Rejoice and cross your fingers, folks. Hillcrest's The Better Half has been open barely a month, yet I've been in for dinner twice and expect to be eating there regularly in the future. And I'm hoping the restaurant has a long future, too, and won't succumb to the same fate that's befallen the site's last three occupants (all restaurants). Located in a 1930s-era house, the space is charming, with the downstairs floor serving as the cozy dining room, a warmly lit courtyard separating it from the small cottage that houses the kitchen. The effect is immediately beguiling—and that's before you've even tasted the food.
Proprietor Zubin Desai worked as a waiter, captain and sommelier at a few well-known spots around town, and his last post, as general manager at pricey Blanca Restaurant in Solana Beach, prompted his quest to open his own place, one closer to home and dearer to his heart. And so The Better Half was born, named in tribute to his better half in life, Elena, and for his take on the wine list, uniquely comprising half-bottles. Desai's mission is to give people the same high-quality ingredients and service you'd find in a fine-dining restaurant but without the stuffy atmosphere and appetite-dulling prices. Here, the denim-clad waitstaff is familiar and chatty and the food—oh, the food. Through craigslist, Zubin found Chef John Robert Kennedy, who has both culinary and pastry degrees on his résumé, plus experience working with celebrity chefs like Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter. Most of the menu tastes like big-ticket cuisine, but, fortunately, entrée prices are generally south of $20.
I first heard about The Better Half from a restaurant-owner pal who's always looking for good places to eat on his nights off. With that recommendation, my friend Brandy and I decided to have New Year's Eve dinner there, hoping it would be an auspicious start to another year of good and grateful eating.
In a celebratory mood, we started with a half-bottle of Champagne, followed by two more half-bottle compatriots (we were cabbing it that night). We were happily surprised by a little pre-meal bonus, a shot of beef-onion consommé with a cheese puff round floating merrily on top. We finished that and, knowing there'd be much toasting to come, we finished off the entire bread basket and tasty accompanying herb butter.
Brandy went with the tart du jour appetizer—on this night, a savory mix of Kalamata olives, shallots and Gruyere cheese on a flaky pastry with a side salad. I got the sparkling-wine-friendly gravlax, slices of house-cured salmon that came with both buckwheat crepes and blini and all the necessary condiments.
As we were waiting for our main courses, another little extra appeared in the form of wee, finger-length ice cream cones filled with taste-bud refreshing lemon sorbet.
I'm powerless to the charms of slow-cooked meat, so I was very happy with The Better Half's Cabernet-braised beef short ribs nestled on a cauliflower-horseradish mash. Brandy opted for the fish special, a filet of delicate Rouget on a bed of risotto. Our server, Irene, even graciously asked to what degree of doneness Brandy would like her fish cooked, a rare and thoughtful touch. And then yet another treat arrived, a plate of gumball-sized Brussels sprouts, seared to deliciousness for us to share.
Mere days later, still pleasantly haunted by my last meal, another friend and I stopped in for dinner before a show at The Casbah. We split the charcuterie plate, the best of which was a liver and pistachio terrine wrapped in gin-soaked grape leaves. The Pelmeni, a Russian dumpling, pays homage to Elena's grandmother, and The Better Half's version was filled with ricotta cheese and herbs and blanketed in a rich pumpkin sauce. My friend's entrée of quail stuffed with fall fruit and wild mushroom was also very nice. The Better Half's corkage fee is a minimal $5, so in addition to splitting a half-bottle of Prosecco, we brought in a full bottle of red to share.
The menu, which will change according to season and creativity of the chef, is already getting interesting, with new additions such as antelope osso buco and fried frogs legs, and there are plans to start a Sunday brunch when the weather gets more accommodating. If the quality and value remain, I'll return to try it all.
The Better Half is located at 127 University Ave. in Hillcrest. 619-543-9340. Got something to say? Email us at email@example.com