you-can-eat sushi, $20; it ain’t Ota’s, but these ain’t Ota’s prices. Happy-hour cocktail discounts (including the tasty, silly umbrella drinks that are Mr. Tiki’s real specialty), 5:00–7:00 p.m. nightly. Over 21 only. 801 Fifth Avenue, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-233-1183, dinecrg.com.
Dakota Grill: Three-course prime-rib roast dinner $25.50, 5:00–8:00 p.m. weeknights and all evening Monday, plus on Tuesdays, 50 percent off wine bottles. 901 Fifth Avenue, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-234-5554; dinecrg.com.
Savory: Sunset Suppers, three courses of delicious French-based fare for $29, 5:00–6:00 p.m. Tuesday–Sunday; wine half-bottles half-price Tuesday–Wednesday. 267 North El Camino Real, Encinitas, 760-634-5556, savorycasualfare.com.
Quarter Kitchen: You don’t have to be a rich celeb anymore to eat at the Ivy Hotel — but you’ll still eat richly. New chef Nathan Coulon (last at Modus), a local favorite from the Belgian Lion family, is offering an early-bird prix-fixe of three savory-sounding courses for $30, 5:30–7:00 p.m. nightly. Entrée choices are Cabernet-braised short ribs, blackened hamachi with miso glaze, and vegetarian zucchini and artichoke pasta with truffle oil. Ivy Hotel, 600 F Street, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-814-2000, quarterkitchen.com.
Prado: At this lovely garden of eatin’, the special is a three-course prix-fixe dinner for $32.95 (there’s a wild-mushroom risotto vegetarian entrée option), including wine pairings for each course, available all evening Sundays (excluding Easter) and Tuesday–Thursday through April 30. House of Hospitality, 1549 El Prado, Balboa Park, 619-557-9441, dinecrg.com.
Greystone, the Steakhouse: The recession humbles even the mighty, now offering a $35 prix-fixe three-course early-bird special, plus a pair of matched wines for $10 more, nightly from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. Don’t expect Porterhouse — choices include flat iron steak, bourbon-brined pork chop, chicken, or salmon, plus a “vegetarian” option of wild-mushroom risotto — cooked in chicken stock. (Wheelchair access to front patio tables only; dining rooms up- or downstairs.) 658 Fifth Avenue, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-232-0225, greystonesteakhouse.com.
Blue Point: Sunday Night Alaskan king crab with 1H pounds of crab in a three-course prix-fixe dinner for $40, through April. 565 Fifth Avenue, Gaslamp Quarter, 619-233-6623, dinecrg.com.
Blanca: An extraordinary price drop for anytime meals at an extraordinary restaurant, featuring the thoroughly modern cuisine of chef Wade Hageman, a Michael Mina protégé, coddling the best seasonal and local ingredients (and a few little exotics, such as a starter of miso-marinated Japanese Kobe beef). Prix-fixe dinners of three courses are $46, wine-pairings $29 (with options for more courses and more wines higher). No restrictions for hours, days, or dishes — it’s all yours, anytime. 437 South Highway 101 (at Dahlia), Solana Beach, 858-792-0072, dineblanca.com.
A.R. Valentien: Featuring some of the tastiest, most arresting food in the county in an exquisite setting (inside or outside), chef Jeff Jackson’s new, more affordable menu of seasonal, mainly local, delicious cuisine offers smaller portions at smaller prices, with no item over $21. (Note: The unhelpful website, concentrating on decor, shows no prices on the sample menu.) The Lodge at Torrey Pines, 11480 North Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla, 858-453-4420, lodgetorreypines.com.
Terra Incognita: Unreviewed Restaurants with Bargain Meals
Here are a few places I haven’t yet been but recommended by readers and colleagues (in alphabetical order):
Andiamo! Ristorante: This one is taking off; I’ve heard about it from several “good palates.” Located out in Tierrasanta, the owners are reportedly planning to open a downtown location — soon, I hope! The early-bird special offers three luscious courses for $16.95 before 6:00 p.m. I’ll have the shrimp and crab agnolloti with brown butter and sage sauce, grazie — oh, wait, maybe the stuffed roast salmon! (Note: website doesn’t show early-bird menu.) 5960 Santo Road, Tierrasanta, 858-277-3501, andiamo-ristorante.com.
Khan’s Cave: The restaurant is new, but the owner-chef will be familiar to many. He’s Mark Sun, of the delightful Chinese-fusion restaurant Del Mar Rendezvous (and before that, East County’s popular Szechuan-Mandarin Restaurant). At his latest venture, the food is fusion again, and the bargain is a limited choice of five items (including steak frites, wine-braised short rib, and gingered snapper) for $9 each, from 5:00 p.m. until closing on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Saturdays. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, wine bottles are half-price, too. 9350 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, 858-279-9799, khanscave.com.
OB Noodle House: My correspondent writes, “Consistent flavors and about $7 for a huge pho. Sweet sticky rice for dessert, served in a length of corked bamboo.” Sounds yummy! Online, many bloggers mention great spring rolls and peanut sauce, an awesome beer list — and excessive crowds, waits, and noise after 7:30 p.m., especially on weekends. This is obviously one of those mom ’n’ pops that has won over the hearts of its neighborhood. So if you’re a grownup, go early, and on a weeknight. 2218 Cable Street (near Voltaire Avenue), Ocean Beach, 619-450-6868, obnoodlehouse.com.