Back to the Future

By Brandon Hernandez
Photos by Bradley Lamont

(Published in the August 2010 issue)

Everywhere she's cooked, chef Amy DiBiase has upped her culinary cred, capitalizing on a classic French technique and the inherent flavors of her Mediterranean heritage. She wowed diners with her buttery foie gras torchon (liver wrapped in cloth) at Laurel and drew the masses to Point Loma for her sumptuous braised pork cheeks at Roseville. Earlier this year, she decided it was time to move onward and upward, so it's only natural she should turn up in...Old Town?

Say what? One of San Diego's most gifted gourmands has touched down in the land of refried beans and gringo-friendly Ameri-Mex cuisine? WTF?

On the surface, it sounds rather bizarre del mundo, but fear not, foodies. DiBiase's new digs, The Cosmopolitan Hotel and Restaurant, is anything but just another beans-and-rice dot on the Old Town State Park map.

"We don't want it to be a Mexican restaurant," says DiBiase. "This is an opportunity to give locals a reason to come to Old Town to have a nice experience that represents the history of all of San Diego, not just Mexican settlers."

Drawing from a list of ingredients indigenous to the area, DiBiase's style could probably best be described as Seasonal Californian meets New American cuisine. Albacore is pepper-crusted and topped with a tapenade of local olives, swordfish is brightened by a tangy bell pepper relish, house-cured salmon is artfully matched with earthy poblano chilies in a buttery potato "torta" (tart) and her infamous pork cheeks sing with new life thanks to a Temecula lavender honey and kumquat glaze.

DiBiase's arrival comes on the heels of three-year, multi-million dollar restoration of the The Cosmopolitan property that was overseen by historians and the California State Park system. The result is a hospitality venue that appears exactly as it did from 1850 to 1874, from the décor right down to the buttons on the vests of the staff's uniforms.

It's a little bit of the old with a lot of the new, and the only thing more surprising than coming across a restaurant like this in the heart of Old Town is The Cosmopolitan's price point. The majority of the dishes, including the albacore, pork cheeks and a half-pound prime top sirloin steak are under $20, and everything is under $30.

Serving as the culinary ambassador for San Diego's storied past while breathing new life into the region's edible bounty and at a reasonable rate-it's all in a day's work for the tireless DiBiase and a challenge she relishes deeply.

"In the end," she says, "I just love seeing people experience food the way it should be experienced."

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