Monday, June 21, 2010

Where in the World is Amy DiBiase?


It would be a fun parlor game for San Diego foodies to try to come up with a complex back story for why chef Amy DiBiase left The Glass Door at the Porto Vista Hotel -- where she'd been for all of two months after leaving Roseville -- to go over to Old Town's Cosmopolitan Restaurant and Hotel. But, as DiBiase tells it, the reason was very simple and very exciting; she got an offer she couldn't refuse -- starting up a restaurant from scratch with an owner with whom she immediately hit it off. 

At the center of it all is Sheila Tracy, who is familiar to lovers of the former Laurel (now Cucina Urbana, of course) and Farm House Cafe. DiBiase knows Tracy from her days in the kitchen at Laurel and Tracy knows Joseph Melluso, owner of The Tin Fish and DiBiase's new boss, from long ago when she roller-bladed into one of his restaurants and asked him for a glass of water. It was Tracy, says DiBiase, who recommended Melluso to the people who run the Old Town State Park concession and were looking for an operator for the hotel project. And it was Tracy again who recommended her friend DiBiase to Melluso when former Prado chef Jeff Thurston, who'd signed on for the executive chef job, decided to leave before the restaurant had even opened.

All in the family.

DiBiase says she met with Melluso and found, "We clicked just like that. We both had a similar vision for a restaurant and I don't feel like I'm handcuffed to a menu." It didn't hurt that both are seafood-centric food lovers with Melluso coming from a fishing childhood in Long Island, N.Y. and 28 seafood restaurants in his career and DiBiase coming from Maine. Seafood will be big on the menu at the Cosmopolitan Restaurant, starting with oysters -- from fried oysters and shrimp served with Sauce Gribiche and chipotle aioli to oysters on the half shell with shaved tequila ice and cilantro -- but including whatever is fresh and seasonal.

One of the interesting challenges DiBiase and sous chef Matt Richman (most recently of Market St. Cafe in San Marcos and the late Illume Bistro in Little Italy) face is the directive they have to follow as being part of a historic park that they use ingredients indigenous to the location and the 19th-century period of its evolution from a Mexican pueblo to an American settlement. So, says DiBiase, look for ingredients like almonds, pine nuts, figs, dates, and citrus. The oysters were included on the menu because, DiBiase says, oyster shells were found when the property was excavated. There will be suckling pig and beef, small game birds, and a lot of local produce. And breads from Con Pane as well as olive oils from Temecula Olive Oil Company, which has a shop in Old Town. To soothe the tourist crowd, you won't find "gazpacho soup" on the menu but "chilled tomato soup." No "panzanella," but "tomato-and-bread salad." But DiBiase's  complex flavors reflecting Mediterranean influences will be there.

What's in the courtyard will also influence the dishes. Where fountains used to be, are plenty of tables for outdoor seating surrounding little garden beds where herbs like rosemary, sage, and chives will grow alongside citrus trees. Large pots along the perimeter hold blossoming pomegranate bushes, already giving DiBiase menu ideas.


The decor is just now taking shape as the property is being transformed from the old Casa de Bandini to a period-style hotel. In the indoor bar/saloon (there's also an outdoor building in the courtyard outfitted as a bar) is a heavy burnished dark wood bar that was shipped in from Tombstone, Ariz. Guess who Melluso wants behind the bar? Yep, Sheila Tracy, who most recently has been at the wine bar at Fifty-Seven Degrees in Middletown. An adjacent parlor with the requisite velvet settees will be seating for guests and there will be a parlor menu available from 3 to 5 p.m. before the restaurant opens for dinner (it's also going to be open for lunch). Next door, what had been Juan Bandini's bedroom, will be transformed into a wine room with dining for private parties. The dining room, which has a fireplace and plush velvet curtains, can be divided for private parties and is adjacent to the hotel's registration area. The area closest to the registration can be cordoned off for hotel guests to enjoy a continental breakfast.


The hotel. It's intimate. There are only 10 rooms, all on the second floor along deep balconies that will have seating overlooking the park. Most of the guest rooms are quite small but very charming with carved mahogany beds, antique trunks and other period furniture, floral wallpaper, and other decor that will take guests right back to the 19th century. The bathrooms are especially sweet with large showers and tall rain shower heads, pull-chain toilets, and pedestal sinks.


Not all have tubs but the tubs are classic clawfoot. Except for one room with an impressively enormous copper tub and another with the intriguing wood tub that even has a seat inside. DiBiase clearly got a kick out of showing these off.


DiBiase, who is dividing her time between setting up and planning the new restaurant and still running The Glass Door for the next two weeks (her last day is June 28), is still taking stock of her spacious new kitchen, fine-tuning the dinner and lunch menus, and selecting a pastry chef. The rest of the staff is hired and in training and the chefs are preparing for some tastings before soft opening the restaurant before the Fourth of July holiday -- either June 27 or 29. And, for those who enjoy Cook's Confab, don't be surprised if a meal is hosted by DiBiase at the Cosmopolitan Restaurant in the near future. The courtyard is the perfect setting for a Confab event and she's already offered to host one in the fall.

The Cosmopolitan Restaurant and Hotel is located at 2660 Calhoun St. in Old Town.

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