The curly-haired little boy at the next table fussed when he was placed in the high chair. I don't blame him; I wouldn't want to be squished into a hard wooden frame while my family dined on tasty dishes. He was mollified by a cup of chocolate milk and a splendid dish of calamari for the table, served in a crispy shell shaped like a conch. Meanwhile, an elderly couple dined on the other side of the boy while a raucous group of girlfriends were enjoying a girls' night out at another table. Me, I was having date night with the spouse.
Welcome to Terra: an unpretentious place that serves food so good that most will find something they love.
Previously located in a bustling Hillcrest shopping center, Terra is celebrating its second year in the College Area (7091 El Cajon Blvd.). The exterior is almost nondescript except for a large planter containing herbs and a small rusted tractor. Inside, the dining room and bar are warm and comfortable. If the staff treated you any better, the Cheers theme song would be playing.
The restaurant bills itself as an American bistro with a farm-to-table focus. Translated, it means dishes that showcase good cooking with great ingredients. We started with the "mock chopped liver," a purée of mushrooms, egg, walnuts and edamame.
"Faux gras?" my husband quipped, drawing an eye roll from me. If you're one for meat substitutes, though, the mock chopped liver was surprisingly close to the real thing.
Meat substitution wasn't part of our main course, but Terra's menu is carefully curated to accommodate vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free diners. We headed for beef and seafood, with my salmon barbacoa featuring a perfectly seared piece of salmon served medium-rare with a drizzle of barbecue cream, similar to a classic sweet barbecue sauce, but with hints of mirin. Beef lovers can choose from a top sirloin, a skirt steak, a burger or pot roast. There likely isn't a bad choice, but the pot roast braised in Karl Strauss' Amber Lager is a very good one. It's appropriate to note that Terra lives up to its farm-to-table ethos by making vegetables tasty enough that they threaten to overshadow the animal protein. Crisped kale, spinach gnocchi, mashed potatoes and buttered zucchini added a lot to the pot roast and salmon.
With a menu of uncomplicated preparations and good ingredients, the desserts seem almost fussy by comparison. Featuring classic sweets made with interesting ingredients, they're familiar and yet theyíre not: Crème brûlée has lavender in it. Chocolate cake is topped with crushed strawberries and basil. Banana bread is turned into bread pudding with a bourbon butterscotch sauce. Despite my skepticism, strawberries and basil worked very well with chocolate. I barely managed to sneak in a bite of the bread pudding before the husband devoured it all.
Bad puns and a dessert hog—I should leave him at home when I return to Terra. You shouldn't leave anyone behind, though. Bring the gang because everyone will enjoy the experience.