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Ask anyone in Ocean Beach, and they will tell you that Thee Bungalow is a neighborhood institution. Since its opening in 1969, the quaint restaurant has offered French-inspired, casual fine dining and an outstanding wine experience to the beachside community. But while the restaurant has been an outstanding neighborhood haunt for thirty years, it has recently stepped up to become a dining destination worthy of a visit from anywhere in the city.
The catalyst for change has been the Cohn Restaurant Group, who took over the restaurant in 2006 and soon after brought in Executive Chef Paul Niles to head up the kitchen. Since taking charge in 2007, Chef Niles has elevated the quality of cuisine from excellent to exquisite. While he has taken care to leave several of the restaurant’s staples on the menu—the Roasted Half Duck and Osso Bungalow are favorites of long-time regulars—Niles has introduced a contemporary slant, with an arsenal of French-inspired, creative concoctions that threaten to outshine the restaurant’s 30-year legacy.
While the menu may be more modern, the quaint, charming setting keeps the restaurant rooted in tradition. We are greeted by the hostess before we have both feet in the door, and smile at the immediate hospitality. Moments later, we find ourselves comfortably nestled in an antique booth in the main dining room, where an intimate and quaint feel is achieved by a flickering fireplace, soft classical music, and the low din of conversation.
The setting is a subtle fusion of eras and aesthetics that give the restaurant a refreshingly unique character. The building’s original high ceiling, exposed wood rafters, and pitched roof suggest an old, craftsman-like feel; the curiously three-foot high fireplace suggests innovative modernism—it was once a rotisserie oven in the center of the kitchen. In its current state, the restaurant offers four dining areas, segmented like rooms of a house: the main dining room, a high-ceilinged garden room, a smaller back room, and a partially enclosed outdoor patio. But the evolution is ongoing—future plans may include restoring the house’s old layout, moving the kitchen, and possibly adding a bar.
The starters section of the menu is dominated by classic French beginnings—Escargot a la Bourguignonne, Moules a la Grecque, Brie en Croute. We start with Niles's version of Seared Foie Gras. The presentation is both classic and modern, the traditional accoutrements arranged on an elongated white plate in colorful and geometric precision: toasted brioche points, a cloyingly sweet apple and grape compote, and a swath of cognac reduction. The foie gras itself is buttery and supple, graciously and elegantly embracing the buttery toast, tart fruit, and resonating reduction. An accompanying late harvest Semillon from Grazer in Napa proves a sublime accompaniment, a nose of floral must and a honeyed sweetness lifting the richness from each bite. This course sets the pace for the meal, demanding slow, deliberate bites that allow us to ponder the luscious flavors.
The Grazer Semillon is one of many gems among Thee Bungalow's wine selection, which contains over 800 carefully selected bottles, many passed down from original owner and oenophile Ed Moore. The wine list's 200 pages are thankfully well-organized by style and then alphabetically by producer, offering a range of bottles from astonishingly reasonable to rare and premium, although not overpriced. In fact, most wines are only marked up slightly above retail, making it nearly impossible not to order one.
Pan Seared Maine Diver Scallops showcase Chef Niles’s modern aesthetic and flawless execution. Perfectly seared on top, with a slightly salty crust, each scallop gently slices apart to reveal glistening, tender flesh. A pool of champagne vinaigrette has a hint of viscosity, offering a wonderfully substantial coating to each bite. The tenderness of the scallop eagerly embraces the piquancy of the vinegar's tang, exploding with flavor on the tongue. An accompanying pea risotto is creamy and subtle, benefitting from a burst of savoriness from a sprinkling of diced andouille sausage. The dish's overall delicateness shines forth, supported by a perfectly balanced medley of flavors.
The scallops demonstrate the first hint at Chef Niles culinary strategy—in his dishes, the parts are greater than their sum. Each component—the tender scallop, the thick and tart vinaigrette, the subtly creamy risotto, and the slyly rich sausage—seems meant to be experienced alone, with a precise flavor that seems in brilliant contrast to each other component. The scallops’ freshness is intensified by a bite of the aged sausage; the risotto's pale flavor becomes more enticing after a taste of the tangy sauce. Every component of the plate is deliberate, and it is in the pairing of individual tastes that makes each dish a complex, rich whole.
Lobster Bisque offers a comforting repose between courses, and indeed each entree comes with a choice of salad or soup. Again, the execution is flawless, the soup offering a clarity of taste and a gentleness of texture. An accompanying Fritz Chardonnay proves an outstanding counterpart, the buttery, supple mouthfeel and resonating finish enhancing each creamy spoonful. Like the wine, the soup's subtle complexity lingers long after each swallow, a testament to its execution.
The Roasted Half Duck is a Thee Bungalow tradition dating back to the restaurant's early days, and Chef Niles knows when to leave tradition unchanged. Perhaps the most classic dish on the menu, the duck is a return to the comforts of old. A shiny dark pepper rum glaze blankets the duck's skin, a glistening sheen that pulls away to reveal tender, flaky meat. The savory skin is a rare treat, the sweetness of the glaze interrupted by the occasional burst of spice from a peppercorn. A lush, flavorful bed of garlic mashed potatoes and perfectly crisp baby zucchini are simple but flavorful, adding just enough zest to occasionally distract us from the rich meat.
While tradition is satisfying, it is no match for Niles's contemporary additions to the menu. The Pan Seared Sea Bass is a towering sculpture of flavor: a thick filet of pale fish sitting precariously atop a structure of baby potatoes, in a golden pool of lemon paprika vinaigrette. A tousled nest of sautéed pea greens crowns the fish, an enticing tangle of vibrant green. Bursting with moisture, the fish’s delicate flesh flakes apart, its slightly crisp, seared top lending a hint of salty richness to supple, sweet flesh. The pea shoots add a bright buttery, earthy flavor, while the lemon paprika bursts with an acidic, almost exotic, tang. The potatoes—a medley of fingerlings and Peruvian blues—are buttery and soft, roasted whole with a crisp, wrinkled skin. It is a modern dish, whose spectrum of flavors and delicate, precise presentation speak sophistication.
The Braised Kobe Short Ribs outshine every other dish of this meal. The glistening flesh of braised meat hides beneath a pale brown blanket of sauce espagnole, leaning on a bed of pale truffle mashed potatoes and topped with slightly wilted baby Swiss chard. First, I’m wooed by the short ribs—the tender Waygu beef from Australia, slow cooked in a flavorful brase, is so tender I barely glance at my knife. Each bite is actually moist—liquid flavor seeps out of each savory bite. Then, I discover the truffled potatoes: the fluffy, airy texture bursts with both the aroma and flavor of the bewitching mushroom, and is nothing short of pure decadence. Finally, there's the chard, whose garlicky crunch and buttery first impression fades to slight, perfect bitterness.
And therein lies the brilliance of this dish—each component is so sublime, so unique on its own, that a bite of one makes me forget the intense flavors of the last. By the time I relish in the bitterness of the greens my palate is primed for the rich savoriness of the beef, and after I muse over that bite for a good minute, I'm ready for a truffle explosion from the potatoes. I continue eating in this fashion—beef, potatoes, chard—and each bite, surprising and full of new flavors, tastes like it is the first. It is brilliance.
Dessert seems an extension of the meal, just as interesting and complex as the courses that precede it. The flourless chocolate cake resonates with complex cocoa notes and very little sweetness, which makes the tart sweetness of the accompanying raspberry blackberry consomme an ideal accompaniment. A trio of sorbets features mango, coconut, and blackberry cabernet; a spoonful of raspberry cabernet sorbet tastes like sophisticated summer, and is the perfect last bite: a melting spoonful of elusive flavors that leaves the tongue wanting nothing more.
Paul Niles is one to keep your eye on. As outstanding as his dishes are now, there is a twinkle in his eye that promises there are better things to come. One year into his role as Executive Chef, he is just getting comfortable, and there's no telling what a chef in his element is capable of. Before long, Thee Bungalow may just become a San Diego institution, a pride not only of the Ocean Beach neighborhood but of the entire city.
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We have been going here for years and the food and the service can not be beat, even at some of the more pricey places. This is not a hoitie toytey place more a comfortable romantic cuisine that leaves you with a feeling that I must return.
Thee Bungalow is a great place to dine! The service is excellent, as is the ambiance.
Fabulous food, top notch service, great ambience, and very reasonable prices! It was our first visit there and it will not be our last!
dinner was just perfect!!!
Excellent restaurant. Great value
Always a good meal. We only go once or so per year since we don't live in San Diego. Love the old house feel. Very charming. I hope this feel isn't ruined after they re-model. I urge them to sell CA beef. The only thing I was dissapoined in. The duck is tooo die for!!!! Service is great and the staff is fun and accomodating.
I've been hearing about "Thee Bungalow" for years and we finally managed to go. I was not disappointed in the meal or the service, but it wasn't quite as "cozy" as I had imagined. A little too crowded to feel intimate -- however, we may have been in one of the smaller rooms. Overall we loved our experience and definitely plan to go back.
The Reservation was not forwarded to the Restaurant. They said that the had no computer? Why make a reservation by coputer?
Service was excellent, friendly staff, and food preparation was very good
Thee Bungalow has been around forever, long before Cohn bought it. It's a funny combination of OB casual combined with pricey food items. A good way to eat well without having to dress up too much or put on airs. The duck is famous. OB is limited on white tablecloth restaurants, so it's a treat. Walking distance to the beach, too, for an after-dinner stroll.