This week's San Diego Reader includes a review of The Cosmopolitan, the revamped version of the restaurant that dismayingly usurped the mariachi-and-fishbowl-margarita vibe of Casa de Bandini in Old Town some years ago. Now that Chef Amy DiBiase (of Roseville in Point Loma) has taken over, the news is very, very good. My main take-away is the photo tagline for the piece: "It's too good to waste on tourists alone."
"Tourists" got David and I thinking about vacations (or "holidays" as they're called in Australia) and a suitable place for a celebratory last meal with my in-laws Joan and John, who have been visiting from Perth, Australia. Now tourists they're not--they come here nearly ever year--but I can't ever resist the impulse to impress them with the riches of our fair city. David suggested that he, Jarrah and his parents could spend a lovely couple of hours strolling through the Mexican/Old West sights while I taught my Friday afternoon Nia class, then meet me for dinner at The Cosmopolitan.
From the moment I first parked my car in the dusty lot in the orange-y rays of the late-afternoon sun, this idea was smelling like success. I wended my way through the low-hanging pinatas with a post-workout endorphin buzz, looking forward to a juicy cocktail, not minding a bit that I couldn't find The Cosmo for several minutes of wandering. I finally spotted my family, posing for photos in a covered wagon just outside the wrap-around veranda of our destination. Turns out my anxiety about fighting the one-day-past-glowing-review dinner crowds for a coveted table was wasted--this is San Diego, after all, not New York. We were escorted through the main dining room to the patio (as I requested,) where only a handful of tables were currently occupied.
The place is looking beautiful. Someone was playing American standards on a piano in one corner, and a long, rectangular fire pit crackled away in the center. Compared to the raucous outdoor scene of Casa de Bandini, it's a peaceful oasis. Not that I didn't enjoy the mariachi scene; it's just that now you can tell the food is going to take center stage.
But speaking of stage, no sooner were we seated than a young man dressed in some sort of 19th century amusement hall get-up swooped over to the table. We had met him in the lobby, where he greeted us. The fact that he'd done a magic trick involving squishy red balls before we were seated had seemed serendipitous then, but now it became clear he was the evening's roving entertainment. He greeted Jarrah as "ma'am" and asked her lots of questions about what was in his fists, her fists and various other locations. The cutest bit was when he turned one ball into two, then two into three, and finally turned three balls into a giant foam numeral "4." But the real joy of watching this guy wasn't that he was good at magic tricks (and he certainly was) but how genuinely charming and easy he was around little children (we watched him with the table next to us, too, and the little boy there almost fell off his chair with excitement several times.) Jarrah was delighted, but I laughed out loud, too--he was so quick and clever. I have never seen anyone so masterful with both magic and kids. I would go back just to watch him. But don't take my word for it--check out this little video.
In a fine mood from magic, mirth, music and a well-positioned heat lamp directly above our table, we were greeted by our waiter, a knowledgeable and gracious man who never strayed to the sycophantic or snooty. He made some suggestions and told us he was an expert at wine pairings, but we ended up sticking to cocktails. I'd read in the Reader that the Cosmopolitan does a nice job with some unusual drinks, but we ended up going pretty traditional. Joan and I had the Cosmopolitan (pleasingly orange, like a sunset) John had the Lemon Drop, and David had a Side Car. Everyone slurped them down, though we did have some excellent Con Pane french rolls and soft butter to soften the impact.
I was eager to sample the Puree of White Corn Soup that I'd read about, and indeed, it was sweet as a summer kiss, very fresh and light, accented with a tinge of hot pepper oil that did not overwhelm. If it wasn't quite steaming hot, I had only my easily distracted self to blame, since I was giggling over the magic show and neglected it for too long. Joan had the gazpacho, flavorful as the bounty of a backyard veggie garden, complex on the tongue. I didn't try David's Charred Romaine Salad, but it didn't look like my thing--I don't care for wilted lettuce.
Relaxed after most of my Cosmo, I sat back and enjoyed the ambiance, the cooling evening creating a cozy mood on the terrace, and reflected that this is the kind of place I'd love to come often, and with large groups. There's a graciousness about the service--when I went to powder my nose between courses, I returned to a bus boy carefully re-folding my napkin and placing it on my chair. That made me smile. Though many of the tables began to fill as it grew later, there was never a sense that we needed to do anything but enjoy ourselves for as long as we wished. At one point, an older man approached our table and inquired about our evening. Turned out he was the owner. He asked what we were enjoying most, and we praised our magician friend to the rafters. "Would you like it if he stopped by again?" I said that we certainly wouldn't object (figuring "Hell, yeah!" might be a bit indecorous.) Within 10 minutes we were enjoying an encore performance, with all new material!
Joan and David ordered the Meyer Ranch sirloin with red wine reduction, and both arrived meltingly rare, as ordered. There was a great deal of ooohing and ahhhing about the tenderness of the meat. John had the Temecula Lavender Honey-Glazed Pork Cheeks (what sort of cheeks are they talking about?) and he yummed that up, too. Jarrah ate with more alacrity than usual when she received her fish sticks, which turned out to be a couple large pieces of white, flaky fish with a crispy coating, looking like actual fish. She was a little disturbed that the kids menu was labeled "Whippersnappers," since no could provide her with a satisfying definition for the word.
I had the chicken, which as chicken goes, was a stand-out. The inside was very juicy and the outside was perfectly crisp, a perfect foil for the lemony sauce it was sitting in. I especially loved the little ceramic urn on the side, looking like a savory pot de creme--it was a gratin of wild mushrooms and sweet corn, held together by a feathery light cream sauce that didn't disguise the taste of the vegetables.
Though it's not usually our thing, we had the house-made churros for dessert, because I'd heard good things. And oooooohhh. We should have ordered more than one plate of them. They were light and airy with some sort of soft custard in the center, and generously dusted with a zesty cinnamon mixture. They were perched on ribbons of caramel, and accompanied by a little pouring pot of hot chocolate sauce. We each got about two bites, but they were two bites of heaven.
One of the amazing things about The Cosmopolitan is you get all this classy food and service, but it's not a break-the-bank kind of meal. The menu is designed to highlight local meat and produce, but with simple preparations that won't overwhelm either tourists (who are sure to eat here because of the location) or one's wallet. While it's not super-cheap, most items on the menu are under $20, and you get a pretty sweet experience along with your dinner.
When Jarrah brought him a tip, Magic Boy stopped by our table to say goodnight, like an old friend. After a long story about his great-grandfather, culminating in the creation of a paper rose souvenir for Miss J, he asked if she'd like to see him disappear. She said yes. And so he put a napkin over her head and scrammed. "Oh, I see him," she said. "He's just around the corner."
Hope he'll still be there when we come back. And my magical powers tell me that we will.