Saturday, March 29, 2008

San Diego restaurant- Urban Solace

Eat retreat- Urban Solace brings wellness to your wallet

Possibly one of the best phrases in the English language, “pile of cheese biscuits with orange honey butter” had me so excited that I called my mom, sensing she would be proud of a daughter who had stumbled upon Urban Solace (3823 30th St), a fresh “feedery” nourishing the soul (and wallet) through upscale, comfort cuisine. A further venture in cleansing North Park’s appetitive aura, Solace staged its September, soft opening to hardcore success as an affordable, neighborhood sanctuary.

Solace’s sponged cake exterior (in texture and hue) sliced by white window trim and embraced by a ‘Big Easy’ style balcony (perfect for throwing beads), never alluded to the cultured kingdom unfolding inside. We were led past crisp linens and diabolically selected color schemes to a candlelit table for four (only after sipping stellar wines at the well-lit, well tended bar and perusing a patio pulsing with electric warmth).

Our waitress, Christine bore no resemblance to Stephen King’s calculating car, but possessed a type of enthusiasm that geared her standard of excellence into overdrive- always attentive, never overbearing. Executive Chef (and founding partner) Matt Gordon continued the coddling by lending 17 years of experience to a menu that would undoubtedly land him on the comfort food fast track.

Who needs gravy when you have orange honey butter? This citrus twist acted as wing man in America’s answer to chips and salsa. An immediate call for cheddar cheese biscuits ($4) threw a hot ball of chive ridden dough in our grabby mitts before our hunger led to any dire dining decisions. Another pre-meal munching was the Sonoma goat cheese and squash spread ($5) whose buttery tang was only upstaged by the cornmeal fried delights that Solace referred to as “crackers”.

Appetizers opened with a thick, potent Caesar ($6.50) boldly grabbing Romaine’s whole leaf contours. Chewy croutons were soon forgiven for their true bread backgrounds (no pre-cut, box brand here) and as I find it nearly impossible to run across a decent Caesar, I was satisfied. Tender skillet shrimp ($7.50) had a strong side when it came to seasoning, but pearls of chili grit wisdom softened the blow with an unusual “Southern risotto” smoothness that occurs when grits are prepared correctly. Sweet potato fries* (SPF*) ($5) were hailed my new favorite snack as I gorged on fingers of candy, fried starch contrasted by the pungency of the blue cheese/ buttermilk dressing.

Macaroni and cheese ($10.50) made a headlining debut in entrees (with co-stars bacon and charred tomatoes as part of their entourage) and we enjoyed every creamy crescendo. Unfortunately, sour notes were hit with non-contenders (or “non-content-ers”) in the entrée arena. One companion wrestled with a cinnamon brined pork chop ( $15.25) that was one tough customer, while my chicken and dumplings ($13.50)longed for more simmer time and the usual "stick to your rib" thickness associated with the dish. Maine lobster and artichoke potpie with homemade, fennel infused crust ($15.75) sounded too good to be true since my east coast roots constantly have me longing for “the claw”, but there wasn’t much luck finding claw meat and when I did it was a bit rubbery. The crust was homemade and flaky, but wasn’t enough to save the dish.

Amazingly enough, my favorite mainstay of the meal was their burger ($8.75) – Brandt Farms ground chuck married with a marinade that would surely provide many years of happiness to many loyal customers- white cheddar and sautéed onions further ensured this happy union and I was already taking mental notes of all the lunches I would schedule here for the same price as fast food (not to mention it came with SPF*).

Desserts (all $6) ensnared us in a chocolate vice with the “warm and gooey chocolate cake” oozing cocoa lava from its porous shell. On the tart side, we puckered then perked to key lime pie accompanied by a butter cookie reminiscent of my grandmother’s baking (with the addition of a clean, citrus finish).We weren’t brave enough to test Solace’s baked apple soaked in black cherry soda atop French toast- yet.

And that’s when I knew Solace had tipped the scales in their favor- I was already planning on my return visit(s). Acquiring a local, weekly go-to is just as rewarding as winning big at the craps tables. Dining out is usually a gamble and when you’re betting with $5 chips instead of $25 chips, it’s easier to take a loss now and then because you haven’t broken the bank. Gambling at Solace’s tables had high enough odds where I knew I would no longer be paying for craps. However, I would suggest sticking to appetizers, sandwiches and desserts for a taste of everything under $10 (not to mention a corking fee of $10 for two bottles- unheard of!)

Solace had already soothed my mind (and appetite), but I knew I couldn’t be the only one. As we exited the dining room, I distinctively heard the meditative chanting resembling, “Om”, but upon closer listening, I realized it was the resounding sound of, “Yum”.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

San Diego- West coast Follies

California here I come, Mercury Sable there you go

Six months out of massage school and only three weeks in San Diego, I found myself working as a massage therapist for a high-end, personal training center. My last month had been a tornado of passing days, swept up with Jersey goodbyes and winds from the cross country trek that would lead to my new life. An old college roommate (aka Mess) would accompany me on the drive to San Diego, as I hoped it might jump-start her ambition after falling into dispair after her parents’ divorce and the decision to move from Philly to Alabama, so she could care for her pill-head mother (aka Drugula).

The prognosis wasn't good when my mom and I arrived in Alabama (Mom had driven with me the first leg, but was flying to Florida the next day to see my grandmother.) First of all, Mess was nowhere to be found. Her mother kept assuring us in her most demur Blanche Dubois, ‘I just don’t know where she would have gotten to.” When she still wasn’t home by morning, we were at a loss for what to do.

2pm: Enter Mess (or her corpse-like stunt double.)

Though many girls in their mid-twenties become obsessed with obtaining rocks (I just need two carats!), Mess filled me in that for the last few months her affection had been won over by another kind... crack rocks (and she was going to need a lot more than two carats.)

This was the girl who, in college, wouldn’t drink a beer before she finished her homework. The girl who would remind me to “take it easy” because I had a test in the morning. The girl who welcomed me into her grandmother’s home for Thanksgiving and one of the first people there when my sister died.

She had been there for me, so in turn, I felt I should be there for her. In my mind, all she needed was a change of environment, a steady job and the opportunity to live a whole, normal life again.

But the ride that had been mapped out in splendor, now reeked of detox. The first night, bound for New Orleans with a gift certificate to Delmonico’s (one of Emeril's restaurants), was wasted under thick, junkie spasms of ravenous bread squirreling and anxious glances.

The kicker was that the money Drugula had promised to wire to Austin the next day, “Because honey, the banks are closed and I have no checks. Would it be a terrible bother if I wired you Mess’s money for the trip tomorrow?,” never came. We were on our own.

By the time I had gotten the massage job, a month later, I was renting a one bedroom apartment...with Mess crashing on the couch. She had decided to stay for a bit (what did she have to go back to?) and had been hired as an insurance company 9-5er (her unorganized boss, happy for the help; the lonely, female co-worker excited to treat for lunch at Marie Calandar's.)

And I was excited too, waking up for my first day on the job, and though I didn't have to be there until 1pm, I was out of bed by 8am. But Mess must have risen earlier since the apartment stood vacant. I could feel the knot twist in my stomach as I peeked outside to see the empty spot where my car had stood.

Disbelief. I told myself, "She just went to the store to get some breakfast."

9:15am - There must be a really long line at the store.
10am - Maybe she stopped by a friend’s house
11:02am - She’s not coming back.

11:26am - I reported my car stolen and didn’t even know my license plate number (they really don’t like it when your description is, “Blue.”) I was frantic.

12:08pm - Call Mom. I dialed with shaky hands, ready to scream into the phone about the injustice that had just been done. Mom calmed me and then provided my license plate number from a scrap of paper (one of the ones I’m always telling her to throw away), saved in case of emergency. I guess this qualified as one.

12:30pm - One of my gal pals drove me to my first day of work.
4:22pm - I held my breath on the way home and hoped that somehow my Mercury Sable would be parked outside (did I mention my massage table was in the trunk?)
4:45pm - Not there, not coming back. I need a drink.

Drugula happened to call that evening by chance (I hadn’t spoken with the witch since she stiffed me in Austin) and I lost it. I had enough - of her, of her drug addict daughter, of the fact I had bet so much on this losing nag that my friend had become. I said she was responsible as a mother(she had Mess buying her painkillers from the dealers), and I was embarrassed for her that she didn’t have enough class (that really hits Southern Belles where it counts) to come through as a person, and now she had passed it on to her daughter. Another rotten, soulless waste.

I slammed the phone down and thought how stupid I was, what a sucker I’d been. Mess hadn’t been the same since I saw her in Alabama and the lack of crack wasn’t changing that. She was gone, a different person altogether and I was naïve to think that a simple change of scenery would bring her back.

10pm Sunday (next night) - “Miss Ciallella, we have your car.”

My head was fuzzy to the call. Did you find Mess? No, they hadn’t. They had found a pimp/drug dealer driving my car. (Total fluke- the officer that happened to see the Jersey tags was a New Yorker that spent his summers on the Jersey Shore, and this character didn’t strike him as much of a beachcomber.)

The story goes that the pimp leapt out of the car and had the officers in pursuit when they lost him in an alley. They were stumped until they heard a cell phone ring and kneeled to find the fugitive beneath a car (to this day, I wonder if it was Mess calling to see where he was with the drugs.) I know all of this because I learned it at the pimp’s hearing when I had to testify to let the police know, that he didn’t know, that the car was stolen.


Where’s Mess today? My guess is an alley somewhere. Her dad called me the day after I got my car back and she had been in touch with him. He was sending her (via Philly) in a Yellow Cab to Metamorphosis House, a rehab in San Diego and asked me if I could bring her a few things... since she was in her pajamas. She had left in her pajamas(what had her intentions been that morning?) I told him I could bring her everything. I threw every shred of evidence that she had a life here in a garbage bag (an ironic metaphor?) and topped it with a note: “You are dead to me.”

When I got a call from her dad saying that Mess told him I’d forgotten her carton of cigarettes and that I needed to bring them to her, I didn’t feel so bad about the, “dead to me” part. In one fail swoop she was gone. I was a free of my albatross and even with all the excessive drama, it was a necessary change of scenery. For me, that could make all the difference.

Lauren Ciallella