Monday, April 7, 2008
San Diego restaurant- Bite
Once Bitten, Twice Try- Bite's top rate tapas deserve a second round
We materialized like the Ghost of Christmas Present in the middle of a well kept, stylish living room where a soiree seemed to be in full swing (or an Ethan Allen photo shoot- the edgy minimalist choice). The four of us parted from a rather misty San Diego evening into Bite’s (1417 University Ave) nondescript corridor* and were instantly abracadabra-ed into a covert space divided between lounge and dining room. The extension into the adjacent storefront remained an incognito slate to the outside observer while inside, my eyes glazed in awe of this indulgent fortress that walked softly, but carried a big (bread) stick. “Come one, eat all” was the battle cry of this Empire of libations, led by Chef Chris Walsh, where Bite’s gluttonous glory served as hero at the end of the war.
A flat screen noiselessly flashed over a snowy mantle with bellicose laughter rising like subtitles from the more informal, somewhat communal tables of the bar. We placed our name with the hostess and had just plopped on leather couches perfect for bouncing quarters when she reappeared to offer cocktails. Their list of infused sakes had me intrigued and I decided to feed my sweet tooth with a lemon drop (candied ginger and lemongrass infused sake) as another of my culinary cohorts chose a lavender/blueberry fizz for sipping more smooth than sweet (blueberry sake and lavender dry soda).
Not to be outdone by the lounge lizards, the “pristine clean while still getting the dirt” dining room erupted with spikes of head back, mouth open laughter amongst lush conversation churning the richness and warmth of cultivated soil. Bolts of dense brown drapery ensconced the room in womb-like calm, matched by soft pulses of light sprouting from the center of our table and filtering through a glass orb filled with Gerber daisies- innovative, simple and pretty.
Our server Bryan with a “Y” ( Why? Because he likes you), made an astounding first impression with his amicable instruction on Bite’s family style, small plate celebrations and remained a non-intrusive, helpful presence throughout the meal. I was also a pushover for the small affection of an amuse bouche. Tonight’s one bite wonder- garlic bread-pudding topped with cherry tomato- music to the mouth.
“NO, look at this one! Did you see those?! I NEED that!” I squealed emphatically, fingering the menus of my mignon minions. We had been matched with one of the best edible collections I had seen in years and my only hope was that the listed heavyweights lived up to their hype. Round one: knock- out. Duck confit over spinach with cherry tomatoes, mangos and bacon-dijon vinaigrette lumped a pound of shredded duck in front of us to ensure no squabbles over shared portions. A “duck virgin” and those with prior foul experiences would benefit from this like a first rate opera- a fine art form thriving at its full potential- it made me want to stand up and sing an aria anyway.
Lamb meatballs arrived with a crisp, golden cake of polenta (a perfect example of its capabilities as a guilty, starchy pleasure) and a delicate red sauce that gave enough zip to act as yin to lamb’s tang. Yam gnocchi reinvented the wheel on my plate as I relished in the fact that gnocchi = potato, so why not have gnocchi= sweet potato? These pumpkin hued gobs of goodness were tossed with rock shrimp, hericort verts, hazelnuts and bathed in sage butter. My eyes pleaded, “More, sir,” as I handed my licked plate to Bryan.
The endorphins had taken a pounding, leaving my head fuzzy and lips freakishly upturned, but the allure of another small bite had my senses aroused. Round 2: Grilled fontina on a baguette with crimini mushrooms, thyme and roasted shallots was so comforting it made my feet ache for slippers. Chicken skewers wrapped in pancetta were salty treats with mashed acorn squash that had enough butter to make me realize eating your vegetables can be a very good thing. Short rib raviolis with red wine demi-glaze were mandatory and the rock shrimp pizza with purple potatoes and feta left my hubby with heaps of happy. Even intimidating contenders like duck pate with cherries and pistachios or smoked trout over potato pancakes became harmless shadows under the brilliance of their dainty delicacy- no bark, all bite.
A large “W” mounted on the far wall embraced Chef Walsh as the head of this hungry household and was reminiscent of Mary Tyler Moore’s “M” with a bouncy, optimistic confidence that Walsh was “gonna make it after all” (as if his years as executive chef at California Cuisine and now Confidential, along with his own Café W hadn’t proven that already). But, now I realized that the “W” hung more like the “S” on Superman’s chest. Conquering his field by leaps and bounds, Chef Walsh had indeed exhibited the force of his superpower- masterminding flavor combinations in a single bound. Choosing to utilize his powers for good while erecting his food empire, Walsh might be content to see Napoleon and Caesar only as menu options, but for me I say, “Hail Walsh!” - Emperor of the Edible.
(Side note: I cannot overlook, hands down, the best public restroom in San Diego. I wish there was an award for “top toilet” because the cascading candlelit pathway, brilliant fish tank and the cleanliness of Felix Unger in this urinary oasis deserves recognition. I’ll be drinking all the water I can just to have another go at the john.)
Most menu items range between $8-11. Champagne Happy hour is Wed 5-7pm. Tuesdays offer a four course, prix-fixe menu for $20.
*Bite’s name is now displayed on a neon red placard above its doorway