Dominated by Mexican restaurants, historical sites, and sleepy residential streets filled with cozy one story cottages, Old Town is perhaps the quietest neighborhood in San Diego. An area for tourists to browse and locals to frequently dine, Old Town gets plenty of foot traffic without being stuffy or overcrowded. One could say, perhaps, that the one attribute missing was a coffee house or bistro—a place for a savory or sweet bite and a cup of coffee as well as a place where guests can relax in this peaceful, laid-back neighborhood. The request was granted last year when Chef Mark Pilliccia, former Executive Chef of Solare in Point Loma’s Liberty Station, opened up his new restaurant 25 Forty Bistro and Bakehouse, a gourmet café, fine dining restaurant, coffeehouse, bistro, bakery, and savvy hang-out spot all in one. A success the day its doors opened, 25 Forty Bistro and Bakehouse has become a sensation by word of mouth based on its ambiance, comfort level, and, of course, the food.
On our first visit to this new establishment, my guest and I find immediate parking among the narrow, historical Old Town streets, as the restaurant is extremely easy to spot. It’s theme of black and white colors provide a striking yet composed feel without being too much of a contrast, and these colors are accented throughout the interior and exterior of the restaurant. Built from the skeleton of an old house, 25 Forty Bistro and Bakehouse has a chic front patio fit with black and white hues, each table adorned with pillows and fresh flowers. The San Diego sun, always shining with relaxing warmth, reflects off the dark patio floor, providing a heat source to the relaxing guests. Like a café, it’s a perfect place to bring a book to read, or a friend, and hang out. Plus, it’s very dog friendly. The patio extends to the side of the restaurant, and each table I see seems to be an equally desirable place to sit. But if you’re looking to dine, which my guest and I are, the interior is where the magic happens.
The main dining room is simple and intimate, softly lit by sky-lights from the ceiling and quieter tones throughout, setting a relaxing vibe. The tables, spaced comfortably from each other, are cloaked with a black tablecloth and primed with a white paper and trendy, elegant stemware. The center of the table, garnished with fresh flowers and crayons inside a small mason jar adds a pleasant touch. Guests, regardless of age, are invited to scribble on the table’s scratch paper inspired surface. The white walls are decorated with thickly framed black and white photographs, while above the bar a bookshelf holds up numerous cookbooks from all types of different cuisines, rendering a certain inspiration for the master of the kitchen. The tables are situated next to the kitchen, and the smell coming from it only anticipates what promises to be a memorable meal.
Chef Mark Pilliccia comes out from behind the bar to introduce himself with a warm greeting and a genuine smile. Having been born in New York, but moved to San Diego when he was ten, Mark is the son of a restaurant owner. An avid traveler, he has years of Italian culinary, pastry, and restaurant management education under his belt, not to mention experience working as a chef at fine dining restaurants. 25 Forty Bistro and Bakehouse is his first very own restaurant. Everything is made by hand, he explains, and though his restaurant is one of the only alternatives to Mexican food in Old Town, they’ve had a big start in the last year. His intentions for new creations are styled after a European bistro with touches of American as well as international flair. Attempting to create something different is his aim—a palette of unconventional but well constructed dishes with flavors you crave but don’t always see on a culturally themed menu.
Rather than attaching himself to a cultural cuisine, such as Italian or French, Pilliccia has invented his own flavor and style that utilizes globalizations aimed to change the diners’ perspective on fusion cuisine. His simple cooking style, he explains, reflects what we as Americans really like to eat. Though nationality is important to Pilliccia, he is passionate about developing his own style and flavors based on his life experiences, aiming to add a personal and unique touch to bistro fare and cuisine. And now that he has his own restaurant, the possibilities for flavors are endless. The cookbooks above the bar, for instance, are just a constant helpful tool that can inspire what he wants to create with each new day.
The restaurant offers three full menus for brunch, lunch and dinner. Each menu consists of a only a handful of options per category, for instance, selections for lunch include five hand crafted sandwiches, two fresh salads, one daily soup, one homemade pasta dish, and two desserts, with each dish on these three menus all priced under $20. However, each choice is equally attractive, and the selections each day vary from season to season depending on the availability of products.
“If tomatoes are in season,” Chef Pilliccia explains, “then we use lots of fresh tomatoes. We only use seasonal, local, and fresh ingredients, which opens up the possibilities to think up new creations as each month passes… having my own place grants limitless possibilities. I’m always learning, always creating.”
His appreciation for flavors is evident in the selections for each menu. Today we are tackling Mark’s selections from their dinner menu, and I can’t wait to get started.
Our server, Marissa, brings us a pitcher of ice water with two glasses to split, and invites us to choose from their beer and wine selection. Rather than a wine list typed on fine paper, we are engaged to look at the restaurants ever changing global chalk board—adding another interactive element to our experience. The large black chalk board covers a large portion of the restaurants side wall, decorated with a permanent outline of our planet with each continent represented appropriately. As for the wine list, each day the servers physically write in which wines are available next to the area that corresponds on the chalk map. This cute and clever touch adds some personality and charm. My guest and I settle for Chef Pilliccia’s selection—Postales Del Fin Del Mundo, a 2008 Malbec from Argentina. The first sip offers a bit of a pucker, and is sweetened with berry notes without being aggressive or too strong.
We began with our amuse-bouche, a single bite hors d’œuvre Mark selected to compliment his culinary intentions. Fresh tuna salad mixed generously with celery, onion, and homemade mayonnaise sits on top a slice of freshly baked bread with dusted paprika, and offers the perfect first addition to our taste buds. Tuna is a constant lunch-time favorite, and the bite is nevertheless fantastic. When paired with our wine, a combination I have yet to conquer, the result is superb— who would’ve thought wine and tuna complement each other? These two distinct flavors mesh easily, adding a new element to my palette.
Marissa brings us our appetizer, to which I examine with my mouth watering, ready to strike. The Braised Pork Belly is served warm and glazed with homemade barbeque sauce over a cold sweet potato salad. The warmth of the pork enhances the potato salad, which is mixed with egg, onion, celery, and diced sweet potato. The pork, juicy and tender, cuts easily without a knife, and when paired with the generous amount of barbeque sauce, the flavor compels me to scrape the plate clean. The succulent, plentiful serving of meat is elevated by the sweet spiciness of the sauce, which in return is cooled by the sweet potato salad. Each bite gets better and better with each helping.
After this healthy serving of sweet, my guest and I begin to crave something salty. The smells from the nearby kitchen are tantalizing—a scent that brings me back to large family dinners, more notably a Thanksgiving feast. At this moment, Mark arrives at our table with one of his most popular creations, the Homemade Fettuccine with Braised Duck. The aroma is instantly addictive—the fettuccine noodles, hand crafted in-house, swim in a thick duck sauce made with all spice, cloves, soy sauce and sugar, and are topped with a liberal amount of tender braised duck. The Fettuccine’s many spices harmonize together to create one cohesive taste, sharing an overtone of Asian flavors that provide an eastern flair to this hearty dish. This savory menu item proves to be immediately mouth watering. Though a tendency to be heavy, as rich pasta with a protein and a gravy-like sauce can be, this dish is surprisingly light. And much like the flavors of home, this dish brings me back to my German grandmother’s specialty: beef stroganoff. Here, Chef Pilliccia has personalized a simple noodles and protein dish. The meat, tender and delicate, is packed with flavor, and though the portion is relatively massive, I once again devour my entire serving, licking my fork in between bites.
Next, Marissa brings us a basket of freshly baked bread, which is still warm from the oven. Served with a salty smooth side of creamy butter, it is hard to decide what to compliment my helping of bread with—the butter, or the duck sauce? The sauce leads by only a small fraction, the flakiness soaking up every last drop of sauce. Its warmth is invigorating. Served on wax paper that decorated with a faux-newspaper print, the bread adds the “bakehouse” element to this bistro, further exemplifying Chef Pilliccia’s love for baking. With one taste, I can tell this is something he excels at with ease.
Our main course is something to rejoice in—and my guest and I celebrate without hesitation. Our Lamb Shank, aromatic with both sweet and savory components, is served over a bed of mashed sweet potatoes and tarragon fennel. Dripping with a thick, rich gamey mint sauce, the lamb meat falls right off the bone. Like our appetizer and pasta dish, this main course is sweet without being too sugary. For the lamb, a dark meat that is certainly salty and pungent, the sweetness of the mint and the sweet potato offer a candied and honey taste, while the tarragon fennel relishes as a savorous side. Components of an Italian Osso Bucco or an Asian-style cut of meat are incorporated in this dish, but this particular feast is unquestionably on a different level. It is a creation worth applauding, and though our lamb hones in on traditional styles, it exemplifies old ideas in a new way. Thankfully I have some of Mark’s fresh baked bread to soak up the savory-sweet mint lamb sauce, wasting nothing.
Dessert is beckoning us without question. Inspired primarily by the art of pastries and baking, Chef Pilliccia takes advantage of his education from pastry school in Venice to concoct his own personalized creations. Admitting to have a big passion for pastries, Chef Pilliccia is proud of his desserts, and I’m excited to see what he has in store. Marissa comes out from behind the bar carrying a small burgundy colored sauce pan covered by a matching lid. With a clean white dish placed between my guest and I, Marissa removes the lid of the sauce pan to reveal our luscious dessert—a warm vanilla crepe, which she slides directly on our plate from the pan which it came. The crepe, sweetened with fresh orange juice and Grand Marnier, is an ideal treat to round off our meal. The creaminess is to die for, and the punch of orange juice and Grand Marnier employs an unexpected sourness that fits together with ease. My mouth becomes paralyzed with pleasure with each chew of this delightful crepe. Chef Pilliccia also brings out some of his fresh baked creations—two almond pastries that are the perfect accompaniment to a fresh cup of coffee or a foamy cappuccino. The first, an almond croissant, is sweetened with powdered sugar and maintains a warm, flaky consistency throughout. The other pastry, an almond cupcake with vanilla custard, is both sweet and salty, which is just how I like my cupcakes. These desserts boast Mark’s fine touches to his baking skills, and I can now see why other guests around me are admiring these culinary achievements.
Though many infusions and inspirations went into these outstanding dishes, the one real culture I taste is that of a family-oriented, home-cooked feel. This cozy, serene, yet chic and hip bistro and bake house is a best kept secret to gourmet foodies and the coffee shop junkies. With the soft touches of black and white hues complimenting a trendy side, I begin to notice our server, Marissa, filling in reservation spots for their upcoming guests. Like their wine list map, reservation times and names are written directly on floor next to each individual table in white chalk—yet another charming personalized touch, to which I become tempted to scribble on our paper table setting. As for the food, the espresso and pastry selections paired with Chef Pilliccia’s imaginative creations for brunch, lunch, and dinner are not only well priced, but packed full of flavor and inspired by his love for travel as well as his passions for cooking and baking. If breaking the boundaries of cultural cuisine was an aim, Pilliccia has most certainly succeeded. Though not conventional or ordinary, his canvas for culinary concepts are limitless at 25 Forty Bistro and Bakehouse, and I can’t wait for my next visit.