When fatigued by the hurly-burly (such as it is) of the city's newer restaurants (such as they are), it is pleasant to retreat to one of the few neighborhood eateries that attempt to serve ambitious, interesting food at what might, even these days, be called popular prices.
This brings us to the oddly named Cafe Eleven, the Hillcrest bistro that offers serious French cafe cuisine at prices not much above those charged by casual mom and pop establishments.
The restaurant's name refers jocularly to the threat of Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings outlined by the proprietors' accountant, who pointed out before the place opened that most new eating places survive less than six months. This name proved a lucky number for the partnership that owns the place, however, since in the 18 months that Cafe Eleven has been in business, it has managed to build a clientele that returns regularly for the careful cooking and low-key but genteel atmosphere.
A neighborhood restaurant should be defined more by the city than by the neighborhood in which it is situated, because everything is relative; for example, the food served at many a corner eatery in New York would pass as haute cuisine in easy-going San Diego. Even so, Cafe Eleven passes the neighborhood test in several major respects: the cooking is thoughtful but unpretentious, a couple that orders cautiously can enjoy a meal with wine for about $30 (although it is easy to spend much more), and no special dress requirements are imposed on the guests. The comfortable banquettes, the trendy black and gray decor and the carefully chosen artworks all are fortunate extras that propel this restaurant into a sphere somewhat more elevated than its basic nature requires.
Success has brought a modicum of grandeur to Cafe Eleven. The standing menu still relies on a list of dishes that starts modestly at $7.95 for roast leg of lamb in Madeira sauce, and rises no higher than $12.50, a price that buys a filet mignon baked in puff pastry and sauced with red wine and mushrooms. All entrees include a handsome vegetable garnish and the choice of a well-made soup or a relatively extravagant salad. This menu now, however, is supplemented by a good and somewhat adventurous list of daily specials, as well as a higher-priced four-course meal of the day that is available Sunday through Thursday.
Rather surprisingly, the four-course menu is written and published (the restaurant has a mailing list of its regular customers) a month in advance, and not a single dish is repeated during the monthly rotation. Thus, on one recent visit, this menu included a starter of baked Brie, a choice of soup or salad, an entree of veal Oscar, and a dessert of fresh blueberries in whipped cream. The next evening it changed to a pasta first course and an entree of lamb chops basted with pear vinegar. These dishes fall well within the mainstream of traditional cooking, but one can hardly quarrel with this situation, especially when the preparation is as careful as seems typical at this restaurant.
In one of those interesting restaurant situations that arise from time to time, the chef's toque has been passed by founding chef Rob Brittingham to newcomer David Harmon, who acquits himself well at the range. Brittingham joined partner Ed Moore in the dining room, and the pair give their clientele the sort of personalized service that occurs only when the owners are dealing with their patrons face to face.
As so often is the case, the specials generally prove to be the kitchen's best efforts. It is on the specials list that most seafood dishes will be found, in accordance with the principle of offering whatever might be fresh that day. Harmon is given to garlic and other distinctive seasonings, a propensity that worked happily with a special of monkfish that had been cut into nuggets, dredged in flour, and sauteed until crisp in butter flavored with garlic and lemon. The fish and seasoned butter were placed atop a bed of spinach linguine mixed with strips of yellow bell pepper, and the melange of tastes was serendipitous, to say the least.
Garlic also dominated a broiled veal chop special, this time in the form of aioli, the heavily garlicked mayonnaise that the French call "the butter of Provence" (Provence is the region of France that includes garlic in almost every dish it cooks). The aioli was luscious, but the veal chop in question featured more bone and fat than meat.
In addition to such dishes as roast duck in green peppercorn sauce, stuffed chicken breast, and shrimp sauteed with Pernod liqueur, the standing entree list includes a mix of scallops and shrimp baked in puff pastry, and slices of herbed filet mignon finished with a brandied brown sauce. The seafood melange arrived in a prettily browned box of pastry, but needed a sauce for both moisture and flavor; although luxurious in its ingredients, it was bland and boring. The steak, however, was exactly the sort of dish in which a restaurant such as Cafe Eleven should specialize, and it came off quite well, the steak tender and the sauce savory but balanced. All entrees were served with an impressive garnish of six vegetables, including a puree of carrot, nicely sweetened red cabbage, and excellent oven-browned potatoes.
The salads are pretty and composed of a nice mix of greens and vegetables; three dressings are offered, and although all seem respectable, the vinaigrette flavored with tarragon, mustard and garlic probably is the best. A commendable cream soup elaborated from sweet peas made evident the kitchen's abilities in this important department of cookery.
The appetizers listed by the standing menu are reliable if somewhat ordinary; the specials sometimes succeed, especially as in the case of sauteed rabbit livers finished with a deep, creamy sauce. A dish of rigatoni sauced with fresh tomato, crab and butter, however, suffered from the kitchen's exuberant but ill-considered addition of orange juice. The juice made the dish unreasonably sweet.
The desserts, without exception, are supplied by outside caterers, and although such offerings as the pecan pie are unquestionably of good quality, it would be nice to see what this kitchen could turn out on its own. Fresh berries often are available, and these make a nice closing course for those who find one necessary.
1440 University Ave., San Diego.
Dinner served seven nights a week.
Credit cards accepted.