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The fourth time’s a charm

Cosmopolitan Hotel & Restaurant
2660 Calhoun St. (Old Town)
619-297-1874
Prices: Soups, salads and appetizers, $4.95 to $11.45; entrees, $9.95 to $16.95

By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review

Unraveling the early history of Cosmopolitan Hotel & Restaurant is easier than tracking the modern-day incarnations of its restaurant. The property quietly changed management two months ago to a family-run company intent on diversifying the food and keeping entrees at $16.95 and under. Based on my most recent visit last week, simplicity and eloquence has been achieved.

Ahi lettuce cups (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Ahi lettuce cups (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Located within Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, a series of past operators either tried too hard or didn’t try enough to make the multi-room restaurant a sensible culinary haven for tourists and locals alike. The dining concepts ran the gamut from pedestrian Mexican fare consumed in the company of roving mariachis to pricey, contemporary menus presented by servers dressed in late-1800s raiment.

“We’ve taken a new approach with a complete menu change that includes items you might not see in other Old Town restaurants,” said Chuck Ross, the new concessionaire who oversees the operation with his wife and two sons. No stranger to the industry, Ross was vice president for Hard Rock Café, worked for General Mills Restaurant Group and owned The Boathouse in San Diego for a few years.

The structure was originally built between 1827 and 1829 as a residence for pioneer Juan Lorenzo Bandini. Decades later a second story was added and it became The Cosmopolitan Hotel, serving as a crash pad for visitors to the area. Today it still retains its architectural details, many of which were exquisitely restored by a previous operator, including a stagecoach saloon, a wrap-around porch and a central courtyard used for outdoor dining.

Visiting with an Old Town resident, we were seated in the nearly filled courtyard, which felt more serene compared to past visits. The change of guard has ushered in a noticeably professional wait staff, new furniture at the patio bar and several Chinese lanterns in tribute to our trading partners during the Spanish Colonial days. Low-volume instrumental music played throughout the evening, adding a soft touch to the atmosphere.

Pork confit skillet (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Pork confit skillet (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

The streamlined menu is used for both lunch and dinner. It contains a little of everything, from ahi lettuce cups and Angus pot pies to fresh seafood and fried chicken with churros, a takeoff on chicken and waffles. There’s also a savory half-pound burger comprising the scraps of tenderloin and rib eye and served on a trendy pretzel bun.

The pork confit skillet is an appetizer that reigns as the homiest, and it won our immediate approval. The slow-braised meat is draped over a bedding of warm house-made potato chips dusted in Parmesan and fresh parsley. An easy-over fried egg sits on top, which instilled the richness of a farmhouse breakfast to the dish.

Equally lovable were the lettuce cups; each adorned with fresh, glistening ahi accented by ginger, cilantro and feisty jalapenos. Our tongues remained heated from pork and hominy stew constructed in a red peppery broth that developed further dimension as we dropped in the radishes, lime and cilantro served alongside.

“Our dishes are for the average Joe, or the average José – good plates for the money,” said Chef Niko De La Riva, who earned his culinary degree in Spain and previously worked at the Red Door in Mission Hills and the former Ignite in Carlsbad.

Even his wedge salad sparkled with an extra dose of pizzazz, thanks to the inclusions of Point Reyes blue cheese dressing, thick bacon and “tobacco onions” coated in flour and paprika. Our other salad was a contemporary California construct of strawberries, grilled peaches and roasted almonds with a ball of fried goat cheese on top. The menu is seasonally driven, so that may disappear soon.

Chipotle-glazed salmon (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Chipotle-glazed salmon (Photo by Frank Sabatini Jr.)

Espresso-braised Kobe short ribs with fried, garlicky Brussels sprouts are a herald of autumn, as various preparations of the braised meat will begin appearing everywhere. This version, however, carried the depth of coffee beans along with plenty of robust jus.

We gravitated also to the pan-seared salmon, mainly because we were intrigued by its accompanying potato hash spiked with preserved cherries. The wisp of sweetness in the spuds, combined with the salmon’s faint chipotle glaze, tasted lively and well conceived. And the fish itself was tenderly cooked.

From a list of sides we opted for corn on the cob, which awkwardly fuses Oaxaca with Japan. My companion loved it though I could have done without the crispy tempura batter, which seemed to snuff out the Mexican influence of chili powder and finely grated cheese included on the corn.

The menu obliges partially to tourists on the hunt for fajitas, chicken flautas and carnitas platters, not to mention margaritas made with fresh citrus. There is also fried ice cream and fresh churros for dessert. For us, the ultra-juicy berry cobbler stole the show. But if you’re hankering for straight-up Mexican food, à la Old Town style, the restaurants located in either direction deliver a purer experience that Cosmopolitan gently avoids.

Cocktails range from classic Manhattans and Limoncello drops to modernly chic concoctions like red basil martinis and sweet mandarin cosmopolitans. A modest selection of wine and beer are also available, most of which are discounted during happy hour from 4 to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.

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