fig tree cafe / hillcrest
It’s another installment of MINION MONDAY. Please enjoy.
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The Fig Tree Cafe that I recently visited is actually one of three separate locations here in San Diego. Johan Engman, also the proprietor of Cafe Cantata, started the first restaurant in Pacific Beach and has since branched out to two additional plots in Hillcrest (2011) and Liberty Station (2013).
Originally intended to be destination for brunch, the two newer locations now offer dinner in addition to the relaxed late Sunday breakfasts that we San Diegans love so much. I adore brunch like a hobbit craving “elevenses,” though, so when I was invited out for a tasting, I knew that I had to swing by on a weekend morning to try it out.
Tucked in heart of Hillcrest, the Fig Tree Cafe is a cozy restaurant with a warm feel. Split between an airy outdoor patio and an indoor space covered in brick and dark wood, I’m a fan of the more rustic feel of the place. Like Engman’s Cafe Cantata, the decor is on point with the more upscale feel that comes off as genuine and friendly. I’ll admit that when I walked in with Allison, I geeked out a bit about the bulbs since they were custom old-fashioned filament types.
After sitting down indoors and consulting our super helpful waitress Caitlyn, Allison and I decided to start our meal off with a bit of “Man Candy.” No, this didn’t suddenly turn into a 50 Shades fan fiction, I promise. The appetizer consists of thick cut bacon seasoned with brown sugar and paprika. Reading the description made me think that these would be beautiful strips of pork glazed in a caramelized spicy sugar coating.
The actual dish, unfortunately, was far from my fantasy. Instead of being crispy and wonderful, the strips were undercooked and rather soft. The sugar was mixed in with the paprika, but it wasn’t caramelized. The rub wasn’t bad, actually, as I enjoyed the sweet and spicy combination, but the texture was really a distraction. I enjoy pork belly and well-marbled meats, but this was just too soft. It was also a bit overly greasy, as you can see in the photo below.
Not to be dismayed by a slightly sub-par bacon experience, we ordered a couple of more dishes. Wanting something more traditional, Allison decided to try the french toast with orange segment syrup. Being more adventurous, I put in a request for the “Breakfast Sushi” and a small side order of the truffle parmesan breakfast potatoes. I love me some truffle, so I couldn’t resist.
Topped with strawberries and whipped cream, the brioche french toast looked great. As Allison dove into the first bite, she was happy with the lightness of the bread. Chewy on the inside with a nice thin layer of crispiness on the outside, I was also impressed by the preparation. The orange syrup tasted similar to marmelade, but with a thinner texture. It wasn’t overly sweet, which we both appreciated, but we honestly thought that the toast didn’t need anything past the fruit and cream. The dish was sugary, tart and warm all in one.
Next came the breakfast sushi. I’m a huge traditional sushi fanatic, so when I placed my order, I envisioned small bite-size portions aside the mango salad. Instead, I was presented with three pieces of “sushi” that were each about the size of a hockey puck. I appreciate generous portions, but this was a lot of food.
Each massive piece consisted of plain, steamed white rice with scrambled egg and a small bit of scallion wrapped with the aforementioned “Man Candy” (d’oh!) bacon and topped with a savory plum sauce. I took my first bite and I was immediately overwhelmed by the plum sauce. I couldn’t get past the incredibly smoky, sticky flavor. It was so overpowering that I had to scrape it off in order to taste the individual components. The bacon was still soft, unfortunately, and I thought that the rice actually needed to have some flavor. The egg and scallion weren’t quite enough, and I yearned for some proper fried rice fish sauce notes.
Aside the Gretsky-sized sushi pieces was a mango salad. Bits of mango mixed in with arugula and peppers built the foundation of the salad, with a thin dressing topping the fruits and vegetables. The bits of fruit were quite enjoyable – sweet and ripe. I didn’t think that the arugula was the best combination, however. The peppery taste didn’t mix well with the fruit and the vinegar-based dressing was an odd addition.
Like the bacon, I felt like this dish is on the cusp of being a really great idea, but that it lacks subtlety in execution. You don’t need 10 different bold, contrasting flavors, you just need two or three really cohesive, delicious ones.
Lastly, we tried the side of potatoes. They were well-roasted; covered in parmesan cheese and drizzled with truffle oil. The texture was right on par and we both enjoyed the seasoning. The rosemary was a little much and I’m actually a little unclear on why the arugula was included in this dish, though. The subtle pepperiness wasn’t bad in this case, but when the potatoes warmed the greens it feels a little odd for breakfast. All-in-all, a nice riff on a traditional homestyle potato offering.
Overall, I think that I was disappointed with Fig Tree Cafe. It’s so incredibly close to being someplace that I’d visit frequently, but the food just isn’t quite there for me. I love the ambiance and the personality, but it lacks confidence. Chef Alberto Morreale can do some amazing things in the kitchen, I have no doubt. The ingredients just need to be trusted so that they can speak for themselves.
Fig Tree Cafe
416 University Ave
San Diego, CA
Disclaimer: This meal was complimentary. All opinions stated here are the writer’s own.