Sunday, March 8, 2009

Oscar Night and California Cuisine: A Restaurant Review

California Cuisine - San Diego, Hillcrest neighborhood (4.5 out of 5 stars)

California Cuisine, located on University Ave. in Hillcrest, blends in so well into its environs that I understand how it might be overlooked when it comes to dining in San Diego. But you’ve been warned-ignore this place at your own risk. A great, local fine-dining establishment, I cannot properly review the restaurant without providing a back-story.

February 22, 2009. Oscar night. My wife and I wanted to watch the Oscars, but we couldn’t at our apartment because I had not gotten a digital converter. Why’d the government have to go all elitist on us poor folk? WTF is wrong with rabbit ears? Huh? I’ll willingly admit I’m a cheap bastard who refuses to pay for cable, but I enjoyed being able to access three and half decent stations. Didn’t Thoreau write, “Simplify, simplify?" Well, I simplified my television options only to be kicked in the balls by the man. Ouch! And the city of San Diego decided to do the man one better by stomping on said balls when they moved the converter date from the month of June to the 17th of February. Double ouch! Now I had access to nada.

So we were left to scramble for an alternative. For many people, the Oscars don’t mean shit. Even for people who proclaim to love cinema, they complain about the Oscars and how they don’t accurately reflect the best films, performances, etc. Instead, the studios with the deepest pockets control the awards by throwing money into advertising campaigns for films that have been polished and gleamed to the point they resemble less an organic, artistic vision than museum artifacts cast in amber: beautiful to the eye, but devoid of life.

However, I don’t adhere to this belief. Growing up, my family and I celebrated Oscar night the way other people celebrate the Super Bowl. In recent years, though, I haven’t kept up with the Oscar tradition because I no longer live on the East Coast with the fam. It just has not felt the same since I moved to Los Angeles and now San Diego. But during this past year, I was fortunate to have seen all of the Best Picture nominees, and I watched several of them (Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) with my parents. For the first time in a long time, I felt the distinct twinge of nostalgia with regard to Hollywood’s big night, and my wife and I wanted to make a night of it.

Cut to montage of us driving around. We’d tried a couple of places we thought might be broadcasting the show in their bar area only to be rebuffed. Two-shot of us growing increasingly frustrated and bitter at wasting gas and time during our proposed “date night.” Patience has never been a strength of mine (even though I’ve heard people declare it’s a virtue). Finally, a series of smash cuts. California Cuisine’s “Oscar Night” email. Uptown magazine’s buy one, get one free coupon. Great parking directly in front of restaurant. Red carpet and golden balloons. Cordial host. Beautiful, intimate back patio. Immediate seating. Clear, crisp Oscar telecast projected against wall. Serenity now.

California Cuisine did itself proud on Oscar night. I loved how management catered to people like my wife and me. They included an Oscar themed menu that included several drinks named after the nominees not to mention patrons received an Oscar-night party pool sheet in order to select who they believed would triumph in each category. At the end of the night, results would be tallied and the winner would receive a gift certificate.

My wife and I decided to forgo the fixed-prix Oscar menu in order to utilize the coupon. We instantly settled upon our dishes: she selected the linguini with jumbo shrimp, while I chose the free-range chicken breast. We were not disappointed. The portion size for both were just right; sometimes I feel like the term “fine dining” is code for tiny portions artistically plated, but at California Cuisine, the amount of food satisfies the belly. My chicken breast was cooked to perfection; a pan jus accompanied it, and this left the meat very moist and tender. Some grilled asparagus, arugula, and smashed potatoes completed the entrĂ©e, and everything was exquisite. My wife loved her meal as well. Definitely “jumbo” shrimp-the restaurant didn’t lie. The linguini was mixed with a bit of red pepper flake, garlic, Parmesan, and bacon to create a fiery and flavorful dish.

Since I am a bread whore, I must mention that California Cuisine’s house bread is very good. A small baguette served warm, I devoured about four of them, and not once did the staff complain when I asked for more.

We also tried a dessert, some dark chocolate gateau served with a shot of chevre. The gateau tasted similar to a warm brownie; very scrumptious without making you feel guilty for having eaten it. The chevre shot was something I’d never tried, and I was a little wary of it. Mixing goat cheese, vanilla ice cream, and milk? Sounded like a recipe for disaster. But in reality, the shot was wonderfully refreshing. Creamy with just the right blended notes of cheese and vanilla, this drink was the perfect accompaniment to the chocolate.

All in all, a truly wonderful experience. Dinner was suburb. With the coupon, we only paid $38 for two fantastic dinners, a dessert, two drinks, and a sophisticated, stylish setting. To top if all off, my wife won a $20 gift certificate for her prognostication skills! Que ganga! And while the 2009 Oscars proved to be predictable, they were also perfect.

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