It is pleasant to be reminded, in these challenging times, that restaurants can be nourishing in more ways than just the obvious one. Several recent meals at the Mission Beach Cafe fed our souls in addition to our stomachs.
I first dropped by for a solitary lunch and was instantly charmed by the bright, airy corner room, with big windows overlooking the street. There's a pale suede banquette running the length of the back wall, architecturally interesting wood tables with straight-back armchairs that are vaguely Frank Lloyd Wright–ish, and some huge framed color photographs of an artistically junky warehouse. On a counter, there's a large glass case of homey-looking baked goods including majestic double-crust pies, behind which are the requisite serious coffee machines.
When Mission Beach wakes up early, at 7 a.m., coffee and pastries are on offer. At 8 a.m., it provides an alluring breakfast menu, including an egg sandwich with oven-roasted tomato, caramelized onion, and white cheddar on a housemade English muffin with roasted new potatoes ($7.50; add bacon or sausage for an extra $1.50); hangover hash and eggs featuring Prather Ranch beef brisket hash, two eggs, and potatoes ($12); and soufflé pancakes with orange-cranberry compote, maple syrup, and fresh fruit ($11). The lunch menu kicks in at 11:30 a.m., but the breakfast menu remains available through lunchtime.
When I walked in, I saw a woman tearing into a massive ham sandwich while a cup of soup awaited her on the table. This proved to be the "friends' school lunch" special, a half-sandwich of the day with salad or soup ($9). That day the sandwich was Black Forest ham, fontina, roasted peppers, and arugula on a house-baked roll. The soup was curried cauliflower topped with spiced pear and crumbled bacon. I was tempted, but also drawn to the hash and eggs and a ranchero-like dish called Mission Beach huevos.
Slightly wary of the curry, I asked for a taste. The creamy soup had only a hint of curry that didn't obscure the sweet, mildly earthy cauliflower, but I still went for the huevos ($12), to which I added slow-braised pork (for an extra $3.50). Next to me, two women were similarly split between breakfast and lunch, ending up with a beautiful sandwich with bacon and softly scrambled eggs, sided by roasted baby Yukon Gold potatoes, and an English muffin ($10). My huevos were superb: soupy black beans under slightly crisped corn tortillas topped with three eggs, spicy fresh tomato sauce, cheese, sour cream, and guacamole, and dotted with soft shreds of tasty pork. Intense Blue Bottle coffee came in a big Mission Beach–imprinted mug.
Another day found us opting for the lunch menu. Pan-seared salmon cakes, almost all fish with only a suspicion of crumbs holding them together, were topped with pancetta, a bright navel-orange salsa, and avocado, and sided with a simple salad ($13); a huge grilled fontina sandwich, lightly scented with truffle oil, was layered with grilled eggplant and gypsy peppers ($11). The grass-fed beef burger on a house-baked bun was topped with onion marmalade, tomato jam, and cheddar, and came with floury fries ($12.50).
When three of us arrived for dinner, tiny glass-enclosed candles glittered on the still-bare wooden tables, and the room suddenly seemed more sophisticated than it had in the light of day. One of my friends admired the subtle hourglass theme, visible in actual hourglasses affixed to the wall and allusions seen in decorative pegs holding together the tables and on abstract wall sconces.
We tried three of the five starters. I loved my Oregon bay shrimp salad, a carefully balanced and generous layering of shaved celery root, mashed avocado, pink grapefruit, frisée, and lots of beautifully cooked sweet pink shrimp in a light, tangy yogurt-mustard dressing ($12). We also enjoyed an even more generous green salad atop thin slices of fuyu persimmon, dotted with soft goat cheese and scattered with pomegranate seeds, lots of sliced smoked duck, and crunchy mustard-rye croutons ($10.50). When the salad's orderer wished aloud for a few extra croutons, the server brought them to the table immediately. The orderer of the roasted Cinderella pumpkin soup topped with crème fraîche and toasted pumpkin seeds ($7) was happier with it than I was — it tasted like dessert to me.
Our main courses shared the same tiny flaw: In each excitingly conceived dish, one vegetable element was disconcertingly salty, especially if eaten on its own. Plump seared sea scallops were pillowed on silky potato purée, showered with shards of smoky pancetta, punctuated by (salty) roasted cauliflower, and threaded with red mustard greens ($25). I chose orange-almond–crusted rosy veal loin, sliced and served with tender, tiny spaetzle, (salty) broccoli rabe, nuts, juicy chunks of orange, and a bright-green herb butter ($25). The massive grilled New York steak, also sliced, exuded juices over caramelized gnocchi, (salty) erbette chard, grilled cipollini I couldn't stop snagging, and a sherry-shallot butter ($29); its orderer announced that this was the best meal I'd ever treated him to, and finished every bite.
Diners at a neighboring table were accidentally given an August menu; we saw that it offered such treats as fried padrone chiles, sweet corn soup, arugula salad with stone fruit, champagne-grape–stuffed quail, and grilled corn with basil. The selections highlighted the bounty of late summer within recent and happy memory, but impossible to source now. A skillful forager and menu writer has put together the similarly enticing November menu. In addition to the fall cornucopia of persimmon, pumpkin, chard, and broccoli rabe already mentioned, the menu features a roasted pear salad, mahimahi in wild mushroom broth, and seared pork tenderloin with butternut squash purée.
The dessert menu features at least half a dozen homemade pies as well as cheesecake, flourless chocolate torte, and a brownie-caramel sundae. We had a beautiful banana butterscotch cream pie ($6.50), a big chunk of Blue Bottle mocha cheesecake ($7), and an apple-cranberry pie with the best old-fashioned crust we'd had in ages ($6.50; add $2 for Mitchell's vanilla ice cream, which we did).
Mission Beach Cafe has been around for a year and a half, but the arrival in June of Top Chef alum Ryan Scott as executive chef merited a fresh look at the place. (Scott, of the late Myth Cafe, joined his California Culinary Academy classmate Alan Carter, who is pastry chef here.) To paraphrase Saki, Scott is a good chef, as chefs go, and as chefs go (in this peripatetic world), he's leaving Mission Beach at the end of this month. But he was recently joined by the very young (22) Thomas Martinez, also a proponent of modern seasonal food, who has been cooking alongside him during the transition.
One of the pleasures of Mission Beach is its laissez-faire, all-day, come-in-for-a-bite-a-full-meal-or-dessert attitude. It provided an unusually comfortable backdrop as well as excitingly conceived, well-cooked food for three meals that left us feeling better — much better — than when we walked in. That's something to be devoutly hoped for in this lately-kinda-rocky world.