Pearl Chinese Cuisine and California Cuisine
By Robin Kleven Dishon
location: 1027 University Avenue, Hillcrest
chef: Todd Atcheson
we get to savor the results, everything from Pacific Rim fusion to Midwestern meat ’n’ potatoes.
IT’S JULY, AND WHAT COULD BE HOTTER than black leather car seats? Two sizzling restaurants—something old and something new.
California Cuisine, a Hillcrest landmark for 22 years, has been reborn with an exceptional new chef. And the recently opened Pearl Chinese Cuisine in Rancho Bernardo is proving to be a real gem.
Many longtime San Diegans know the history of California Cuisine. Opened in 1982, owned by Stella Kalamaras since 1985, it was one of the first local dining rooms to specialize in serious nouvelle cuisine. As refined and elegant as its owner, the dining room gained fame as chef Chris Walsh rose to prominence with superb reviews and a distinctive repertoire of dishes.
Indeed, Walsh was such an integral part of the scene that when he left to open Café W in late 2001, many fans moved on as well. But now Cal Cuisine is better than ever. A few months ago, chef Todd Atcheson introduced himself to Kalamaras and asked her to taste his cooking. Since then, he’s suffused the place with new life, making over the menu and pouring his heart into the process.
“I’m always thinking about it,” says Atcheson, who’s become notorious for his long hours in the restaurant. “It’s my passion. This place is a perfect fit for me.”
Talk about your win-win situations. The recent transplant from Columbus, Ohio, gets to follow his culinary muse. And
Atcheson’s affinity for seafood results in noteworthy starters and entrées. A spectacular ceviche appetizer infuses succulent scallops and shrimp with tangy Meyer lemons, fresh chilies and herbs ($12). Plump steamed mussels, fresh from Carlsbad, pack a Thaistyle punch of red curry, lime and cilantro ($9.50).
Poached monkfish is the perfect fourth for a menage of fresh lobster, risotto and artichoke hearts ($25). And while seared scallops seem an odd match for succotash, this combo ($26) with smoked bacon and purple Peruvian potatoes (sweeter than their Idaho brothers) makes the shellfish shine.
Free-range Midwestern pork— from pigs allowed to graze outdoors and develop a flavor-enhancing layer of fat—is another revelation. With most pork these days so lean it tastes like newsprint, we’re mad for these grilled chops sauced with bourbon and currant chutney ($23). The herb-crusted rack of lamb ($34) has just a touch of fat as well, adding richness to the rosy meat.
Good as Atcheson is, dessert chef Laurel Hufnagle matches his imagination at every turn. The show-stopper is a chocolate-hazelnut polenta ($10.50) that had other diners craning for a look. Served in a pool of red wine–– cherry compote, it’s more than enough for two.
Cal Cuisine’s service is as attentive as usual; contemporary art still adorns the gallery-white walls; and the outdoor patio remains one of the best alfresco dining places in the city. Talk about a restaurant renaissance.
California Cuisine serves lunch Tuesday through Friday and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Visit on the Web at www.californiacuisine.cc.
Pearl Chinese Cuisine
location: 11666 Avena Place, Rancho Bernardo
chef: Sam Wong
MEANWHILE, PEARL CHINESE CUISINE has made a big splash with aficionados of authentic Asian cooking. This smashing newcomer offers a quick trip to Hong Kong via Interstate 15. The former Anthony’s restaurant has been transformed into a seafood shrine, where prawns, fish and crabs patrol their tanks just minutes before reaching your plate.
And dim sum fans, get ready to party: Pearl’s roving carts offer phenomenal variety at sensible prices.
Founded by the partners behind Emerald Chinese in Kearny Mesa, Pearl celebrates the complexity of Cantonese cuisine with a dinner menu that runs 15 pages. You could visit dozens of times and still not experience it all, from the simple (naturally sweet steamed prawns, superb barbecued pork, savory tea-smoked duck) to the elaborate ( sea cucumber sautéed with shrimp roe; braised shark fin with sea urchin).
Such specialties can range from $25 to $55 or more per person. But the daily dim sum selection provides another means to enjoy Pearl—at prices starting around $2.50 per plate.
Pearl’s smiling servers offer enough kinds of dim sum to warrant a handy pictorial menu, although lots of the items that come around aren’t even listed. No matter—half the fun is peeking into the cart and making a snap decision.
Some of our faves: Sticky rice made two ways—one is a melange of Asian flavors including dried shrimp, pork and sausage; the other is reminiscent of earthy chicken risotto. Pork buns, lofty, light and not too sweet. Herbed chicken and mushroom shiu mai (dumplings) that are quite simply the best in the county. Corpulent shrimp steamed in tissue-thin rice paper. Pork rubbed with fragrant five-spice powder. Items range from $2.40 to $6.90 per plate.
The vast dining room can be partitioned for private parties and attracts diners of every age. Most tables offer a view of adjacent Webb Lake Park and its resident waterfowl. In addition to the stylish main dining room, there’s a martini bar with mesmerizing views of the live seafood tanks.
Pearl Chinese Cuisine serves lunch, dim sum and dinner daily; www.pearlchinesecuisine.com. Dim sum is also served during Happy Hour, 3 to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, with special prices on drinks.