I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, and I do love several of the other Cohn Restaurants, but our maiden voyage to 100 Wines left just a bit to be desired. Before I get too wrapped up in all the issues, I will say the place looks great. I mean, really nicely laid out space with comfy chairs up front, a front patio with plenty of space for people-watching and having a drink, even a back patio with a faux fire place that was kinda cool. The thing is, there are three things a restaurant must get right to be really good. This one struggled.
I’ll say that the first thing I noticed when we sat down wasn’t good or bad, just odd. The tables are really, umm, long. I don’t mean long as in they sat us at a table for six and we were only two people. I mean we sat across from each other at a “two top” and we were abnormally far from each other. So far apart that we followed the lead of the first-date couple next to us, scootched the table a little closer to theirs, and slid around so that we were almost next to each other.
First point. The menu looked great, several options of starters, small plates, flatbread and entrees, as well as a nice thematic collection of charcuterie boards (that is, boards written in English, French, Italian and Spanish, respectively, with cheese and meats to match). Now, I like Hillcrest, so while it’s not my home ground of North Park or South Park I do want the businesses to do well. It’s a part of the city that represents a core value of mine that people should be free to walk down the street, hand in hand, with whoever makes them feel happy and loved. So although we eat out for the food and the experience, the social context of our meals matters. It is, I suspect, one of the many ways that portions of mid-city San Diego are different than the more suburban areas. Wait, this is supposed to be about food…
My wife is a huge fan of well-made burrata and of beets, now that I think of it, so this starter had a lot going for it before it even hit the table. It was a solid first dish, well presented and the use of frisee worked well. The cauliflower turned out to be a slightly different story. Perhaps partially because we’d just had the panang/date/almond cauliflower at Counterpoint two days earlier or perhaps because of the missing ‘crisp’ this one didn’t work as well as I’d hoped. It was presented well, see…
And pairing the dish with lardons was a surprisingly good choice for texture and creating an interesting flavor profile against the balsamic and the earthiness of the cauliflower. I had two main difficulties. First, as mentioned, it wasn’t actually crispy (my wife disagreed on this score, so I may have been overly sensitive to texture at the moment). Second, the cauliflower seemed a bit salty given the other salty items mixed in. Still, we had grand hopes for the mains on their way: free form pecorino and pear pasta and the night’s special of wild Mexican shrimp and truffle risotto.
I am not super price sensitive in the $12-24 range, so it’s hard to explain what happened next. We are sitting in this very fashionable space with clever furnishings and the Cohn Restaurant tag and I suppose when you put all these things together we were a bit surprised to see the pasta arrive and it was so…well…small. It was served in maybe a six inch cast iron mini-skillet and just felt like it should have been spread out on a larger plate. Somehow, the four or five ravioli in the dish—taken with the rest of the meal—more than satisfied our appetites. The pasta was actually very light and the cheese and crème sauce weren’t over the top. The only complaint is that it could have used a more overt pear taste. As for the risotto, well, this turned out to be the star of the show. I’m not sure I could put my finger on what makes a good risotto, but this seemed to be it. Bad or mediocre risotto seems to be either too clumpy or bland, or to be undercooked. This was none of those things. And although the truffle was only truffle salt, it actually was a very good background flavor for the dish. We didn’t make it to the dessert menu, though there was a chocolate pots de crème that looked very worth whatever kind of gym time might be called for.
A word about the service and the experience. First, it was delightful to be next to a couple of guys on a first date. I hate to admit that we were kind of listening, but it’s like sharing a cubicle with someone—you’d have to be oblivious not to hear what’s going on. Plus they were very well traveled, which made us kind of jealous. Apparently you should skip Prague and head to, ummm, Munich I think, instead. Then we had a quasi-girls night behind on the other side of us. I say quasi, because they crossed generations so I’m not entirely sure it wasn’t more like a mom, a daughter and a couple friends. They were pleasant enough and hearing their challenges with getting the fried chickpeas—100 Wines’ almost clever substitute for typical table bread—helped us dial it back waiting for our own. It’s not a substitute for bread if it comes after the food starts to arrive. Last note, our server—who we overheard describing feeding her 3-year old sriracha—was very pedestrian. I don’t need to be spoiled at a restaurant and I don’t blame a server for doing only exactly what they are paid to do. She brought all the food as it was ready. She answered our questions about the menu and had a good handle on the wine program. She even handled our Passport card mostly correctly. Anyway, the larger point here is simple. Ordinary service is fine. But in the competition for dinner choices restaurants should really place a premium on having good, engaging, thoughtful servers. If you don’t have a busser handling water, make it a point to check as you walk around. Your name is on the receipt, so we’ll know anyway, you might as well introduce yourself and ask how we’re doing. It helps take you from being just our server to being a person we feel cares about our experience. If we are out on a date night or celebrating some big victory at work or decompressing after a long day, having an experience in a restaurant that is both easy and memorable matters. Great food matters, but I will go back for good or above-average food if everything else works well. URBN in North Park does this well. Granted, it’s just a pizza joint. But there are at least nine good pizza/flatbread sources within 3 miles (Lefty’s, Alexander’s, Foundry, Pizzeria Luigi’s, Blind Lady, Pizzeria Bruno, Mazara, DeLuca’s and Splash—and technically Mosaic and The Linkery also have flatbread). We go to URBN because they are always pleasant and on their game from a service standpoint. Bottom line, our server was just so-so and although we will give it one more try, it won’t likely be a place that we recommend for more than one visit to give it a try. One last thing, the “1oo Wines” comes from the concept that they have 20 wines on the menu at $20 each, 30 wines at $30 each and 40 wines at $40 each (yes, if you are like me you are wondering where the other 10 wines are. Turns out they are sprinkled in categories like ‘sparkling’ and just kinda mixed in). Cool concept. Anyway, if you’ve been and have a thought, please share it. Thanks for dropping by.