Troy Johnson reviews 100 Wines in Hillcrest
Philippe Beltran’s unique talent is filling old French things with design libido. Or at least, French-looking things. After designing Vagabond in South Park and La Vache in Hillcrest (he sold both), the Paris-born restaurateur really hit oh-wow ambiance with Bleu Bohème in Kensington. Romantic and artificially aged, it’s a beauty.
When the economy went psycho ex-boyfriend on America, Beltran joined Cohn Restaurant Group, one of San Diego’s biggest restaurant operations. Their first collaboration was to rehabilitate Thee Bungalow, a sentimental yet poorly kept hovel in Ocean Beach. Hammers flew, rusted farm-stuff went up, and out came BO-Beau Kitchen + Bar—a sepia-toned, mood-lit bistro that’s pure ambient Cialis.
It showed what Beltran could do with the Cohns’ support. Serving talented chef Katherine Humphus’ French comfort food, BO-Beau is the tiny jewel in the Cohns’ crown. There are talks of replicating it many times over.
100 Wines is the sequel. It’s very much in the BO-Beau brand of French agrarian charm. A gnarled grapevine hangs above the bar, like a gun rack. There’s a stone interior wall, old wine barrel bits made into furniture, tincture bottles, denim jumpers hung as sexy work laundry.
Unlike BO-Beau, this is a wine bar first and foremost. The bar takes up the entire front room, with proper dining in the rear. As we enter on a Tuesday night, the hostess leads us past the bathrooms and kitchen door and—whoa, what’s that smell, like a robust cleaning agent wrestling with a kind of death?
She deposits us at a table by the fireplace on the large back patio—a rarity along Hillcrest’s crowded University Avenue, with stressed woods, jaundiced lighting, and chalkboards scrawled with daily specials. It’s a wintry night and it turns out the fire—deeply receded to meet safety codes—merely looks warm. We’re in the coldest seats on the property. Those at the second-coldest table, next to us, eat with their jackets zipped up, huddled over warm food. The server doesn’t pause to gauge our temperature the entire evening.
Luckily, we have wine. The list is exhaustive (100, as advertised), separated by the glass into three sections of economic you-call-it —$6 (Ramón Bilbao Albarino, etc.), $8 (Sauvion Vouvray, etc.) and $10+ (Mendocino Carignan, etc.). Nice, brief descriptions for each.
All meals at 100 Wines start with fried chickpeas tossed in lemon, sea salt, and chili flakes—a southern take on edamame. The spicy, citrusy, salty shells are deliciously addictive. Except, where art thou, chickpeas? Every other pod is either empty, or the chickpea seems to have liquefied. What you’re left with is Christian Bale—appealing exterior, a little dead inside.
We order the whipped goat cheese with fennel-lavender dust and broken pistachios. The cheese is fridge-cold, which makes it tough to spread and stingy with its flavor (cheese needs to be room temp). The burrata on a roasted beet salad suffers the same fate, and oh, how I wish those walnuts were candied. Soily beets love sugar. Lamb meatballs have a great crust, but lack garlic, spice, something. It’s mostly an exhibition of cooked meat.
We have time to analyze these dishes, because the scraps sit at our table for 15 to 20 minutes. We finally flag our server and pawn them off on her. For entrees, the pork osso bucco suffers from a carrot ragu with zero deep notes—just an inoffensive, bright root veg mixing with sunny tomato. Jar-sauce comparisons are unavoidable. Humphus’ scallops, however, are gems. Sure, the dish has browned butter, which could make crushing regret taste delicious. Perfectly seared bivalves come in a blackberry reduction and hazelnuts over creamy white beans. The blackberry cuts through the butter without being too sweet.
We leave with a shrug of the shoulders and notice a basket of blankets near the fire. Would’ve been nice to know.
Two days later we return, through the wine bar, past the bathrooms—whoa, what, exactly is that smell?—and this time score a seat indoors. Service this night is impeccable, attentive, intuitive.
Now, if we could just suck all of the joy and cheer out of those people at that other table. It’s holiday party season, so we expected a certain increase in noise level. But with zero soft features in the room, a party at 100 Wines sounds like a gunfight in a racquetball court. Shrieks ricochet, loud laughs make you flinch, squeals make your eardrums quiver. Social dining requires acoustic engineering.
We shudder into a cutting board full of cauliflower with Parmesan, pancetta, and balsamic reduction—a riff on BO-Beau’s excellent Brussels sprouts dish. Problem is, sprouts have a heavier vegetal taste that stands up to the balsamic, and don’t absorb all that tang. The spongy cauliflower florets are saturated and puckery.
From the pizza menu, we try the highly recommended grilled filet. Generous slices of beef and cloves of garlic confit (poached in oil) stud a well-cheesed crust. A mound of arugula is drizzled with a blue cheese cream. It’s a decent pizza-salad, even if we craved a high note (peppers, tomato, pickled onion?); it’s all bass notes.
The free-form ravioli with pecorino, pear, moz, and butter-sage sauce tastes of decadent butter, but not much else. There’s also a problem with the presentation. Ravioli’s never been a generous-portion dish, which is why chefs serve them laid out—the appearance of a “full plate.” Served as a tiny stack in a too-big pot, it looks like a half-inch of food for $15.
If there’s anything wrong with the pan-roasted, basil-infused chicken breast with andouille polenta, it’s not the taste. Excellent. But a small breast for $17? Seems high.
Then there’s the catch of the day—seared corvina with tarragon grapefruit coulis. It is inedible, extraordinarily tough, and dried out, yet still fishy. A side of farmers market vegetable gratin literally tastes like plain vegetables that have been undercooked, possibly in a microwave.
I’ve tasted Humphus’ food at BO-Beau multiple times, and been impressed. But something’s amiss at 100 Wines. It seems she needs a good clone, or a trustier second-in-command. Some of the issues must be attributed to her menu (balsamic overwhelming cauliflower), but most of it seems like kitchen execution (too-cold cheese, abused seafood, radiated veggies).
100 Wines is beautiful. It’s just no BO-Beau.