Cafe Reviews


You want dramatic scenery? Arizona's got it. You want an azure sky? Arizona's got it. You want a cool ocean breeze? Arizona doesn't got it.

That's why a half-million summer-baked Zonies trek across mountain and desert to reach San Diego and exclaim, "This is the place!" But vacationing Zonies don't care to live by bread alone. Here's a guide to some of San Diego's best restaurants.

The young and the hip are flocking to Fio's Cucina Italiana, a 2-year-old yupscale eatery that's part of downtown's Gaslamp District revival.

You know you're not in Phoenix anymore as soon as you enter. The young, well-trained staff is clad entirely in black, with Southern California good looks and the charm not to introduce themselves. The patrons are chic, sleek and prosperous. So is the decor: black-frame chairs, snazzy lighting and pastel banquettes set the mood. A back room has a pizza oven encircled by bar seating for drinking and noshing. The place is casual, Californian and convivial.

And unlike most popular see-and-be-seen places, Fio's actually dishes up outstanding fare.

Start off with insalata di Fio's, lightly dressed mixed greens goosed with golden raisins, mushrooms, pine nuts and warm goat cheese. It's not too filling if you ease up on the fresh-nut-studded wheat bread accompanying it.

Pasta dishes are superb, and you can order half-portions. Particularly good is the pesto-laden angel-hair pasta, flecked with pine nuts and chunks of roast chicken and blended with lots Parmesan cheese. It's too rich and fattening, I thought, momentarily putting down my fork. The extra calories, I mused, might diminish my beach-bunny magnetism. But a quick check in the men's-room mirror told me there was no point in worrying. I had all the seaside appeal of an oil spill. I went back to eating with a renewed sense of purpose. I needed it for the huge main dish, a terrific whole chicken breast stuffed with spinach and cheese, and covered with mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and green peppercorns. Crunchy, parsley-tinged mixed vegetables and wedges of roasted red potatoes completed the platter. Surprisingly, the chicken came with the skin on. Over the years, my family has thoroughly educated me on the dietary evils of chicken skin. I'm about as likely to munch it as I am to eat my cat. This bird's skin, though, was a buttery, crispy, golden brown. One taste led to another, and pretty soon the skin had disappeared. Perhaps sensing a change in our relationship, the cat hasn't been nearly as friendly since I got back. Those who absolutely refuse to dine out without dessert should save room for the macadamia-nut cheesecake. It rests on a thick, buttery shortcake crust and comes with a caramel-sauce topping. An extra-strong espresso will keep you up until you reach your hotel room.

About an hour northeast of San Diego lies one of California's better-kept tourist secrets. The Temecula Valley is a poor man's Napa Valley, a wine region just evolving from sleepy backwater to booming suburb. If the new housing developments, hotels and sprawling malls are any indication, in five years it will be as congested as its northern California counterpart. But for now, at least, it's as pleasant as Napa before the hordes. About a dozen wineries stretch down Rancho California Road, and you can make a day of it tasting the local vintages.

There's even one champagne maker, Culbertson Winery. Stop for a tour and lunch at its bucolic Cafe Champagne.

About four years old, this delightful spot overlooks the thickening vines at Callaway Vineyards, spread over the rolling hills across the road.

You can eat in air-conditioned comfort inside, but lunch on the wood-beamed outside pavilion is even better. The seating is informal, on white plastic chairs of the poolside variety. Overhead ceiling fans and a burbling fountain in front of the main Culbertson building will cool you off. To make you feel at home, the waitresses wear bola ties.

Avoid the pricey, heavy lunch entrees and stick to the lighter dishes. A good start is to share the terrine of black beans. It's a pt of black beans and sausage, with a wedge of warm goat cheese in the center. It comes with fresh corn relish, avocado salsa and several crusts of toasted Italian bread. This appetizer is clever and tasty enough to be copied by Valley Southwestern-style chefs.

Among the excellent lunch salads, none topped the one featuring warm scallops and roasted shallots. Eight huge, meaty, lightly cooked scallops alternated with tender, mild shallots to ring a plate of greens. A hefty portion of sun-dried tomatoes rested on the salad, splashed with a gentle, balsamic vinaigrette. With a forkful of scallop in one hand, a glass of Culbertson bubbly in the other and the Valley before me, life seemed a little less nasty, not very brutish and altogether too short. A desire to linger and a peek at the homemade desserts should keep you rooted to your seat. The best of them is a swirled white-and-dark-chocolate mousse, extremely rich and dense. Covered with fresh raspberries, it gave the sugar jolt necessary to continue the wine-tasting tour. When I asked Harvey, my Pacific Beach friend, to suggest a good neighborhood seafood restaurant, he immediately blurted out, "Lamont Street Grill." He and his wife, a bicoastal New York/San Diego pair, had their wedding reception there, he told me, and come back frequently. Suddenly he came to his senses. "Oh, no," he moaned, "you're not going to tell Zonies about this place, are you?"

Sorry, Harv.
Located in an unpretentious bungalow, Lamont Street Grill is a cog in a thriving neighborhood, not part of the beach scene. It's a comfortable, snug, almost romantic place. On the night we visited, everyone except Harvey and me was paired off with an obviously significant other.

The restaurant is divided into three small rooms, and a patio equipped with a roaring fireplace for frigid summer nights. Our room had a long banquette flanked by mirrors, an ornamental quilt suspended from the wall and a nice view of the fire.

Our first appetizer, almond fried shrimp with Oriental sauce, made me wonder about Harvey's culinary judgment. It was just four medium-size shrimp--yes, they were coated with almonds--in a mayonnaise dressing. But that was the only letdown. The flavors of Greece and Italy melded happily in our other appetizer, grape leaves stuffed with pepperoni, tomatoes and olives draped with melted mozzarella cheese. Meals come with soup or salad, and Lamont Street Grill does neither in a perfunctory way. The cream of potato was a thick, creamy, stick-to-your-ribs winner. The salad had mushrooms, tomato, walnuts and crumbled blue cheese resting on butter lettuce.

But no one comes here for appetizers, soup or salad--the draw is fresh seafood.
Harvey knew what he was doing when he ordered the sea bass wrapped in a grape leaf. It was drenched in garlic, diced tomatoes, olives and feta cheese. The mild, meaty sea bass was the perfect vehicle for the fragrant toppings. The portion was large enough to make Harvey work at polishing it off. My Alaskan halibut, crusted with Dijon-tinged butter, arrived juicy and just beyond underdone on a bed of pasta. Even my trained belly could barely dispose of this ample serving.

Don't hold off finishing your fish to accommodate dessert. Only one is worth ordering, and thankfully it's not too filling. The homemade crepes come three to an order, and are stuffed with intense Kahla-soaked cream cheese and slathered with an evilly sweet caramel sauce.

Cheer up, Harv. The Zonies will be gone by September.

For all its growing cosmopolitanism, San Diego is still the galactic capital of surf and turf. Saska's, a beachfront landmark since 1951, not only puts out prime steaks and fresh seafood, but also stays open til 3 a.m. It's a good place to go after a movie or show for a solid meal with no surprises.

No trendoids here, just locals, a few June tourists, college kids and beach bums. They sit in a dark, wood-lined room designed to look like a ship's cabin: storm lanterns, seascape paintings and porthole-shaped windows surrounding red-vinyl booths. Larry dropped by and informed us he was our waiter.

This night I dined with Michael, a Berkeley colleague whose tenure-track position at UC San Diego is threatened by budget cuts.

Over his huge bowl of fresh, steamed clams and my shrimp stuffed with crab and Jack cheese, we talked of old subjects. We agreed that California's corporations don't pay their fair share of taxes, spurring the overtaxed middle-class flight out of state and into the welcoming arms of Arizona economic-development officials. We agreed that the capitalist drive for profits is polarizing the country along the have and have-not lines of a Third World banana republic. We agreed on the shortage of attractive, red-haired radical feminists.

We also agreed our appetizers were damned good. As a graduate student, Michael's meals always came from a can. Moving up to assistant professor, his eating habits have improved: He buys a better brand of canned food.

Tonight he went for the 12-ounce New York steak, and he wasn't disappointed. The well-marbled slab of prime had him oohing with delight, as did the mound of French fries that came with it. From Saska's "fresh fish list," I chose the seafood equivalent: an enormous, thick piece of moist swordfish. It came with chunks of lightly steamed broccoli, cauliflower, squash and carrots.

Shaken from this brush with healthy, nutritious cuisine, I insisted we each get a dessert. I don't know whether it was the chocolaty mud pie, the smooth lemon cheesecake or simply the delight from seeing an old friend, but the desserts went down real easy. So did a postprandial walk along the oceanfront. A full stomach and deep snoutfuls of San Diego sea air make a pretty potent combination.

SOUTH PACIFIC... v6-24-92

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Howard Seftel