Growing up in San Diego in the early '80s, we had some good family friends who owned a candy store in Del Mar's Flower Hill Mall. I could barely wrap my 7-year-old mind around the fact that someone's job was "candy store owner," and before I could, the friends sold the store and moved away, and my visits to candy-land became a distant memory—as did any time hanging out at Flower Hill Mall.
I still don't spend much time there, not being a well-heeled Del Martian, but I've been intrigued lately at the shopping center's attempts to hip itself up a bit. Sea & Smoke, Cucina Enoteca and the very cool ROW Collective of local artisans bring a youthful, cosmopolitan vibe to the whole enterprise.
I hoped Café Cantata (2670 Via De La Valle), a relatively new little breakfast and lunch café that occupies the space formerly held by longtime local stalwart Pannikin, would be a part of the freshening up of Flower Hill. I will say this for Cantata: It's cute! I even overheard fellow patrons say things like, "This place is so cute!" The wheels of a bicycle mounted to the wall make up the word "FOOD" in a clever bit of inexpensive yet eye-catching design.
Coffee is clearly where Café Cantata shines and where its passion lies. I loved the deliciously creamy cappuccino, topped with a thick head of glorious foam. The in-house chocolate-chunk cookie impressed with a nice, chewy texture and ample amounts of bittersweet chunks of the good stuff. It was pretty much a perfect coffeehouse pairing of sweet and caffeinated.
Scrambles, salads and sandwiches make up a large part of the menu, and with the exception of the cookies and a few scones, most of the baked goods are brought in from outside bakeries. (Say what you will about Pannikin and its explosion of knick-knacks; it does crank out some tasty cakes and sweet nibbles.)
From the Cantata kitchen, I enjoyed the baked French toast. The breakfast was simple and satisfying, bright with orange-zest-infused maple syrup. I decided to splurge and pay an extra $2.25 for "strawberry compote." The warm, sliced strawberries were fine, but maybe Café Cantata doesn't know that a compote is more than just a high-falutin' cooking term? It seemed a bit disingenuous to charge extra for nothing more than sliced berries.
The turkey panini was just OK, with gooey mozzarella cheese and a crispy, buttery sourdough, but the slab of pressed lunchmeat that didn't bear much resemblance to any part of a turkey proved that the food at Café Cantata is mostly about being utilitarian.
Avoid the scrambles: The eggs are beaten to within an inch of their lives. You can hardly identify the "egg" part of the scramble, which feels depressing to me.
With Flower Hill's artsy renaissance, I'd hoped for more than average coffeehouse fare at Café Cantata. As a culinary destination, it falls short. As a place to plug in and linger over a cup of coffee, that's where Café Cantata hits the sweet spot.