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location > 1417 University Avenue, Hillcrest
phone > 619-299-2483
chef > Chris Walsh

WATCHING A YOUNG CHEF EVOLVE over decades is an uncommon treat for those of us who regard food as more than mere sustenance. Too often, promising young men and women rise to prominence in San Diego, win our hearts, then move on. Food is a fickle business. Restaurants open and close; trends ebb and flow; the dining public moves on to the next new thing.

Of those chefs who’ve stayed in town, however——and there are many worth saluting——perhaps the most imaginative, hardworking and resilient is Chris Walsh. His new restaurant, Bite Modern California Bistro & Wine Bar, is a delight. And it deserves a back story.

Most foodies know it, so we’ll make this quick: Local kid discovers a flair for fare, and cooks his way up the culinary ladder in ever-better kitchens around town. By his early 20s, he’s put California Cuisine in Hillcrest on the national radar with his mix of exuberant flavors, inspired combinations and devotion to local ingredients.

He dreams of opening his own place and launches the charming Café W the day after 9/11. With 40 varieties of smashingly original tapas——most under $9 a plate——he earns this critic’s praise and a new generation of fans, before the restaurant’s demise by fire two years later.

Next, Walsh serves as head chef for downtown’s swank Confidential, whipping up drop-dead gorgeous “small plates” for a pretty and privileged club crowd happy to drop $450 on a bottle of Cristal. Between the high-rollers and the plunging necklines, more than a few of us dreamed Chris would once again open on his own.

Wish granted. Roughly one year ago, Walsh and restaurant partner Sam Cuevas took over the old Living Room on University Avenue and set about physically transforming the place from well-worn coffeehouse to modish bistro. It’s definitely stylin’ now, with lounge seating up front, a freestanding bar, candlelit restrooms (complete with aquariums) and lots of cushy booths.

Talk about sweat equity. The two of them spent months scrubbing, then staining, the concrete floors; prepped and painted the walls with fanciful bubble motifs; and built clever custom tables that illuminate single daisies floating in transparent bowls. All the while, Chris was thinking about food.

Ever inventive in his presentations and preparations, Walsh has developed a new menu of small plates. But the French and Italian flavors showcased here come off as purer, more concentrated versions of Walsh classics. Gone are the architectural constructions and elaborate garnishes. This is bistro cuisine at its best, with long-simmered chicken stocks, veal demi-glace prepared on site, herbs and vegetables plucked from Walsh’s own garden.

“It’s a little more rustic,” Walsh says of his new venture. “I was thinking, ‘We’re still at war. Look at gas prices and what’s happening in the mortgage industry.’ Trepidation is on people’s minds. We’re looking for more comfort food.”

AT BITE, comfort comes in four acts: Field, Ocean, Farm and Sweets, to be ordered and shared among friends in any order you choose. Most dishes are in the $8 to $11 range; prices top out at $16 for a quiveringly tender portion of foie gras paired with pinenut brittle that echoes and enhances the nutty, unctuous liver.

Other items from the Farm section include duck legs cooked confit-style for moisture, but without a trace of fat, tucked among spinach leaves and a smoky bacon dressing ($11). Sliced duck liver pâté ($8) is studded with dried cherries and pistachio nuts, served with mustard, capers and other garnishes arranged like the face of a clock. And of course, there’s steak frites——wine-marinated hanger steak done rare and sliced thin, served with a flurry of slim, well-seasoned fries ($14).

“Field” dishes include grilled Japanese eggplant, a natural with roasted beets and boursin cheese ($7), and a really amazing grilled cheese sandwich pairing fontina cheese and cremini mushrooms ($9). Better things have never happened to a baguette. Other highlights: an homage to Wolfgang Puck’s salmon-and-caviar-topped potato pancake, stylishly updated with smoked trout and apricot chutney ($8), and a generous hunk of salmon, quite adequate for a meal, since it arrives with chunky mashed potatoes and a refreshing red bell pepper vinaigrette ($14).

Finally comes a berry cobbler that defines the phrase “seasonal cuisine”——sun-sweetened strawberries bound with just a hint of dough and sugar, served warm with vanilla ice cream ($7). The only dish that didn’t wow us was a “deconstructed“ Niçoise salad ($12), artfully arranged by ingredients but with lackluster seared ahi.

You can’t have a proper bistro without wine, and Bite delivers plenty under $9 a glass. We’re fond of Chateau La Baronne Rosé ($5.50), Morgadio Albariño ($6.50), Ray’s Station Cabernet ($8.50) and Bonny Doon’s desserty Vin de Glaciere ($6). But at these prices, why not experiment?

Bite’s a great place made even better by a smart, caring staff. Service is outgoing and casual but professional; you get the feeling these folks really like their jobs. That’s a feeling that can only come straight from the top. Nice work, chef. Bite gets everything right.

Bite Modern California Bistro & Wine Bar serves dinner nightly except Tuesdays at 1417 University Avenue, Hillcrest; 619-299-2483; bitesd.com.

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