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Dec 30, 2007 07:48 AM

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)

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  1. I heard good things about this from someone else too - sounds interesting! Where exactly is it located?

    1 Reply
    1. 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.

    2. 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!

      1. 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.

        1. Do they have a webpage ? I can't find anything and normally like to take a look at the menu before going to a new restaurant

          1 Reply
          1. re: honkman

            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.

          2. 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