Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Fig Tree Cafe, Hillcrest, San Diego, CA

I've visited the Fig Tree Cafe in Pacific Beach a few times, and providing I get there early enough, have found it to provide a wonderfully pleasant breakfast in a beautiful surrounding with an attentive and interesting wait staff, but one of it's downfalls is that it does not provide dinner. Then along came their new location in Hillcrest. Despite Hillcrest and their reputation for going through restaurants like the mother of the bride at a wedding through tissues I waited a few weeks to check out the new Fig Tree. Finally, one quiet Saturday night I made my way back to my old stomping grounds and sat down with my fiancé for what seemed like a much hipper, trendier version of what I grown used to in Pacific Beach.

First off I should note that there is no comparing the two. They are like apples and oranges, at least in appearance. Where the Fig Tree in Pacific Beach is a laid back hippy commune filled with free spirits, the Fig Tree feels more like a well dressed if laid back hangout for hip and happy folk to chill. Where the PB Fig Tree is open and green, the Hillcrest Fig Tree is a bit darker and heavier. Strangely enough I like both atmospheres. It is all dependent on my mood, but as always the most important thing is the food.

My fiancé and I walked into what appeared to be a cross between a wine bar and the innards of a oak barrel and were seated within seconds. The host was perhaps one of the most professional yet likable people I'll ever come across, but more on that later. Our waitress took a few minutes to get to us but after she did she fell into the rhythm of all professional waitresses seeming to know the exact moments to stop and check up on us, and when to leave us to our conversation. The drinks were good, my fiance got a glass of pear cider, and I stuck with iced tea, as I didn't want anything distracting me from the food before me.

We started off with a bite, which is a bit of house baked bread and our choice of two spreads. My fiancé went with sun dried tomatoes and Gorgonzola mousse, which also comes with a sprinkling of walnut in it. I ordered the fresh chili roasted garlic spread. The bread came out in two types: flat bread, which left a little to be desired, and a few cuts from a small loaf, which I rather enjoyed. I knew that I had to try both of the spreads so I started with the sun dried tomatoes first, just to get it out of the way as I have no love for sun dried tomatoes in any venue from sandwich to appetizer. It had an odd taste that I couldn't quite place, but it wasn't bad. Then I tried the chili roasted garlic, and was stunned. I won't go so far to say it tasted bad, but there was almost no taste of garlic in it, not even an after taste, and when I hear the word chili I expect a bit of bite to something, in this nadda. I switched back to the sun dried tomatoes to finish off the rest of the bites, slowly growing to appreciate the taste of the spread, especially the balance of consistency between the smoothed moose and the bits of walnut. Bemused by first part of the meal I moved on to the next.

My fiancé and I decided to order the special, not because the rest of the menu didn't look good. I'm pretty positive the short ribs would have been amazing judging by the description alone, then again I though the same thing about the chili roasted garlic spread. The specials just sounded too good to pass up. I ordered salmon sauteed with mussels, and shrimp served in a light chipotle, cilantro-tomato sauce. My fiancé went with the grilled flat iron steak over roasted garlic mash and sauteed veggies finished in a Bordelaise sauce(a sauce made of red wine, bone marrow, shallots, butter).

My first bite had a hint of fish in it, which I know is what I ordered but I don't like to be reminded of that in the first bite. Moving forward though each piece of my meal was cooked perfectly. The fish was tender, the mussels showed no hint of rubber, and the shrimp brought a smile to my face. The sauce, which I will admit probably got me to buy it in the first place as I have a weakness for anything chipotle, was just incredible. After a few more bites the fishy taste disappeared to be overtaken by the amazing combination and a superior sauce. By the end of my meal I was beaming, my fiance not so much.

This was one of the few times that I'd chosen the better dish, mostly because she doesn't particularly like the taste of fish, but I'll take what I can get. Her steak was cooked medium, but was still succulent enough to satisfy me, but it tasted like steak. There was nothing to enrich the flavor, not even the Bordelaise sauce which sadly enough was not that great. Now I'm not saying I wanted to pour A-1 all over it, the steak by itself tasted good, but the sauce failed to carry it up to the level of greatness, which was a crime in this particular dish as the steak itself had no other flavors to enhance it. Thankfully the sauteed veggies and garlic mash were delicious. I am not usually such a food snob, ignore the self applied Foodie title, but I swear I could taste the healthy local and fresh taste in those vegetables. Almost good enough to be served on its own, almost.

We paid our bill, made our way out the front door, but not before the host from earlier first asked me how I liked the food, and actually seemed to want to hear my answer. A nice personal touch that improved the evening for both my fiancé and myself, then he was gracious enough to snap a picture of us in the restaurant. Yeah, I can definitely see myself coming back, if only to try the short ribs, and a real appetizer, and enjoy the hip atmosphere where even I felt welcomed.

The Fig Tree Cafe in Hillcrest
416 University Ave.
Hillcrest, CA 92103

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Rubicon Deli, Pacific Beach, San Diego, CA

It is rare that I will ever rave about a sandwich. My grandfather was a master sandwich maker, though he never went pro, and my family speaks of him with an awe reserved for NFL players and Nobel Prize winners. He would pile meat upon cheese upon bread, always applying the prefect amount of condiment (mustard/mayo/ketchup), until there was what could only be described as the perfect sandwich, not too dry, not too wet, and with a balance of flavors and aromas that would inevitably make the mouth water. Unfortunately no one else in my family was able to imitate such genius, and as such I have never had a love for the simple art of sandwich making, until very recently.

While I have no love of sandwiches I do have a weakness for pastrami. As a child my mother would fry some up in a pan and toss it down in front of me. No mustard, no bun, just greasy cuts of deli meat which I would quickly devour. So when I stumbled across the Rubicon Deli on my way home from a particularly long run it crossed my mind that perhaps it was time to rediscover my joy of pastrami, be it in sandwich form or not.

A week later my fiancé and I managed to find a parking spot on Mission Street, a miricale as it was just a bit past noon, and went inside. The interior is what I would call fast food trendy: Bright colors, hard seats, and pictures of surfers on the wall, but definetly clean and inviting. Having slept late I was in no mood for dithering so I got in line and went strait up to the counter to give my order. I knew instantly what I wanted, the Half Pound Dom Pastram, and despite my normal aversion to pickles I found myself holding my tongue and getting them in the sandwich. My fiancé knowing that I am a bit of an ass when I'm hungry quickly ordered the Achin' for Bacon. We also got chips, no french fries at this place, and a drink. Sorry no fountain drinks here, you can either get something from their fridge, which ranges from milk to Mexican Coke, or they have iced tea, sweet tea, which I recommend as it isn't too sweet, and lemonade with free refills. Then we sat down.

I was only halfway done with my chips when the food was brought out. Feeling a bit self conscious about the sheer amount of food I'd consumed over the holiday I decided to order only a half, but as you can see the Rubicon's half is more than most sandwich places' full. I took a bite, waiting for the acidic taste of pickle to overcome the taste of pastrami, but something strange happened. I could taste pickle, but there was a decided lack of brine in the bite. I took another bite , this time making sure to grab a hunk of pickle as I did, and it was the most amazing thing. The pickle tasted good, really good. The pickle added to the overall flavor of the sandwich as opposed to overpowering it. The pickle was so good it actually distracted me from the pastrami for a second, but only for a second. My next few bites were filled with confidence and it became a bit of a challenge to slow down and enjoy the combination of pastrami, swiss, sauerkraut, pickle, onion, and yellow mustard on garlic cheese bread. I paused halfway through to take a bite of my fiance's sandwich. In it was turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato, mayo, and avocado on pesto flavored bread. Personally I would have added a dash more mayo, but her sandwich was great, with a hearty portion of turkey and bacon in the middle.

I finished off my sandwich and the rest of my fiance's, wolfed down the chips, which also tasted great, and was left with a little chocolate chip cookie. I don't want to sound like a cookie snob, but I like my chocolate chip cookies with a bit more give, or flavor. This in store made chocolate chip was definitely head and shoulders above the stuff you find in the stores, but I still found it a bit dry and lacking in flavor. Still, I'll never complain too much about a free chocolate chip cookie, no matter how small it might have been.

Walking out the front door to a street filled with surfer types and late risers I smiled. Now that was a great sandwich, one even my grandfather would have enjoyed.

-Dedicated to the memory of Robert Brandon

The Rubicon Deli
3819 Mission Blvd.
San Diego CA, 92109