Epicurious Eating: San Diego Desserts
Cake before supper?
Published Thursday, 15-Oct-2009 in issue 1138
No matter how earnestly it dabbles in reinvention, San Diego Desserts will be famous first for its custom-made confections, and second for its savory bistro fare. The gay-owned wholesaler of tarts, pastries, mousses and tower cakes recently ventured into the sit-down restaurant business by designating a charming patio and small chunk of storefront for full meal service. The cuisine is homey with global elements; service is genial but needs streamlining; and the desserts are trusty and inescapable.
On any given day, nearly 30 types of confections sit devilishly in an illuminated display case dominating the modest, indoor seating area. They originate from a formidable repertoire of bakery-fresh sweets purchased by restaurants, hotels and caterers throughout the region. Imagine dining with a living, breathing dessert menu staring you in the face the whole time, as if to boldly remind you that dinner doesn’t conclude with that last strand of fettuccine sitting in your plate. Thus for some, meals here begin with an act of sin.
“Get the peanut butter custard!” a customer insisted as I perused the case after eating my dinner. He was apparently fearful that the decadent concoction of nutty custard and chocolate cake would sell out, admitting that he ordered it the moment he sat down. Oh, but had the coconut-pineapple cake I saw listed on the catering menu sat dwindling in the retail lineup when we arrived, I might have followed suit. Unfortunately, it wasn’t available that evening.
Nor was the homemade chicken potpie from the savory menu, which I dearly craved on a cool evening. Owner Mark Leisman informed us from the get-go that it sells out regularly. So my cohort and I turned in part to the Wednesday-night “staycation” menu featuring cuisine inspired from different countries each week. The theme was Greek, and from it we ordered two exceptional entrees – thin eggplant slices crowned with cous cous, red peppers and lemon-feta dressing, plus several meaty lamb chops encircling saffron pilaf accented with plops of sun-dried tomato tapenade. Both dishes were terrifically Mediterranean.
Braised short ribs, meatloaf, chicken in tomato jus and fettuccine in garlic cream sauce rank among the permanent offerings. From that menu, we started with large shrimp poached in Chardonnay. The crustaceans were sweet and tangy, augmented superbly by lemon-parsley aioli, although the essence of white wine went missing.
Conversely, the ricotta gnocchi were atrocious. What should have been delicate melt-in-your-mouth pillows of young cheese bound by flour and eggs instead carried the density of lead-weight sinkers. Served on a homely ceramic saucer in a puddle of clarified butter, they were oily, flavorless and forgettable.
Why the appetizers took nearly 40 minutes to arrive was beyond us. Shrimp cook in minutes; gnocchi in seconds. While the hospitality runs high, service appeared overall awkward and under-confident. Arriving separately, my friend and I were each greeted with the big no-no question: “Can I help you?” Any restaurant consultant would advise never to use that gesture on incoming customers because it gives the off-putting impression of skepticism and defensiveness. (And yes, you do seat yourself, we learned through preventable inquiry.)
Another caveat – when my plate is licked clean, I don’t need to be asked if the plate can be taken away. As for supplying us with silverware replacements and food-sharing plates, our pleasant young waiter humbly overlooked those rituals.
Rounding out our entrée course before making a dessert kill was fillet of salmon, a smidgen overcooked, but if that’s what it took to achieve such superb crackly skin on one side, then so be it. The dish struck additional high notes with slices of autumny yellow squash and perfectly salted mushroom duxelle resting beneath the fish.
In sticking to the bistro concept, food portions are adequately medium and the wine list is quaintly accommodating. It features affordable trendsetters such as Leal, Tobin James, Laird and Marilyn Remark, interspersed heavily by varietals from Wiens Family Cellars in Temecula.
The desserts rock. From dense hazelnut-chocolate pyramids and baklava logs dusted in bright pistachios to tall, round molds of hearty carrot cake and the peanut butter custard – we became shameless sugar pigs. Each carried its own distinct texture and flavor rather than storming the tongue with generic sweetness as we moved from one plate to another.
San Diego Desserts is a big operation with big possibilities. A trip to the restroom sends you through an expansive production kitchen, where sugar and flour now share pantry space with herbs and spices. Neither foodies nor sweet tooths are complaining about what ensues.