In what has to be one of the better childbearing stories of the classical era, the goddess Athena was said to have sprung full-grown from the brow of Zeus, her father. Quite a trick, that, but remember that this young lady went on to invent the Trojan Horse.
One suspects that the central concept of downtown San Diego's new B Street Cafe and Bar likewise burst full-blown from the imagination of its proprietors, because with a little longer gestation period, the concept would have been found to be, shall we say, lacking.
The central concept is embodied in the handsome, extravagantly designed rotisserie kitchen that conspicuously occupies one corner of the cafe's main room. At any time during operating hours, chickens, ducks and turkeys and cuts of beef, lamb and pork can be seen turning on the myriad spits, carefully attended by a high-hatted cook and lovingly basted with their own savory juices. The sight is enough to prompt anyone wavering on the brink of vegetarianism to pull back for at least one more taste of meat.
But the rotisserie, grand as it is, may turn out to be the restaurant's Achilles' heel. Why? Because, to quote the menu, the rotisserie produces "a healthy product that we use throughout our entire menu and specials."
"Sounds good to me," you say, and so it should. But there's a joker in the deck: Rather than offer nice plates of roast meat per se, the menu instead lists dozens of dishes concocted from slices, bits and pieces of the meats. The closest one can get to a traditional serving is the half-chicken plate, which arrives, unannounced by the menu, basted with a strong barbecue sauce. (It is a dandy chicken, plumply moist and richly flavored. The barbecue sauce does not hurt it, but it would be nice to sample it unadulterated by what Alice Toklas called "barbecue and other barbarous adjuncts.")
The opening of the B Street Cafe marks the return to life of the location that once housed Soledad Franco's, but had been empty and lifeless for some time. The remodeling job was terrific; high ceilings float above exposed beams, brick walls lend an easy-going mood, generous spacing between tables contributes to a sense of graciousness. The crowd is youngish and lively, a product to no small extent of the nearby office buildings and law firms.
This restaurant represents a curious (and almost unknown among eateries) urge to be simultaneously economical and extravagant. This urge is expressed first and foremost through the menu, which, as mentioned, prefers to serve a roast as bits and pieces rather than as a roast, but also offers very large portions at very reasonable prices. This simultaneity of economy and extravagance also manifests itself in the existence of the restaurant's small, luxurious and somewhat pretentious East Room, a grand salon that exists as a formal alternative to the more laid-back cafe. This room has its own menu and style.
Whoever wrote the cafe menu succumbed to the urge to endlessly lily-gild. Nothing is plain, everything is adventuresome. There is an identifiable underlying nouvelle mania to many of the dishes, and the combination of flavors and taste experiences as one progresses through just a course or two can leave one somewhat stupefied. Want a hamburger? You get not one, but three (the miniature "burgers in a bunch"), one with avocado, sprouts, Cheddar cheese and tomato; one with provolone cheese and marinara sauce, and one with melted cheese and chili. Just when French fries or potato chips would seem the ideal garnish, the plate instead includes the pasta of the day, recently an absolutely hideous, gluey pasta "salad" mixed with slivers of lamb from the rotisserie.
Pasta garnishes most plates that are garnished; nothing accompanies the "Wellington sampler," a trio of stuffed savory pastries. One includes lamb in rosemary-scented gravy, another chicken in herbed cream sauce, and the third seafood Newburg. The portion was daunting, but the individual creations were quite disappointing, and the mix of flavors was simply overwhelming. The lamb and chicken, of course, were from the rotisserie.
To roast meat and then reheat it, is, of course, to instantly transform it into a leftover; furthermore, nearly everyone knows that successfully reheating leftover roast meat is difficult. This explains hash, which is one happy way of dealing with the question.
But the B Street Cafe menu makes figurative hashes of its roasts almost endlessly. There are burritos made with the chef's choice of rotisserie meats; won tons ditto (in something called a "ginger-haiku sauce"); a roast lamb and spinach omelet, sprinkled with feta cheese, moistened with a rosemary-mint sauce and served with fresh fruit (the mind boggles); a hunter's stew of meats and veggies simmered in Madeira-flavored stock (this sounds reasonable), and stir-fries of lamb and poultry.
The club sandwich comes close to perfection, thanks to the genuine, juicy roast turkey. It too succumbs to the glamorization process, though, thanks to the mango chutney that joins mayonnaise as a spread for the toast. The chutney is just too strong and sour for the sandwich. (In the same mood, the steak sandwich is, to quote, "served on a toasted pepper roll and laced with a pink peppercorn sauce." Pepper and pepper, and pink peppercorns at that--this creation would seem meritorious more in the alliterative sense than the alimentary.)
The shining lights of this menu probably are the specialty pizzas, which start with an excellent dough and are garnished less dizzyingly than other dishes. The lamb and Gorgonzola pie was a masterful combination of flavors and textures, the cheese absolutely strong enough to stand up to the powerfully scented lamb. Other choices include a mozzarella, vegetable and tomato sauce number, and a pizza with clams, cheeses and much garlic.
The East Room, as of this writing serving lunch only, is a most curious adjunct to the cafe. It is a separate, more gracious world of linens, flowers and formal service. The room, which contains only eight tables, has its own bar and a menu that changes daily.
The cuisine is strictly French, if nouvelle in a somewhat cooking school or cook book-style. Of greatest interest, it is a prix fixe meal, and one receives no fewer than five courses for the relatively modest sum of $14, exclusive of tax and tip.
One chooses only first and second courses; the others are at the chef's discretion, and he generally does a good job. A recent lunch began with a nice venison pate, was later interrupted by a an inappropriately sweet raspberry sorbet, and concluded with an admirable chocolate dessert, studded with nuts and garnished with fruits and whipped cream.
The courses chosen from the menu were agreeable, starting with a creamy, sherry-laced shrimp bisque, and a pheasant salad mixed with specialty lettuces (radicchio, endive, etc.) and a powerfully herbed vinaigrette. Ordered as entrees were a pleasant, conservative saute of veal medallions in a light dill sauce, and crab-stuffed roulades of Petrale sole in an explosively flavored and altogether wonderful saffron sauce.
That the East Room and the cafe should exist under the same roof is something of a modern anomaly, and a throwback to the days when establishments (especially in England) had first- and second-class dining rooms. Comparing the two is somewhat like discussing apples and oranges; the East Room is certainly superior, but thanks to its casual mood and menu, the cafe definitely has a broader appeal.
B STREET CAFE AND BAR.
425 West B St., San Diego.
Lunch served Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday.
Credit cards accepted.
Dinner for two with a glass of wine each, tax and tip, about $20 to $35.