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Restaurante Romesco

NORTH OF THE BORDER, down Bonita way—you just might find yourself humming the tune that fits these words after dining at a truly fine new South Bay eatery named Restaurante Romesco.

A few miles east of I-805 in one of the larger neighborhood shopping centers along Bonita Road, this attractive place with outstanding service is owned by the Plasencia family, which has ranked among Tijuana’s powerhouse restaurant families for some 30 years. Their Italian-oriented establishments, Saverio’s and Giuseppi’s, have contributed several dishes to the Restaurante Romesco menu.

The Italian dishes probably exist to satisfy fans of the family’s Tijuana restaurants, since otherwise, chef Javier Plasencia’s menu takes a novel and thoroughly satisfying course. In the Tarragona region of Spain, romesco is a pungent, not-too-complicated seafood sauce that stars dried red peppers, almonds and garlic. These flavors are typical of both the Mediterranean and Baja California, and Restaurante Romesco nicely combines the cooking traditions and techniques of both regions with contemporary accents to create what it calls “Baja-Mediterranean” cuisine. This is fusion without the confusion, and the resulting dishes can be woven into a wonderfully satisfying meal.

Every server must have been hired from one of the Plasencias’ Tijuana establishments, since they’re very old-school, very deferential and, to put it simply, very good. They dress to match the dining room, in a light-and-dark palette that on the servers takes the form of black trousers, floor-length white aprons, gleaming white shirts and black vests and neckties. The look gives Romesco a degree of retro chic that complements its self-description as “a traditional bistro . . . a café bar with a soft French aroma.”

The dining room décor makes its major statements with dark wood paneling and furniture and cream-colored walls. The open kitchen presides over front-room activity, while the handsome bar rules in back. Jazz plays quietly in the background, and even when full, Romesco seems relatively sedate and peaceful, a nice change from those contemporary eateries that jump and jive until patrons must feel as if they’re riding an express bus at rush hour.

One not widely realized benefit of living in San Diego County is the nearness of the Baja California wine country. The Romesco wine card offers five bottles from this up-and-coming region, including a choice 2001 Monte Xanic Cabernet Sauvignon ($35) and a very drinkable 2005 Valmar Tempranillo. It costs $28, which isn’t bad— but note that Kous Kous, a good new Moroccan eatery in Hillcrest, pours the same bottle for $20. Otherwise, the meant-to-impress selection of California and European vintages ranges up to a 2001 Gaja Barbaresco ($300) clearly aimed at heavy-hitters from south of the border.

THE MENUS VARY SOMEWHAT from lunch to dinner (this may be the best lunch destination in the South Bay), but both are organized on a foundation of elegant tapas, followed by soup, a serious selection of salads and pastas, then a number of inventive entrées. The starter list opens with a simple but deluxe plate of Serrano ham ($9) and moves along suavely to a selection of artisan-made Italian cured meats ($12) handsomely garnished with olives, roasted peppers and, best of all, miniature portobello mushrooms bathed in a Spanish-style escabeche marinade.

The precise, eye-appealing arrangements show Javier Plasencia to be a chef of considerable talents; a prime example would be the lunch-hour-only scallop ceviche ($9), made with plump beauties from Baja waters. Showers of microgreens in shades of purple and emerald surround the dome-shaped mound of marinated shellfish, halved pear tomatoes and sliced, butter-textured avocado. Sweet, meaty and succulent, the scallops nearly explode with the flavors of minced cilantro and tart Mexican lime juice.

Contemporary themes appear in such appetizers as the carpaccio of smoked Sea of Cortéz marlin ($8.50), thinly sliced, overlapping slices that Plasencia decorates with sprigs of miniature cilantro, a papaya-avocado salsa and wasabi-seasoned salt. If wasabi seems pretentious or out of place, bear in mind that Ensenada’s 18thcentury gold rush drew an international galaxy of settlers, including many from Japan.

Some of the hot starters are traditional Baja favorites, like the tacos gobernador (“the governor’s tacos,” $9.50), sizzling corn tortillas filled with shrimp and mozzarella and served with an excellent green habanero salsa on the side. The Casa Plasencia beef-cheek tacos ($9.50) are Baja at its best: flavorful, steaming-hot shredded beef served in a small skillet with corn tortillas and spicy chile de arbol salsa on the side, so guests can roll their own. Both taco dishes share well, as does the “Greek tavern–style” calamari ($9.50), a wonderful offering that jumbles silky-soft calamari with crisp French fries, a lemon-basil pesto and a splash of ouzo. Everything is muddled together, and every bite is delicious.

As alternatives, there are a deep, earthy tomato soup that floats a goat cheese–covered crouton ($6) and such salads as a salt-crust baked pear with Roquefort and candied walnuts ($9.50), a classic Caesar ($9) and a wild combination of pickled yellow beets with habanero-spiked “tartar” sauce and a goat cheese mini-sandwich ($9.50).

Among pastas, the best pick might be the angel hair à la diabla ($16.50), which is tossed with blue crab, cherry tomatoes and a spicy tomato sauce sharpened with Pernod. Entrées can be quite dressy, like the olive oil–poached tuna paired with a crisply fried soft-shell crab and a purée of potatoes and onions ($26). The flavors jump off the plate, but you have to appreciate soft textures to enjoy the juxtaposition of melting fish and creamy purée.

Various goodies, including a red-wine “syrup” and guava chutney, make quite a feast of the succulent, mesquite-grilled duck breast ($20.50). On a menu clearly suited to red wine, Plasencia rather daringly sides an “au poivre” (black pepper–coated) New York steak with steamed spinach and macaroni baked with four cheeses ($24). The rib-eye “cowboy” steak goes down nicely with its garnishes of sauce Bordelaise and wild mushrooms ($25).

And if you want something old-school from Giuseppi’s in Tijuana, the kitchen makes an oversized milanesa Napolitana of thin breaded steak topped with mozzarella and marinara ($18.50). Finishing it will make you abandon any thought of dessert.

Restaurante Romesco serves lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday at 4346 Bonita Road in Bonita. Reservations are accepted; telephone 619-475-8627.

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