By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
Years before the 2010 release of his first cookbook, “From Terra’s Table,” which focuses on the agricultural bounties of Southern California, local chef-restaurateur Jeff Rossman was already fortifying his menu with staples from those supply lines.
That was back in the late ’90s, when he opened Terra in the Hillcrest area of San Diego. It was also when the term “farm-to-table” was something you were more apt to hear uttered by the elites of Napa Valley’s restaurant industry rather than by those in our local food circles.
Rossman had a good, long run in Hillcrest until escalating rent and limited customer parking sent him packing to the La Mesa border on El Cajon Boulevard. He re-launched the business as Terra American Bistro in 2011, and was able to match his seasonal-driven cuisine to a barn-red structure with an old tractor out front overseeing its 16-slot parking lot.
The farmhouse theme extends to earthy accents inside, such as a large table made of metal pipes and reclaimed wood, and rows of mason jars forming a chandelier right above it.
Rossman changes the menu at least four times a year based on what’s in peak season. A recent addition is the James Beard Foundation blended burger, a rather complex creation comprising 75 percent Brandt beef, and 25 percent minced mushrooms from Mountain Meadow in North County.
Peanut butter, soy sauce, garlic, candied jalapeno and yuzu aoili enter into the recipe as well for what Rossman hopes might snag top honors in the foundation’s national blended-burger contest.
Not for minimalists, it tasted tangy, sweet, spicy and earthy all at the same time, an ingenious combo of ingredients that might initially scare people off when seeing them listed on paper. But it shouldn’t. The burger is served with fresh ginger coleslaw, snappy fries and eloquently spiced house-made ketchup.
(Customers have until July 31 to cast their vote at jamesbeard.org/blendedburgerproject/vote, which will ultimately send five winners to New York City to cook their burgers at the historic James Beard House.)
Rossman’s menu is big, perhaps too ambitious for those expecting straightforward “American bistro” fare. In that respect, he nails down pot roast braised in Karl Strauss Amber Lager; center-cut pork chops; and tempting house-made pastrami that lands between rye bread with mustard. Based on past visits, he also does wonders with mac ‘n’ cheese, currently available with Gorgonzola sauce and a breaded Buffalo-style chicken breast perched on top.
Or on Thursdays (through mid-September), he adheres to a decades-old tradition of “BBQ night,” when you pick from a rotating selection of three proteins and wolf it down with two sides. The cost is $16.95. (His St. Louis-style smoked ribs I recall from several years ago are stellar.)
On a recent non-BBQ visit with a friend, we started with a pleasing mixed-green salad featuring local lettuces strewn with dried cranberries, candied pecans and crumbles of creamy Gorgonzola — not so unusual except for the sprightly lime vinaigrette that tied everything together.
Of his house-made pot stickers, they tasted like how I always wish pot stickers would taste when ordering them in other restaurants. Their supple casings enveloped coarsely ground chicken and bold measures of grated ginger. We devoured them in minutes.
A pair of Maryland-style crab cakes vanished quickly as well due to their small size. In the absence of binders, which is a good thing, I’d vote to see these plops of sweet, shredded sea meat piled into dainty tulip glasses — along with the appealing remoulade — and served instead as crab cocktail.
Other starters include a pulled pork quesadilla, fried shishito peppers, mussels in white wine, and tequila shrimp draped in poblano chili cream, which turned up far milder than we expected.
The adobo roasted half chicken entree we also ordered leaned more toward Mexico than the Philippines. The vinegar inherent to adobo recipes was absent, but cilantro crema drizzled over the bird and firm, smoky black beans alongside took the dish south of the border — not to mention back to the kitchen for a fast re-char to address an under-cooked area between the bird’s breast and thigh sections.
The bistro offers a chic cocktail program using house-infused liquors. Among the crafty concoctions is the “farm fresh” made in part with orange gin and kumquat syrup. There’s also a “barnyard mule” with vodka, lemongrass syrup and ginger beer; and the “Terra newly fashioned” featuring sage bourbon, bitters and brandied cherries.
We didn’t save room for dessert, but it was nice to see Rossman’s signature chocolate cigar still available after all these years. Served in a heavy-glass ashtray, it’s a glorious stick of chocolate ganache wrapped in phyllo dough, and with its front end resting in a pond of whipped cream.
Rossman, who also authored “BYOB (Build Your Own Burger),” will celebrate Terra’s 20th anniversary throughout the month of August. Customers can indulge in three courses for $19.98, which corresponds numerically to the year he launched the business.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.