One night's bad service won't taint Pomegranate
When my friend Jeanne told me she hadn't yet eaten at Pomegranate, the Georgian/Russian restaurant at the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Louisiana Street, I couldn't wait to take her to my new favorite find in North Park. So you can imagine my disappointment when what was supposed to be a one-hour meal turned into three hours of occasionally being served lukewarm-sometimes cold-dishes and wondering if we'd ever see our server again. The restaurant was clearly understaffed that night, and I noticed the same older man I saw during my previous visits-presumably the owner-sitting, arms crossed, at the end of the room, carefully studying the dining area. I couldn't help but wonder if he was taking pleasure in seeing the server struggle to manage a full house on his own.
But will one disagreeable visit keep me from returning to Pomegranate? Absolutely not. In spite the service that night, Pomegranate is still a charming place. The menu is full of puns and corny phrases-the Chicken Tabaka, for instance, requires 20 minutes "for us to catch a chicken first." There's magic-marker graffiti covering the walls, scrawled by customers. As I witnessed with the Russian-speaking family sitting two tables from ours, certain visitors are "selected" by the waitstaff to grace the walls with some note or drawing of their choosing, many of the messages in languages from far corners of the globe. I followed the instructions in one of the messages above our table and ordered the Varéniki as my zakuski (appetizer). The potato dumplings, available with onion or cheese (we opted for cheese) were wading in a bowl of melted butter, christened with a dollop of sour cream. A fan of fattening foods, I fell in love with the Varéniki. The rich flavor of the cheese teased my hunger, making me excited for my next course, which, unfortunately, didn't arrive for another 40 minutes. In the meantime, though, we dined on bread served with a tasty dill butter and sipped the stingingly strong Blemheim ginger ale.
For the main course, I ordered the vegetarian Golubtsi-two "village style" cabbage rolls stuffed with stewed mushrooms, carrots, onions and rice in a robust broth, which, not surprisingly, included sour cream. The savory mushrooms came out on top, only slightly dominating the intense, buttery flavor of the other vegetables.
Jeanne went with what the menu touted as "Russia's claim to fame," the beef stroganoff-large morsels of beef and pasta drenched in a lavish sauce. The dish was extravagant and heavy and Jeanne wasn't able to finish more than half of it in one sitting, opting to take the rest home for later enjoyment.
Looking at the dessert menu, which featured such delectable offerings as wild cherry soup and a Napoleon torte, we decided to take the dangerous path by ordering the Toad Sweat Ice Cream, which, reportedly, is "not for the faint of heart." I must be faint of heart because what we got wasn't the slightest bit pleasing-two scoops of vanilla ice cream, each containing about an ounce of hot sauce-very hot hot sauce. I wouldn't recommend the Toad Sweat to anyone, unless, of course, it was purely for my own comedic benefit, and I'm sure the guy at the end of the room enjoyed a moment of schadenfreude watching Jeanne and I scowl at our dessert. I felt like shaking my fist at him from across the restaurant, but, instead, we waited another 15 minutes for our check. For fear we might be there another half hour if we paid with plastic, we threw down some cash and left.
I know, I know: This review doesn't make Pomegranate sound like the best restaurant. But that doesn't mean I won't continue to recommend it. With the exception of the Toad Sweat Ice Cream, every dish I've tried has been delicious. The vegetarian borscht, for example, with its slightly tart aroma, is a brilliant amalgam of beets, potatoes, carrots, cabbage and other vegetables, simmered to perfection. The borscht is the ultimate comfort food for a chilly evening.
And judging from my past visits, I'm willing to bet our slow service was a rarity. Pomegranate is worthy of a few more chances. Just take my advice and skip the Toad Sweat.
Pomegranate is open Monday through Friday, 5 to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 5 to 11 p.m. Entrees range from $11 to $16
2302 El Cajon Blvd.