The Better Half (restaurant)
Finally, my style of "fine" dining in Hillcrest (there's places in Hillcrest I like the food just as much, like Bite, but I like the ambience here more). Amazingly comfortable, intimate dining room. Very simple, soothing decor, cream on cream. I love the half-bottle concept for the wine list, it appears to be priced reasonably and it's quite extensive.
Overall one of the better meals I've had recently. It's not cheap, but for the quality of the food it seems about right.
The amuse bouche was perfect; thin crisp and crumbly toast topped with just the right amount of goat cheese and some nice diced beets (even my bf who doesn't usually like beets liked these). The first salad with strawberries where the strawberries "worked". A slightly too complex, though tasty mussel appetizer. Braised short ribs were super tender, with a really rich sauce. My fish was moist and on a lemony risotto; it just needed something green (sugar snap peas?) or crisp to make it perfect. A perfect cheese plate. A way too large chocolate torte (can you say ganache shaped like a pie?).
Good service too. The main waitress was fun and clearly enjoys working here and loves the food, but a little more animated than I usally prefer. The waitress-in-training was just my style; knowledgable, sweet, and mellow.
The chef has an interesting background (CCA to French Laundry to a big hotel etc), and I like the promise in his food. I also overheard the chef telling another table about the things he's planning to add to the menu and some of his ideas moving forward and it all sounds good - I'm looking forward to going back!
My only suggestion is simple:
1. larger plates so the food doesn't look so cramped (not larger portions, I liked the portions)
I went based on this and other reviews and it was excellent, definitely recommended. Photos included.
This place is very comfortable and as laid back as you'd like to make it. Exceptional but casual service, and reasonably priced for the food we had. We called ahead for the tasting menu, and I'll be coming back in the future.
All of their food ranged from above average to perfect, the best being their bison ribs. I'll describe the ribs first - it had the most wonderful aroma when it was brought out. We were told this was the first day for these ribs, and they were smoked and cooked exactly right. Tender, and a mix of smoky and light sauce complemented the real taste of the meat. I've had good ribs, and this was way better than 2nd place. What we also really liked was the beans served with them plus the roasted cherry tomato. The chef explained that he chose this combo temporarily until the intended sides were ready - a sauce he needed took several days to prepare. If possible, I'd like to order these ribs in the future.
We had about 6 courses including dessert, 3 of them pictured.
The first is a foie gras salad. The salad and dressing were superb, and this is an above average salad. I liked everything, but the foie gras could be better and less dressing would make it perfect. Simplifying the salad may make it better - without foie gras at all and half the amount of dressing it would be almost perfect.
The second picture is a russian dumpling (Dalmini?) with pork filling. I liked the texture of the wrapping.
Third is the perfect bison ribs.
Not pictured was a ginger carrot gaspacho, dill garnishing. Very good, and spicy. Would be better if it were a little less spicy and without dill.
Also, we had a cevice bruschetta, and also a fig bread which was perfect.
Lastly, we had a strawberry and crepe dessert which was nice.
We shared a white wine and it was great. I like the half bottle concept because I don't like to drink too much or order full bottles without having tasted them first.
As I said, we had the tasting menu and had a great experience. I was totally full at the end, and I think one less course would have been perfect portions. Good value for the food served, especially San Diego. And definitely a place I'd recommend and go back to.
My suggestions are:
Simplify some dishes, leave out some ingredients
Serve those ribs and I'll be there
For the tasting menu, remove one course (or smaller portions)
BTW any other recommendations in Hillcrest is greatly appreciated - I go there once every month or two for food so I only have a few places in my rotation.
I think they've resolved most of the issues of the plates being cramped. Most of the presentation of the food was on unique and quite large plates. The duo of duck was however, on a rectangular plate which did look cramped. The owner and chef did mention that their "ying & yang" plates were on order and will soon feature the new presentation.
Having said that, what a great concept for a restaurant! Fantastic tasting food and get this....an all "half-bottle" wine list!! Perfect. The owner is Zubin Desai, whose resume includes such places as Laurel, University Club and most recently Blanca.
Our amuse was a vegetable frittata served with a micros greens salad. Very yummy! We ordered the charcuterie plate, the mushroom soup and the bacon belly for our first course. The charcuterie comes on an "artist palette" plate. The pates, terrines and sausages were amazing. The chef told us that he makes all of them from scratch in-house. My GF still raves about the taste and the presentation of the soup. We actually saw them making the sausages from the kitchen display window on our way out. The bacon belly was moist, delicious and apparently smoked in-house. The chef told us that with the exception of bread & cheese, he makes everything from scratch inhouse.
I ordered the quail as my entree and my friends ordered the frog legs and the duo of duck. I've never had such a delicious meal in San Diego, ever! The combination of flavor, texture and presentation on every plate was unique and well balanced. Every item was perfectly seasoned as well.
We learned from the chef, John Kennedy, that he's got quite a culinary background. He has at one point or another worked with the likes of Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Gary Danko, etc. Very impressive and it shows in his cooking. On the night that we dined, they did not have the antelope osso buco ready. Bummer! But that's just an excuse for us to go back!!
For our dessert, based on our servers' recommendation, we tried the bread pudding which was served with an irish whisky sauce. Absolutely to die for!!! Chef told us that it is his grandmother's recipe. Very tasty.
They have about a 120 or so half bottles of wine. We tried a white from France, a red blend from Lebanon, a cabernet from Australia and couple of glasses of the ice wine from New Zealand. Btw, the only wines available by the glass are the dessert wines. We asked about their corkage policy and Zubin told me that its $5/bottle. That's cheap.
Needless to say we were extremely impressed. To say that this place is a good value, would be an understatement.
We are hooked. Since we live nearby, we will certainly be a regular at this lovely place.
5 stars all around!
Wow. I heard about the place and realised it was our second closest restaurant and just had to check it out tonight. We loved it. We were a little confused by the half bottle concept, I dont think they really need to do that in order to appeal to people, the fact that they have a good selection of half bottles is enough. Having said that, we really enjoyed the fact that we had a nice spy valley pinot with our first course and a wine that our waitress suggested with our second course.
We had a duck consomme for our amuse bouche. Being a non meat eater, I didnt have this but I'm assured it was very good. I was really touched that they brought me a slice of terrine instead.
I enjoyed a delicious beet salad which was an impossibly high stack which I had to topple. My companions devoured the charcouterie, and the uncured bacon belly. All wonderful.
We then moved on to the pasta which reminded me of something I'd had at trattoria aqua except much better, a seafood ravioli. We also had the pork scallopini and the duck two ways, and were served brussel sprouts, which were nice to try. All delicious.
Even though we'd had a lot to eat, we managed to share the bread pudding, which was sublime, the sour cherries cut through the sweetness beautifully. The creme brulee was good although it seemed a little scrambled. Maybe a bad day.
I'd highly recommend the place, it was wonderful. Very quiet. I hope they make a go of it, its had at least 4 incarnations in the 2 1/2 years we've been in Hillcrest. I really loved the service, being served amuse bouche, and sorbet, then bread rolls with tongs felt very old school and special.
Husband says 'Great and knowledgable service, some of the best food we've had in San Diego'
After seeing that Chilangos was not yet open tonight we were faced with a choice of hitting up some old faves in Hillcrest or trying the Better Half. We went to the Better Half and let me tell you anyone complaining about service in San Diego should go there now. Formal fine dining service in a wonderfully comfortable and intimate setting. Not only that, the food was fantastic.
The owner, chef and server were all extremely professional yet warm and attentive at the same time. They replaced silverware for every course and did a formal dessert place setting--it reminded me of service at a moderately priced bistro in New York.
On to the food (and the wine)...
I lreally iked the concept of half bottles as we were able to try two different wines that were well priced and great tasting.
I had the mussels and my dining companion had the frogs legs with steak frites and a chipotle remulade. Both were amazing and perfectly sized. The mussels are an appetizer but they were the best mussels I have had in quite a while and were rich and tasty and quite filling. The frog legs were really tasty and were so moist they were falling off the bone. On a side note I hate steak fries but these may make me reconsider.
Finally the dessert. I am not the biggest sweets person but we were having such a wonderful time and the ambiance was great so we went for it. We had the peach crepe with vanilla ice cream. It was the best crepe I've had, including in Paris. Maybe it was the carmel sauce and the spiced peaches that were inside but it was really well balanced and not too sweet. The prices were reasonable and while the portions were not large by American standards but they were more then satisfying especially for the quality of ingredients. I haven't raved about a restaurant in a few months and this is one of my new favorites.
I’ll add my voice to the praise for The Better Half. Last night Di and I, after reading previous posts here, decided to give it a try.
When we arrived about 7 p.m., I recognized the building as one I had only eaten at once, years ago, when it was an earnest but struggling sandwich shop. Surprisingly, after Alice’s post, the place was more than half empty, and we were seated immediately at a good sized table adjacent to the welcome warmth of a space heater. The dining room staff, composed of three women and a guy who appeared to be the maitre d’, were all friendly and very well briefed on the menu and wine list. We immediately ordered a half bottle of a French Vouvray.
An amuse-bouche was (forgot the word) a small slice of a terrine of morel and shitake mushrooms with a few caramelized onion bits on top. Delicious and different. To accompany our wine, we ordered the charcuterie plate which came with a complex liver terrine, a small slice of excellent pate, turkey and sun-dried tomato sausage bites, some tiny and exquisite candied figs (each about the size of a grape tomato), four giant caper berries, the customary toast, and ramekins filled with green olives and cornichons. It sounds like a lot, and it was, but it somehow just managed to sharpen the appetite. Very nice. After the appetizer was cleared away, a server brought us each a tiny ice cream cone topped with a little dollop of lemon sorbet. This was an amenity that was pretty common 20 or 30 years ago, and I for one was delighted to see it back at The Better Half.
For our dinners, Di had the short ribs in a complex red wine sauce, served over perfectly mashed potatoes. The chef later told us that the ribs were cooked for 8 hours in a 200-degree oven. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of short ribs, but these were by far the best I’d ever tasted. For my entrée, I had the special off-menu fish dish, roget (I’d never heard of it, so don’t know if that’s the correct spelling), a succulent Mediterranean whitefish. It was sautéed just to medium-rare doneness and served atop a bed of lemon/saffron risotto. I’d never heard of this particular fish, and it was really very, very good. It wasn’t until the next morning that it occurred to me what a big carbon footprint that little fish must have made, having been flown in from France. Oh, well; I’m no Al Gore, I guess. The dish itself was really excellent, but this chef is so good, I’m sure he could’ve done as well with a less exotic specimen. The risotto was perfectly done and just the thing for a cool January night.
As we ate, the place filled up (though still not completely), and the kitchen got busy. Because our entrees were so slow arriving (though I hardly noticed), they comped us a dessert. We split a piece of the bread pudding which I’m told is the signature dish there. It included toasted and sweetened pecans and Bushmills Irish whiskey sauce. It was very good as those things go, and I award extra props for not overdoing the whiskey in the sauce. My favorite bread puddings are my wife’s homemade ones, but my top prize for a restaurant bread pudding still goes to the one at the recently closed Bud’s Louisiana Food Shoppe. Finally, I have to mention the one thing I didn’t care for was the coffee. It comes in a small or large French press (my favorite method). It may just be my personal preference, but it seemed very strong, and lacked that orgasmagenic aroma that I look for in a top-quality brew.
As others have mentioned, The Better Half is not cheap, but for the quality of the food (carefully, skillfully, imaginatively conceived and prepared) and attentive service, it’s one helluva value. If you’re thinking about going, I recommend you do so very soon. It’s not a large room, and once the mass media reviews it, we’ll all play hell getting in.
Tip: You can park for $3 just across the street and around the corner in the parking lot of the Assistance League. For Hillcrest, that’s a great deal.
. . . jim strain
They don't have one yet, I actually called today to ask. We were thinking about going there tonight, but the chef (he answered the phone) said they were taking a couple of days off. He said they'd been slammed since they opened and hadn't had a day off in about two weeks. We went to Ortegas instead and I did see where it's located - right next door there.
The name "The Better Half" comes from their specializing on half-bottles of wine. They have a fairly extensive list of half-bottles, pricing starts at reasonable.
I had lunch there with a group. Unfortunately, I didn't write down the descriptions which tend to be fairly complex, so my descriptions are as best as I can remember...
Our amuse bouche was a deep-fried squash blossom stuffed with mushroom puree. This was outstanding.
First course was a duo of foie and salmon mousse, also outstanding, if a bit busy (there were about six components of this dish).
Second course was a beet salad. This included about a 3" tall tower of red/gold beets on a bed of micro greens. Although good, I could have done with a smaller stack of beets (I don't think anyone in our group finished their beets).
Third course was a fish course (forgot the fish, Dory maybe), but this was somewhat of a letdown, probably from having to time the same plate for a relatively large group (13 people). And it was, I thought, excessively busy (mini octopi or calamari in a saffron broth as a bed under the fish, IIRC) and the fish was slightly over-cooked for my taste. Not a bad dish, but not at the level of the other dishes.
Dessert was a bread pudding, and I'm no fan of bread pudding in general, but this was also outstanding.
Pricing I thought was fairly reasonable relative to the quality. Portions were more than generous. In general, I thought the food tended to be just a bit too busy, like the chef was trying just a bit too hard. But, the quality of the cooking is superb.
John Robert Kennedy, the former chef at Cafe One Three on Park, has stepped boldly out in a new venture here at the restaurant called The Better Half. Only open 11 days so far, it seems most if not all the kinks have been worked out of this new favorite restaurant of mine. The decor is simple, warm and cozy lending itself to an unstuffy atmosphere with candles and art prints on a cream on dark wood scheme, with the possibility of outdoor dining when the weather is warmer and/or not rainy.
The service was attentive, bubbly, and cheerful giving me the skinny on the special tart of the day, the fish of the day and what soup that had been prepared. I believe dinning out is an experience and a privilege so I didn't mind the wait staff coming around to warm my French-press tea, getting me new napkins or placing the napkin in my dining companion's lap. I listened to the wait staff talk about the wines, made knowledgeable suggestions, and were playfully pleasant.
I thought the portions were well thought out and served in 3 courses, should one choose to go all out and do so. I had a shallot and kalamata olive tart with a small salad, with distinctive dressing, tomatoes, greens and candied walnuts. My companion had the house salad with a fig vinaigrette. We didn't leave a scrap on our plates. The main courses were delightful, with a perfect mix of flavors. I had the stuffed quail over risotto and my partner had the chicken - both which were moist, cooked to perfection and did illicit many "mmm" sounds through the end of the meal. Since everything was going so well, we decided on dessert - a flourless chocolate cake (which was ok) and a crème brûlée for myself. Something I like to do is the crème brûlée test at restaurants. Do these come out of a pre-prepared cold storage and right to your plate or do they get finished with the mini-blow torch and garnished with fresh fruit. I'm proud to say, the vanilla bean brûlée was from the latter category.
I wasn't surprised by the quality of the food being top shelf, as I had conversations with the chef before at Cafe One Three and during my first visit to The Better Half. John got his degree is in the culinary arts from the California Academy of Culinary Arts in San Francisco and he's worked with some well-known chefs, like Thomas Keller at French Laundry, Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, and Gary Danko. He spent time at the Hyatt for about six years, first at the Grand Champion in Palm Desert, and then two years at the Manchester. I also know he's now in possession of a little red wagon he takes to the farmer's market to pick out the freshest ingredients for his menu with the promise that the menu will change as the chef sees fit to keep the patrons happy. After all, who doesn't love variety?
Definitely on my top 5 list of restaurants I'd take somebody to be impressed!
re: Alice Q
Its located behind Ortegas on University and I think First (or Second) Street. We have already eaten there twice in the past two weeks and have loved every meal. We were there for New Year's and had a really wonderful dinner (a party of 6). They even comped the corkage fees (an incredibly affordable $5 per bottle).
Check this place out, you will not be dissapointed.
They are also planning on being open for brunch in the somewhat near future.