There's nothing particularly flashy about Illume Bistro, other than a menu composed by celebrity chef Bradley Ogden and an interior lighted, in places, by rainbow colors that rotate from yellow to blue to lavender to raspberry. The soft illuminations are modulated to please rather than overwhelm, and the interior warmly welcomed two guests who carved a tunnel through a San Diego fog as they clambered down West Beech Street one darksome night.
Illume sits 50 yards off the India Street tourist track, in the base of an apartment tower, and may become a magnet for locals. A fairly young, definitely hip crowd patronized the place on the evening in question, and the mood frankly was fun. Jazz sizzled on the sound system, and the single television (just one, thank goodness!) above the room-centering bar silently broadcast the game du soir.
The décor includes pretty pictures like the Caesar salad ($9), a geometric bundle of leaves bullseyed by a handsome poached egg and sided with toasted focaccia, crisp bacon and pungent white anchovy. The hot yolk memorably unified the salad as it ran through the other ingredients.
The menu, adventuresome and ambitious, appears eager to outdo itself in strivings to be different. Green lentils, orange and pomegranate vinaigrette combine nicely in the hearty duck confit salad ($13), and a reduction of port and vivid blood-orange juice dresses jumbled beets, apple and goat cheese ($11). Many main dishes cull inspiration from the Mediterranean, like the basil butter, Niçoise olives and oven-dried tomatoes that accent juicy grilled swordfish with couscous ($17) and the Italian kale, lemon butter and cannellini bean ragout that join sautéed mahi mahi ($15).
The spaghetti with meatballs ($12) is not typically Little Italy in flavor and is dressed rather than drowned with sauce. Illume’s kitchen excites with its braised beef short rib with reduced-to-syrup Burgundy and parsnip purée ($18).
Evidently for the sake of inventiveness, the “paella” of octopus, mussels, Spanish chorizo and peas is made not with rice but with fregula, a pea-shaped Sardinian pasta ($15). A disappointed paella fan told the waiter, “I like it, but even so, I wouldn’t order it again.” The server suggested, “Well, we’re a Mediterranean restaurant with a creative menu.” True, but fregula isn’t rice, no matter how you roll it. As compensation, the almond-chocolate cake was a flourless, nut-rich, soufflé-like marvel, served with an espresso gelato garnish that turned dessert into a party ($7).
Illume Bistro serves dinner nightly at 675 West Beech Street. Reservations are accepted. Call (619) 550-5600.