Monsoon and Cafe Cerise
By Robin Kleven Dishon
location: Monsoon Fine Cuisine of India, 729 Fourth Avenue, downtown San Diego
chef: Babhu Krishnan
When it comes to downtown news, Petco Park has been dominating the headlines.
Time will tell if the new field brings us a winning team. In the meantime, we’ve discovered some real contenders in the neighborhood: Monsoon Fine Cuisine of India and Café Cerise.
Talk about your great batting averages. Monsoon, owned by the same folks as the much-admired Bombay in Hillcrest, offers the mesmerizing tastes of northern India in a dramatic Gaslamp venue. And Café Cerise boasts major-league talent in a chef with an uncanny knack for blending the best of French and California cuisine.
At Monsoon, the menu is almost as heavy as the seasonal rains for which it is named. The variety of food served here is a pleasure and an education. Naan, the familiar flatbread generally served plain or with garlic, comes in seven varieties, including a desserty version laced with cherries, coconut and pistachio nuts ($2.95-$4.50).
Pakoras (bite-size morsels dipped in lentil batter and deep-fried, about $5 per order) range from savory onion, cauliflower and potato to creamy ripe banana. Chicken stir-frys and stews alone number at least a dozen. To be a vegetarian here —or simply someone who loves veggies deftly prepared—is nirvana.
Besides dinner nightly, the restaurant offers a lunch buffet daily ($9.95, with unlimited returns) and a dinner buffet on Monday nights for $15. Otherwise, come to Monsoon with plenty of friends, so you can each order a dish and share around the table. The kitchen offers a “heat index” from one (extremely mild) to 10 (call the medics).
Among the don’t-miss entrées: The chili cabbage stir-fried with peas, potatoes and carrots ($14.95) packs more heat than Trevor Hoffman on a roll. Equally spicy is coriander chicken ($15.95), with remarkably tender meat stewed with tomatoes, hot peppers and fresh cilantro. Much milder is the chicken tempered with coconut milk and cinnamon ($15.95). Served in deceptively small dishes, each of these curry-style selections makes a full meal.
Vegetable korma, a golden curry nuanced with saffron, is a highlight of the lunch buffet, as is a spinach curry to make Popeye swoon and a cooling mango mousse for dessert. The only errors noted during multiple visits have been overly scorched naan and some jaw-tiring lamb, both served during lunch buffet.
The wine list offers dozens of choices in the $25 to $40 range; Indian lagers like Kingfish and Yeti also make sublime accompaniments to this complex cuisine. Service is generally cordial, although some servers are far better informed about the menu than others.
The striking décor includes a lengthy granite bar (full liquor service) with seating for at least 20 on one side of the dining room, which is divided by a curtain of falling water. Fittingly, it fills Monsoon with the soothing sound of rain.
location:Café Cerise, 1125 Sixth Avenue, downtown San Diego
chef: Jason Seibert
At Café Cerise, chef Jason Seibert is already batting 1.000. Open since late December, this unassuming eatery near Sixth and B has a big-city feel and a sophisticated menu to match. Seibert’s kitchen credits include Spago in Maui and Palo Alto, as well as the marvelous (and sadly, now closed) China Moon in San Francisco. For his first restaurant in San Diego, he’s teamed with co-owner Anthony Gutierrez to present a fusion of French and California cooking that celebrates both the seasons and the sheer joy of eating well.
One brisk evening, Seibert chased away our chills with a hearty leg of lamb steeped in red wine and garnished with roasted turnips ($21). He gave us comfort food, whipping up homemade pork sausage and serving it over polenta ($8.25), and topping sweet-potato bisque with aromatic sage ($8).
He gave us Paris, with a chestnut crêpe that smelled exactly like the delicious nuts roasted by vendors in the winter, filled it with superb duck confit and finished with an arugula pesto that magically echoed the crêpe ($7.75). He served up the south of France, as well, in his classic roast chicken scented with herbs and napped in tangy black olive tapenade ($20).
And finally, he created a chocolate ganache terrine ($5) worthy of a chocolatier extraordinaire.
The setting is plain in comparison to the luxurious flavors, and the overhead lime-green neon casts a unnatural light during evening hours. But the upstairs bar and balcony tables overlooking the main dining room are chic. On the ground floor, two oversized banquettes provide prime seating by the windows. Paintings that resemble aerial-view martinis decorate the walls; appropriately, the bartender here blends one hell of a cosmo (Grey Goose orange vodka, cranberry juice and fresh lime). The wine list is short, but fairly priced.
Servers are outgoing and well-spoken, and we’ve watched co-owner Gutierrez checking in multiple times with guests to ensure their satisfaction. So far, the restaurant offers dinner Thursday through Saturday only, with lunch served Monday through Friday.
That schedule should expand in time. We hope so: Café Cerise is shaping up to be an all-star.