3671 5th Ave.
One of my first jobs was pantry cook at Café Del Mar. I don't remember the name of the head chef at the time, but I do remember his cooking. I wasn't impressed. This was during the early '90s, when southwestern cooking was the new rage. The pizza with Ancho chile-marinated mussels and bleu cheese probably sounded very gourmet when he dreamt it up, but it tasted foul. I came away from that job with a profound distrust of trendy cuisine, a distrust that continues to this day, helped along by restaurants like Hillcrest's Region.
Region is a new restaurant that features locally grown produce, in-house produced cheeses and high-quality meats, all prepared with an awareness of Slow Food aesthetics. Slow Food is a bona-fide organization whose stated aim is "to protect the pleasures of the table from the homogenization of modern fast food and life." In practical terms, this means that in Slow Food restaurants, you won't be rushed through your meal to clear the table for the next party. The duration of my meal at Region was well over two hours.
Region describes its food as "pure simple cuisine," with the pure part coming from the organic produce, and the simplicity coming from the preparation. However, after my meal there, I've been describing it simply as "bland."
My meal at Region was frankly maddening. There were flashes of sublime brilliance throughout, such as the fresh mozzarella cheese on the salad, the perfectly cooked steak, and the rich vanilla flavor of the panna cotta-yet these very same dishes suffered for a number of other reasons that left me scratching my head at their inconsistency, and with a bad case of cognitive dissonance watching my neighbors oohing and aahing over their plates.
I started off with the Homemade Mozzarella, served with tomatoes, olives, garlic and greens. The mozzarella was incredibly delicious, with a rich, creamy texture and delicate flavor. The tomatoes were farm-fresh and super-sweet, and the olives were marinated in a garlic brine that was nothing short of spectacular. Unfortunately, the dressing for the greens was kind of bland-predominantly olive oil, and way too much of it. Salad should not be greasy. A bit less oil and some good balsamic vinegar would have greatly improved the dish.
Next up was my entrée: Beef Flat Iron Steak with baked peppers, squash, tomatoes, and salsa verde. The waiter told me that while the meat was excellent, the dish was really all about the baked vegetables. He was wrong. The meat was indeed excellent, cooked very nicely and brushed with a flavorful salsa verde, but the baked vegetables were, again, bland, consisting of peppers, onions and tomatoes (no squash), which were flawlessly cooked but seemingly unseasoned. Nestled in among the vegetables was a hunk of charred bread, completely blackened and carbonized on one side to the point where I couldn't really cut it-or eat it, for that matter. I managed to chisel off a small piece, and it tasted like bread that had been rubbed in an ashtray. Bizarre.
Finally, for dessert I tried the waiter-recommended panna cotta. Panna cotta is crème fraiche thickened with gelatin. This particular version was liberally spiked with flecks of vanilla bean and served with simple syrup-stewed apricots and basil sorbet. The panna cotta was amazing. Rich and creamy, yet very light from the gelatin, it had a wonderful pure vanilla taste to it that went supremely well with the tartness of the stewed apricots. It even made the basil sorbet tolerable, though I would still call basil sorbet a phenomenally bad idea (albeit a trendy bad idea).
In all, Region was a frustrating experience. When restaurants are expensive enough-and Region is definitely not cheap-my expectations get pretty high. It's odd that a place as detail-oriented as Region can be this inconsistent. Region did get a number of things right. The presentation was great, the atmosphere was comfortable, the beer was served at cellar temperature and the food was perfectly cooked. But maintaining some kind of allegiance to an aesthetic of simplicity when it results in flavorless food doesn't make sense.
There used to be a restaurant in Ocean Beach called The Belgian Lion, whose chef, Don Coulon, also used fresh organic produce from local farmers. The difference is that while he knew great produce could make great food, he also knew that great produce was not enough. Here's hoping that Region learns the same lesson.