SAN DIEGO -- On a quiet block in San Diego's lively and eclectic Hillcrest section, there's a little restaurant that I wish I could call my neighborhood hangout. Its name is Region.
With a small menu that changes daily according to what the chefs find at local farms, Michael Stebner and Allyson Colwell's fresh, modern interpretation of ''Southern California comfort food" is a real find.
Bright, contemporary paintings of fire-colored pears and barn-wall close-ups hang across from dark wood cabinets filled with ceramic souffle dishes shaped like roosters, ducks, and chickens. The color palette is forward-thinking; the walls are painted in brick red, pear green, robin's-egg blue, wheat, and olive. Dim lighting sets the mood. If there were such a thing as chic country kitchen, this would be it.
Two friends and I recently stopped in for dinner and were met with excellent service from a friendly, accommodating young waitstaff. We arrived an hour early for our reservation, but the hostess found a way to seat us in record time while we busied ourselves with aperitifs in the comfortable lounge area. The owners' ethos of fresh, seasonal foods is found even in the cocktails: The last of winter's sweet tangerines were used to make the house's fruity spin on the mojito.
We started with a plate of oil-cured olives, country bread, and braised greens -- still-crunchy warm Swiss chard -- prepared with garlic and parmesan. The wine list -- or ''juice list," as the restaurant refers to it -- favored California selections as well as choice bottles from around the world, including a Laurent Miquel Nord Sud Viognier Vin de Pays 2003. Recommended by our server, the wine had refreshing apricot flavors and a clean finish.
After those mouth-pleasers, we moved on to share several plates. From the pasta menu, we tried beet risotto, which was served topped with sliced baby beets -- not too sweet -- that added an earthy finish to the rice, complemented with a touch of parmesan. The pappardelle with peas, spinach, and crumbled goat cheese kept its flavors light, anchored just enough by the cheese's creamy consistency. As an entree, grilled black bass came beautifully browned (though slightly rare in the middle), presented on a bed of half-pureed black-eyed peas with sliced carrots, rutabaga, and fennel, which all added a nicely contrasting texture.
Even after that stellar lineup of well-prepared, innovative dishes, our desserts, created by dessert chef Jack Fisher, managed to steal the show. A generous serving of dense chocolate coffee gelato was thick and fudgy, light on the coffee and round in flavor like chocolate pudding. We chose to pair it with a dish of caramel panna cotta and blood orange; to our delight, it worked beautifully. The panna cotta was more pure cream than caramel (''There is an entire cow in that bowl," my friend keenly observed), leaving a buttery feel on the lips and a fullness in the mouth. The whole creation was topped by chewy, candied blood orange in a light, filmy syrup. To our surprise, it was all far from gimmicky -- and ended up tasting simply perfect.
Region, 3671 Fifth Ave., San Diego. 619-299-6499. Tuesday-Friday 6-10 p.m., Saturday 5:30-10. Dinner for two with a glass of wine apiece, $80.