Mission Beach Café has been around ten years or so, and it’s mostly known as a brunch place. I mean, It’s really known as a brunch place: there are lines down the block on the weekends. Dinner is usually not as busy. Like a lot of places, they pride themselves on being local and seasonal, which they are. The space is warm and welcoming and has the air of a neighborhood spot; all the more reason why it should be busier at night, right? I’ve never been for the brunch, and the first time I had dinner there was about a year ago. One year later, still empty! What gives?

I went recently with a friend, and when we got there around 6:30 p.m., the place was almost empty. It ended up filling up quite a bit, however, and developed a nice lively vibe. I was happy for them.

To share we ordered the crab arancini….

Crab arancini.

I love arancini – fried little balls of crispy rice, usually with a little gooey cheese inside – what’s not to love? These, however, were filled with crab – rather like a round crab cake – and were delicious, but unfortunately were served a little cold, as if they’d sat for a while. They came with a chipotle aioli to dip in. Tasty. But, please. Fried food deserves to be served hot. It wasn’t a deal-breaker, but, you know:  serve them hot.

Next, we ordered the charred Brussels Sprouts.

Brussels sprouts.

Nice! There was a little sweet potato puree underneath them, and they were buttery and so lemony I thought there must be lemongrass in the dish, but we were told it was merely fresh lemon juice. I’d get these again. Simple, letting the vegetable shine….

Then, seared scallops and prawn….

Scallops and prawns.

Look at how beautiful! The scallops were fat and nicely seared on the outside, and I loved the tender shrimp. Chanterelle mushrooms fooled me into thinking they were charred octopus, and gave the dish an earthy note. Also on this pretty plate were fig, a root puree, some celery, and green onion. We loved it.

Then came the Rabbit Pot Pie….

Rabbit pot pie.

Braised bunny encased in a flaky pot pie crust. The flavor was wonderful, very homey, but unfortunately the rabbit meat itself was mushy. Too bad, because the crust was lovely. Seasonal veggies on the side.

And then…. THE BURGER.

The burger.

Full disclosure: I’d had the burger a year ago, and absolutely loved it. My friend and I split this one, and again, absolutely loved it. It’s served with Point Reyes tomme, caramelized onions, lettuce, aioli, and Kennebec fries on the side. The burger has a great texture, a very beefy flavor, and the whole thing kind of mushes together. It’s juicy and gooey, and doesn’t need any of the add-ons (bacon, shrooms). Right now, it’s vying with my other favorite burger in the City (Doc Ricketts [not in the Mission, shhhh!]) The fries are excellent too – salty, crispy, fluffy, hot. All you need in a fry. And they offer them truffled and sprinkled with Parmigiano Reggiano, too. Heaven. If I could marry this burger, I would. Yes, I know it’s a slippery slope; what’s next – marrying falafel? Not in this political climate.

One would think we would not have had room for more, but one would be wrong…

Chocolate cake.

Chocolate cream pie. Oh My! Well, mostly. Mission Beach Café has its own full-scale bakery, and they make a plethora of sweeties (cakes, pies, cookies, pastries, cheesecake, cupcakes, etc…) not only for brunch and dessert but throughout the day. So, the chocolate part was as good as it looked – creamy lightness. But sadly, for a place that prides itself on its pies, the crust on this one was chewy, almost a bit leathery, and not at all flaky as the pot pie’s crust had been. And salty! It was a bit of a let-down. Especially now that we were thoroughly and uncomfortably stuffed.

Still, overall, we’d enjoyed our meal quite a bit and I was eager to return with the BF.

Once again, we arrived early in the evening and the restaurant was nearly empty, and this time never quite filled up.

I was very excited to try the pearl couscous mac-n-cheese….

Pearl couscous mac and cheese.

It did not disappoint! It was big enough to be its own entrée, but I’m so glad we ordered it. It came to the table hot as lava and oozing cheese – Point Reyes aged cheddar and comté, with cubes of roasted honey squash and chanterelles. Also, parsnip chips for crunch, and red chard for a bite of bitterness to offset the richness. I could have wallowed in this bowl forever. The pearl couscous was a brilliant choice, too, for this dish, with its pleasantly rolling texture. A winner.

Next, we got a special on the menu, the Chef’s Bite:

Chef’s bite.

Another very pretty dish – someone likes their edible flowers! – and touted as a bread pudding. For me it was more terrine-like, but whatever. It was nice, and I liked the carrot puree underneath.

We decided a salad was in order, and asked for the special beet salad.

Beet salad, Chinese green beans.

Another picture-perfect dish. Gold and red beets, with a goat cheese puree, hazelnuts, carrot puree, chanterelles, a cilantro oil, Chinese green beans, and crunchy pickled onions. The BF wasn’t wowed. I thought it tasted great, but I was starting to have an unsettling sense of déjà vu…. Wasn’t that the same carrot puree that was on our last plate? Ditto, the chanterelles? Also, the goat cheese puree was pretty bland – which is hard to do to goat cheese.

For his main, the BF got the burger, because I’d raved about it so much. He wasn’t as effusive as I was (when is he ever?): he said it was “fine” and cooked perfectly medium-rare. Feh – is that all you can muster up? Hmph. I tasted it and it was as transcendent as the last one. He’s wrong, it’s fantastic.

I opted for the seared sable fish for my main.

Sable, tomato, turnip mash.

The fish was lovely, as was the saffron risotto beneath it – really satisfying. But, um, see anything familiar? Chanterelles? Chinese long beans? Root puree? Now, I’m fine with buying a bunch of local veggies and using them in a variety of your dishes, but your dishes shouldn’t all taste the same. And these did, a bit. The carrot puree in one dish could have had a different flavor profile in the next – say, a Moroccan twist, perhaps, or maybe some curry notes. Maybe the chanterelles could have been the puree on this dish. I dunno, I’m not a chef. But I do know that when a few dishes start to taste and look very much like another, maybe the reason your guests don’t want to come too often is because they’re afraid of a repeat?

It’s a strange complaint, I know. There are restaurants I go to that don’t change their menu at all, ever, and I love them for their consistency of quality. There are others, like this one, that do a seasonal menu, and they go out and get a lot of fresh veggies for that night’s service, or for a couple of days. But their plates are all distinct, and don’t use the same ingredient in virtually the same preparation in one dish after another. It wasn’t like I’d gone two nights in a row – this was in one seating!

As for the service, It was a bit slow on our second visit, which seemed to be coming from the kitchen, as our dishes took quite a long time to come out despite the empty tables. The servers themselves are fine, helpful, and always offer to give you a taste of any wine you’re considering from their small but decently interesting list.

Again, I’ve not been for their extremely popular brunch, and that menu looks really lovely, with a lot of variation to choose from: quiche, salads, four kinds of Benedict, pancakes, brioche French toast, duck confit hash (!!), huevos rancheros with braised pork….. And there’s always that burger! I’d be willing to try….

Mission Beach Café
198 Guerrero (at 14th St.)
415- 861-0198

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